2017 Hugo Reviews: Novellas

Welcome to the third part of my 2017 Hugo Awards reviews. With the Best Short Story and Best Novelette categories covered, it is time to move further up the wordcount bracket. Whether you view them as long short stories or as short novels, here are the finalists for Best Novella.

The Ballad of Black TomThe Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

Charles Thomas Tester, known as Tommy to his friends, is a wheeler-dealer from 1920s Harlem who lives with his ailing father, Otis. Tommy makes money by masquerading as a jazz musician. While he has no talent, he is still able to earn a few bucks from white patrons who cannot tell the difference between real jazz and his imitation.

While performing his act one day, Tommy encounters a wealthy white man named Robert Suydam, who invites him to a mansion party in three nights time. There, Suydam will pay the handsome price of four hundred dollars for a performance from Tommy. Shortly after this exchange Tommy is stopped and grilled by two detectives, Malone and Howard, who have been keeping one eye on Suydan and who depart with the other eye on Tommy.

When they meet at the mansion, Suydam explains that he sees through Tommy’s trickery. Indeed, it is Tommy’s gift for subterfuge that inspired him to make the invitation in the first place. The mansion is a place of seeming illusion, where Tommy witnesses weird spacial distortions.

It transpires that Suydam belongs to a cult centered on an ancient entity who purportedly sleeps beneath the ocean. According to the cult’s lore, this Sleeping King will one day rise again and sweep away all of mankind’s foibles.

Anybody familiar with the H. P. Lovecraft canon will, at this point, know what The Ballad of Black Tom is getting at. The story is a riff on Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook,” one of the author’s more overtly racist works. Victor LaValle borrows Lovecraft’s protagonist Malone and antagonist Suydam, but views their narrative from a very different angle, one which allows greater sympathy for the ethnic minorities who are reduced to a faceless, semi-human mass in the original story.

In particular, LaValle portrays his African-American protagonist–an original character, not lifted from Lovecraft–as a humane and multi-faceted character. Knowing that he has no protection from the authorities, Tommy has had to pick up a range of tricks to get by. When he needs to intimidate, he can pretend to be a gangster; when he needs to slip into the background unnoticed, he can take on the stereotyped role of the “docile Negro.” He is gratified to learn that the party at Suydam’s mansion will be a racially diverse event; this time, he will not be the only black man in the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, the occultist-detective Malone–from whose viewpoint “The Horror at Red Hook” was told–is cast in a far more critical light. In a scene ripe with contemporary resonance, Malone reveals that he has killed Tommy’s bedridden father Otis.

“In that room a male Negro was discovered displaying a rifle. In fear for my life I used my revolver…After defending myself, it was discovered that the assailant had not been brandishing a rifle…It was a guitar.”

“The Horror at Red Hook” is not the only reference point in The Ballad of Black Tom. The Sleeping King revered by Suydam is obviously Cthulhu. This character was unmentioned in “Red Hook.” which drew upon Judeo-Christian conceptions of devil worship (with a dash of Grecian influence) rather than Lovecraft’s invented cosmology of Shoggoth and Azathoth, but fits right in here. After all, “The Call of Cthulhu” also derives fear from images of multiracial cultists, describing Cthulhu’s worshipers as “men of a very low, mixed-blooded, and mentally aberrant type [with] a sprinkling of negroes and mulattos.”

Wisely, LaValle for the most part avoids name-checking Lovecraft’s pantheon, a practice that no longer creates an air of mystery but rather ends up as a game of spot-the-reference. The cultists’ invocations are left unrepeated, with the story instead mentioning Suydam “rattling off names, or rather entities, as effortlessly as the preachers who crowded certain Harlem street corners.” Meanwhile, Tommy’s friend Buckeye recalls hearing about the Sleeping King from two Fijians: “They had another name for him, too… Couldn’t hardly pronounce it if I tried.”

The climax to the story works on several levels. It has blood-and-guts brutality. It has a seasoning of Lovecraftian cosmic horror. It also grapples with imagery all too familiar in post-Ferguson America.

“At the sight of the heavy machine guns the whole neighborhood gasped as one…Much of the local population had fled countries under siege, in the midst of war, and had not expected to find such artillery used against citizens of the United States.”

