Continuing our reviews of the 2020 Hugo Awards finalists in the Best Novelette category, we move on to “Away with the Wolves” by Sarah Gailey and “For He Can Creep” by Siobhan Carroll.
Village orphan Suss has the ability to transform into a wolf. She prefers being a wolf to being a girl, finding that her animal form frees her from chronic pain. But her release is accompanied by feelings of guilt:
I wish I could just turn back, right now, right away. I wish I could spend all my time as a wolf. But my mother always told me that I mustn’t indulge myself too often. She taught me that escaping into my other self is lazy. It’s selfish, she said, and there’s always a price to pay for selfishness. There’s no such thing as free relief. Every transformation means a day I get to wake up in a body that doesn’t hurt, but the longer I spend Away, the guiltier I feel when I return.
The other villagers know full well of Suss’ ability, and treat is as a fact of life – but they do not necessarily trust her. Elderly widow Nan Gideon blames Suss for killing her goat; and while Suss admits to being responsible for a degree of damage, she denies this particular accusation, claiming the she never kills more than she could eat. However, this leaves a mystery: exactly what did tear through the neck of Nan Gideon’s goat?
Despite her initial certainty, Suss starts to doubt her own innocence. But with the support of her friend Yana, she begins a mission to find a solution to the crisis.
“Away with the Wolves” was published as part of Uncanny’s “Disabled People Destroy Fantasy” issue, and so Suss’ chronic pain – and the emotions arising from it – naturally form a key part of the story. Suss dislikes being helped with everyday tasks, unless it is Yana helping her; she explains that this is because Yana always asks beforehand: “She never assumes that I need her help; it’s mine to take, as much or as little as I want.” Through its secondary cast the story explores the difference between empathy and pity, contrasting Yana’s ability to share a laugh with Suss over the latter’s condition with the intrusive fretting of Yana’s relatives.
The story’s portrayal of chronic pain blurs smoothly into its treatment of the werewolf theme. Suss’ ultimate aim is to find comfort, defined both as relief from her pain and as a place for herself as a shapeshifter. Her ability is never reduced to mere metaphor: the story spends time examining how Suss’ transformations are viewed within the village, right down to terminology. Yana, we are told, used to refer to her friend’s wolf form as being “when you weren’t you” – but given that both wolf and girl are indeed the same individual, the two settled on a different term, Suss’ transformations being dubbed “going Away”.
The slight plot of the dead goat is merely a means to push the two main characters along their personal journeys. Suss’ friendship with Yana is, like her relationship with chronic pain, portrayed with conviction and empathy. Crucially, it also ties into the wider theme of finding comfort, with the strengthening of the bond between the two girls part of the overarching narrative of Suss finding a place for herself.
Fresh and breezily-written, “Away with the Wolves” is a fairy tale where the plot is fantasy but the emotions are entirely genuine.
“For He Can Creep” takes its inspiration from Jubilate Agno, a lengthy religious poem written by the eighteenth-century poet Christopher Smart while confined to St. Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics. Specifically, the story is based upon a segment of the poem in which Smart describes his cat Jeoffrey as an enemy of Satan:
For when his day’s work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
“For He Can Creep” opens with Jeoffrey prowling the halls of the asylum, driving away whatever mischievous imps he comes across. Naturally, he shows a particular interest in fending off demons that interfere with his incarcerated human. Christopher Smart, after all, needs time to concentrate: he is presently attempting to communicate with God in an effort to translate the greatest poem of all, “the one true poem that God had written to unfold the universe.”
The next visitor to the asylum is no mere imp, but Satan himself. While Smart communes with God, the Devil speaks to Jeoffrey in a voice “pleasant and warm, like a bucket of cream left in the sun.” The cat is tempted with treats – not only catnip and fish-heads but a vast, sumptuous banquet – in exchange for something simple: Satan desires access to Jeoffrey’s human, so that the poet’s masterwork will not be a poem for the glory of God, but rather a triumph for the Devil.
The story takes Smart’s loosely-described conflict between his cat and the Devil and expands it into an engaging battle between two archetypes. The Devil is cast in his traditional literary role as deceitful tempter, intangible and inscrutable, two-faced and fork-tongued. The cat Jeoffrey, meanwhile, is a cat, with the personality that any cat owner will recognise. Jeoffrey’s philosophy on life is both simple and unshakeable: he sees himself as the centre of the universe, and so will stop at nothing to protect his property – which, in this case, includes a poet in direct communion with the divine. The sort of character who punishes wrongdoers by denying them the privilege of petting him on the head, Jeoffrey makes an unorthodox but entirely appropriate opponent to the story’s classic Satan.
As well as pitting Jeoffrey against the Devil, the story contrasts the feline protagonist with his owner, giving a cat’s-eye-view of the poetic world:
The poet believes it is his duty to translate this poem by communing with God. His fellow humans, on the other hand, think the poet should write silly things called satires, as he used to do. This is the kind of thing humans think about, and fight about, and for which they chain up their fellow humans in nasty sweaty madhouse cells.
Jeoffry does not particularly care about either side of the debate. But—he thinks as he catches a flea and crunches it between his teeth—if he were to have an opinion, it would be that the humans should let the man finish his Divine Poem. The ways of the Divine Being were unfathomable—he’d created dogs, after all—and if the Creator wanted a poem, the poet should give it to him. And then the poet would have more time to pet Jeoffry.
This is not the only touch of literary commentary to be found in the story – the Devil, after all, is shown walking the Earth in the guise of a critic. But wisely, “For He Can Creep” avoids becoming too knowing and postmodern in its outlook: its satirical element is more in line with Smart’s near-contemporary Jonathan Swift than with twenty-first century metafiction.
If anything, the story positively revels in its antiquated subject matter. The core conflict is between archetypes that can be found in medieval literature: the figure of the devilish tempter has obvious paralells with the Faust legend, while the character of Jeoffrey recalls animal-tricksters like Reynard the Fox.
As “For He Can Creep” reaches its conclusion, it touches upon more of the mythology suggested in Smart’s poem – including the figure of the divine Angel Tiger – all told through scenes of mayhem like something out of an eighteenth-century satirical cartoon. The story manages to work both as a faithful extension of the original poem, and as a self-contained (if somewhat oddball) piece that can be grasped by readers who have never heard of Christopher Smart or Jubilate Agno.