But above all, the story becomes a study of how a horror figure can be forged. As Tommy rejects the establishment and embraces the Cthulhu cult he evolves into Black Tom, a sinister and supernatural being of urban legend, one who haunts the imagination of white citizens but, tellingly, not those of the black community. By the end of the story his friend Buckeye still sees him as plain old Tommy Tester, not Black Tom.

The Ballad of Black Tom is a sterling example of how metaficton can enrich the work of earlier writers. LaValle clearly respects Lovecraft as a horror author and succeeds in capturing the original story’s sense of unspeakable goings-on in 1920s New York. In confronting Lovecraft’s racism, meanwhile, LaValle offers not just a scrubbed-up version of “Red Hook” but a story that adds whole new levels and perspectives to Lovecraft’s fictional world.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson

Vellitt Boe, a professor at Ulthar Women’s College, is awoken by a commotion in the school. One of the pupils, Claire Jurat, has eloped with her lover Stephan Heller. The staff realize that they must find her lest their institution fall into disrepute; the college would face closure, and women could be banned from the wider university altogether. But there is a major complication: Stephan Heller is not from Ultha, a land that exists in dreams. He is from the waking world. And so, the ageing, but still feisty Vellitt Boe embarks on a journey through the world of dreams and nightmares to track down her missing student.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is another riff on Lovecraft; as the title suggests, its main reference point is The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. The twist this time is the Lovecraft’s nightmare realm of ghouls, ghasts, and night-gaunts is presented as one part of a larger dreamworld.

The story spends its early stretches contrasting Lovecraft’s nightmares against a cozy, nostalgic realm almost worthy of Enid Blyton. As it begins to explore the scarred and haunted societies between the two landscapes, which perhaps owe more to Lovecraft’s inspiration Lord Dunsany than to Lovecraft himself, it begins to show a more intricate engagement with its source. We learn that the missing Claire Jurat is the granddaughter of an elder god, increasing the potential ramifications of her fate. Meanwhile, Vellitt turns out to be a former lover of Lovecraft’s protagonist Randolph Carter, the two having met during Carter’s time in the dream world.

It is in the character of Carter that Kij Johnson confronts Lovecraft’s assumptions about the world:

He had been a man like many, so wrapped and rapt in his own story that there was no room for the world around him except as it served his own tale: the black men of Parg and Kled and Sona Nyl, the gold men of Thorabon and Ophir and Rinar, and all the women invisible everywhere, except when they brought him drinks or sold him food—all walk-on parts in the play that was Randolph Carter, or even wallpaper.

While Victor LaValle tackles Lovecraft’s attitudes to race, Johnson hones in on his portrayal of gender, aiming to provide a woman’s side of the story. (“Women don’t dream large dreams,” says Carter at one point. “It is all babies and housework. Tiny dreams.”) As a protagonist, Vellitt Boe is a woman with plenty of stories to tell.

At fifty-five years old she is not as agile as she once was, and she can no longer fall back on youthful good looks to get out of a scrape, but her life experience nonetheless serves her well. We are told that “she had known all the signs of men and read them well enough that she had been successfully robbed only three times and raped once,” events which did not lessen her love of the outside world. She is far from a typical fantasy heroine.

The emotional core of the narrative is Vellitt’s reunion with Randolph Carter, which can be read as a symbolic meeting between an adult reader and a work of fiction from their childhood, fondly-remembered but due for a reappraisal. The novella goes out on a high note, ending on a bold reversal of Lovecraft’s premise: this time, a person from the dreamlands has found themselves in the waking world.

“This story is my adult self returning to a thing I loved as a child and seeing whether or not I could make adult sense of it,” writes Johnson in the book’s acknowledgements.  With this in mind The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is best approached as an essentially personal piece of work, one which grew from seeds planted in the mind of a ten-year-old Lovecraft reader.

Every Heart a DoorwayEvery Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Eleanor West runs a boarding school for specially-chosen children, children who are deemed deluded fantasists by the outside world. She tells their guardians that her school will cure them of their mental disorders. But the truth is stranger: Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children is actually a refuge for protagonists of portal fantasies. This is where all the Alices, Dorothies, and Wendy Darlings end up after their adventures in magical worlds, to help them adapt to life back in the mundane world.

The main character is Nancy Whitman, a teenage girl newly enrolled in the school after a journey to the Halls of the Dead. Her roommate Sumi, on the other hand, has emerged from a colourful land of licorice flowers and candy corn farmers; her perkiness and constant babbling contrast sharply with Nancy’s gloomy demeanor. After meeting Sumi, Nancy runs into Kade, a sarcastic boy with a history in a land of fairies and goblins; Jack and Jill, twins who spent time in a Gothic world of vampires and mad scientists; and Christopher, a boy initially reluctant to discuss the exact nature of his journey.

Then, one of the students is found dead and dismembered. The pupils are thrown into a panic, pointing fingers at potential culprits while fearing for their own lives. Nancy and her circle of friends begin using their respective gifts in an effort to halt the murderer before anyone else falls victim.

Every Heart a Doorway is yet another metafictional novella on the Hugo ballot. This time it is not Lovecraft under the microscope, however, but portal fantasies, and Seanan McGuire has fun reconciling different strands of this genre before placing them all into a macabre murder mystery.

The story establishes that portal worlds fit along two axes, one running from Logic to Nonsense, the other from Virtue to Wickedness. For example, in the corner of Virtue and Nonsense are the bizarre worlds of childlike glee; in the corner of Logic and Wickedness, meanwhile, lie the sinister and rule-driven realms of Hammer horror. The fact that protagonists in portal fantasies are traditionally female is reflected in the make-up of the school, where girls vastly outnumber boys at the school. As one pupil explains, boys tend not to have fantastic adventures because they are “too loud, on the whole, to be easily misplaced or overlooked; when they disappear from the home, parents send search parties…we spend so much time waiting for our boys to stray that they never have the opportunity. We notice the silence of men. We depend upon the silence of women.”

Like many a portal fantasy, Every Heart a Doorway is in large part a story about growing up. The students are of an age where they have started to outgrow childhood daydreams, as symbolized by their departure from their respective portal worlds, but still use fantasies to make sense of the adult world. Interestingly, the various fantasylands appear to map onto youth subcultures. Kids who have visited the darker realms return as some flavor of Goth–with variations ranging from Nancy’s emo stylings to Jack and Jill’s more elaborate Goth Lolita get-up–while bubbly Sumi has more of a Harajuku aesthetic.

This theme of identity runs deeper than mere fashion sense. Nancy is asexual and is given a chunk of dialogue explaining that this is different from being either aromantic or voluntarily celibate. Kade is transgender, a fact that has a part in his backstory; the fairies who took him to their world prefer to spirit away girls, and so rejected him when they realized the nature of his gender identity. Sumi, with her misjudgment of social cues, is arguably coded as autistic. In this way, the characters seem rather like Tumblr profiles come to life: fandom, sexuality, gender identity, and neuroatypicality.

Even within this school for misfits, there are cliques and out-groups. The kids who spent time in Gothic worlds are treated with mistrust by their schoolmates. But it is their Goth sensibilities that allow them to save the day. They are emotionally detached from the subject of death, and so do not succumb to the panic that sweeps the rest of the school. Notably, they have spent time in worlds dominated by overbearing male figures–or, in the case of Kade, a rigidly feminine world with no time for those who break gender norms–which appears to have lent them a better sense of justice then their finger-pointing classmates.

“We went to good, respectable worlds,” says preppy Angela at one point. “Moonbeams and rainbows an unicorn tears, not… not skeletons and dead people and deciding to be boys when we’re really girls!”

Every Heart a Doorway begins with an engaging recursive fantasy premise; it then adds a new layer of meta by becoming a murder mystery. In the process, it offers a thoughtful portrayal of the way in which the consumption and sharing of fantasy informs adolescents and their subcultures. A fitting portal fantasy for the era of social media.

A Taste of HoneyA Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson

Kai Ashante Wilson returns to the world of his earlier novella Sorcerer of the Wildeeps for this story.

Aqib, a young man of noble blood, catches the eye of a passing soldier named Lucrio. He is initially too sheltered to realize that Lucrio is flirting with him, and by the time the truth sinks in, it is too late. The budding, same-sex relationship has been interrupted by the powers that be; should the two men continue their relationship, they must do so in secret.

So far, A Taste of Honey seems like a fairly predictable story of forbidden homosexual love in a typical medieval fantasy land. As it progresses, though, it diverges from expectation.

A Taste of Honey is an intricate piece of work, its relatively short page count densely packed with both characterization and world-building detail. The story alternates between two strands, set at different periods: one is the ten-day affair between Aqib and Lucrio, the other encompasses decades and generations, focusing on Aqib’s marriage to a princess named Femysade and subsequent begetting of a daughter and grandson.

All of this takes place in a nuanced, convincing world, with a fully fleshed-out set of relations between the courtly characters. The twin love stories–Aqib/Lucrio, Aqib/Femysade–form the emotional core, but there are details and hints of side-stories around every corner.

Although in significant part a tale of prejudice, the story avoids the obvious tack of portraying its protagonist as a saintly innocent. Aqib repeatedly bullies the courtly servants. His own experience of being on the receiving end of bullying has given him a few limits–he restricts himself to verbal, rather than physical, abuse–but on the whole, he shows little in the way of qualms about berating and belittling those born to a lower social class.

In terms of world-building, A Taste of Honey is unafraid to subvert expectations and show a sense of humour. High technology still exists within this quasi-medieval world, but it is held only by an elite caste, viewed as gods by Aqib and his circle. Two of these techno-deities arrive at the court one day and announce that they suspect Femysade of having psionic powers. And so they take the princess away with them, and prepare for her to become a discarnate intelligence bereft of emotion. Once again we have a distinction between haves and have-nots; there is an entire story about social class lurking in the background of this story about homophobia.

A Taste of Honey is a satisfying and tumultuous love story, but this is its merest surface. Kai Ashante Wilson has written a case study in how to construct a sturdy fantasy world within a tight space.

Petric and the ShamanPenric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold

This sequel to last year’s Hugo finalist Penric and the Demon continues the story of Penric, a young sorcerer who shares his mind with a smart-mouthed demon named Desdemona. This time, he is called upon to investigate a particularly heinous crime in which not only was the victim murdered, but his ghost appears to have been abducted by the killer. The prime suspect is a shaman named Inglis, but he has escaped apprehension, hence why Penric’s talents are needed.

Penric sets off on a journey to locate the culprit; he is accompanied by Oswyl, the man who hired him for the task in the first place. When they finally track down and apprehend Inglis, it turns out that the case is stranger than Oswyl has expected; it is not long before Penric, familiar with a specific stripe of demon-inspired magic, must get to grips with the animalistic spiritualism of the shamans.

Penric and the Shaman gets off to an uneven start, with lot of time spent on infodumps, some to re-establish the setting from the previous instalment in the series, while others to introduce the new world-building concept of the shamans. But the latter examples are not restricted to the beginning of the story. A significant chunk of the dialogue in Penric and the Shaman is spent outlining the difference between two types of magic. Almost all of this is established through conversation, rather than through events, with this excerpt being fairly typical:

“I was exhilarated. Maybe too much so.” Inglis frowned. “The material world does not vanish from my perceptions, but it is…overlain, set aside. Non-material things appear as material ones, symbols of themselves, but not just hallucinations, because in my wolf-form–I appear there as a wolf, or sometimes a hybrid between wolf and man–because I can grasp them. Manipulate them. Arrange them to my will. And in the material world, they are made so.”

But then, Penric and the Shaman is a mystery story, as well as a fantasy, and mystery stories traditionally dedicate large chunks of wordcount to facts collated by the detective character, in this case, the magician-sleuth Penric.

Also worth noting is that the Penric series has already received third and fourth installments. Penric and the Shaman is a little flat when read as a self-contained story, but when viewed as the second chapter in a longer work, it succeeds in whetting the appetite for more.

This Census TakerThis Census-Taker by China Miéville

The main character in this story is an accounting assistant whose present assignment involves filling in papers with the story of his life. He begins to describe memories of his childhood in a small rural town; the memories themselves are jumbled and ambiguous, as is often the case with childhood recollections. Acting as narrator he freely switches between first, second, and third-person narration, as though struggling to decide exactly how to tell his story.

His narrative initially appears to take place in a neverland outside of any specific time period, but as the story develops, we begin to piece together the setting of This Census-Taker. The story takes place after some sort of Luddite uprising in which machines around the world were destroyed en masse.

In the story of his childhood, the narrator’s father is a violent man, prone to killing animals–birds, rabbits, and dogs–for no apparent reason. The boy comes to believe that his father has killed people, as well. The incident that kicks off the non-linear narrative involves the boy walking in on his parents during a heated dispute (with primal scene overtones) before running off to tell the townspeople that he has witnessed his father killing his mother, or perhaps the other way round; he is initially unsure. The authorities investigate but find no evidence of wrongdoing; they accept the father’s explanation that his wife walked out following an argument.

Despite this, the boy remains convinced that his mother was murdered. He develops an obsession with a nearby cave, into which his father threw the bodies of dead animals; he believes that his mother’s body is in there as well, somewhere. And then comes along the one adult who will listen to the boy’s story: a census-taker.

This Census-Taker is another story that taps into childhood imagination. It is unafraid to blur the boundaries between literal events and the imaginings of its juvenile protagonist, who regularly sees such supernatural images as a walking tree or the ghost of his mother. His father has the job of making keys, which are hinted to serve some esoteric purpose, although as is often the case with the mechanics of the adult world, this is a mystery to the child protagonist.

The images running through the narrator’s head are portrayed with a vividness that imposes them onto the reality of his experiences, as when he joins a search party that tries to find his mother’s body in the cave:

The teacher and he went into the shadows to the edge of the rubbish hole. Daylight reached inside the fabric of the hill but that rip was perfectly dark. The woman shone down a light. I pressed my back against the rock wall.

I thought of my mother’s hands hauling her up. Of her climbing all grave-mottled and with her face scabbed with old blood, her arms and legs moving like sticks or the legs of insects, or as stiff as toys, as if maybe when you die and come back you forget what your body is.

“You see anything?” the teacher said. She stepped back and shrugged.

“Look,” the man said.

He took the flashlight and tilted it so the beam climbed from the hole as I imagined my mother doing with her face wrong and fungus in her hair. “What’s that?”

“No,” the woman said. “That’s moss or something.”

This child’s-eye view relates to the post-apocalyptic setting of the story. Like children, the adults of the town have only a fuzzy understanding of the past, and the world outside the town is a place of mystery. It is as though the entire story takes place not in the adult world, but in a half-remembered, half-understood vision of the adult world plucked from a childhood memory.

Throughout the story runs the distinctly childlike theme of trinkets being kept as secrets: children keep animal bones in bottles, the boy’s father keeps pornographic postcards under the floorboards. The possible existence of the mother’s body hidden away in the cave is, perhaps, the biggest secret of all.

It is easy to imagine the accountant telling the story as being a fictional manifestation of Miéville himself. He reveals that he is working on three books simultaneously: the first is a book of numbers; the second a book of words, which will contain the story he is currently telling; the last a book of symbols, intended for his eyes only (that motif of secrets again). He is like a novelist with a stack of notes at hand, and the task of assembling them into a coherent story.

This Census-Taker is the Rabid Puppies choice for Best Novella, although it may well have ended up on the ballot without the help of Vox Day’s campaign.

My Thoughts

It is hard to miss that most of these finalists rely heavily upon earlier works. Three are metafictional stories; two of these being revisionist takes on Lovecraft, the other a riff on portal fantasy. Also on the list are two sequels to earlier stories. Only one of the six finalists, This Census-Taker, builds its fantasy world and themes from the ground up. In fairness, though, the metafictional stories are all fine pieces of work, and each succeeds in putting a worthwhile spin on its source text.

In terms of straight-ahead entertainment, I liked Every Heart a Doorway the best. When it comes to literary merit, I would say that This Census-Taker is the strongest of the six novellas. But for my favorite of the lot, I would go for The Ballad of Black TomTo me, this is the best-balanced work in the category: a good story, a creative revision of the Lovecraft canon, and a thought-provoking set of themes.

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Doris V. Sutherland

Doris V. Sutherland

Horror historian, animation addict and tubular transdudette. Catch me on Twitter @dorvsutherland, or view my site at dorisvsutherland.com. If you like my writing enough to fling money my way, then please visit patreon.com/dorvsutherland or ko-fi.com/dorvsutherland.