The Art of Cameos in a Fictional World

a feast of shadowsMy introduction to the work of the Australian writer Angela Slatter occurred when I stumbled across the Tor.com reprint of “St. Dymphna’s School of Poison Girls” in May 2015. The story unfolded in slow waves, and it lulled me with its seductive beauty. My initial interest in this story aligned with the title as I had been reading about St. Dymphna through an extension of my research on the origins of “Allerleirauh.” The fairy tale elements appeared in Slatter’s story, but they appeared in unfamiliar ways. Interest stoked, I obsessively sought out Slatter’s stories, and soon discovered a whole new world of fairy tales to explore. I was hooked.

Allerleirauh_by_Henry_Justice_Ford_(1892)_02
Allerleirauh by Henry Justice Ford (1892).

In 2016, the U.S. publication of Slatter’s short story collection A Feast of Sorrows made her work more accessible; her other publications were released as limited editions in the UK. (A Feast of Sorrows includes the first three stories in The Tallow-Wife, which was recently released by FableCroft as a limited edition hardcover.) After a couple of readings, I discovered patterns that tied the characters together in a world of the author’s own making. In addition to cameo character appearances, Slatter also utilized subverted fairy tale references as a means of creating familiarity with the unfamiliar—a technique I would like to duplicate in my own work.

About halfway through my first reading of A Feast of Shadows, I noticed the repetition of a character from an earlier story. I stopped for a moment, thought about it, and then decided it must have been a mistake. Another of these moments came about two-thirds of the way through the collection. I recognized another character and sorted back through the stories to find her. That was when I realized that Slatter had deliberately seeded her stories with bits from other narratives. And, not only did her characters show up again and again, but settings made repeat appearances as well. The effect was a growing sense of familiarity even though the stories are all set in a secondary world.

tallow wifeBellsholm, which “sprawls along the banks of the wide Bell River, loose-limbed as a sleeping giant,” is featured prominently in “By My Voice I Shall Be Known” and is linked to Ballantyne’s Coffin Emporium in “The Coffin-maker’s Daughter” (143). Downstream from Bellsholm is Breakwater, the location of “the Weeping Gate” and the refuge of the criminal mastermind Bethany Lawrence from “The Tallow-Wife” series. And, far off in distant Lodellan, sits the Cathedral with its ghostly guard of six wolfhounds. Slatter takes her readers on a tour of Lodellan’s quarters in “Sourdough” and then into the Cathedral’s secret passageways to the palace in “Sister, Sister” and “What Shines Brightest.”

Rusalka_Bilibin
Rusalka by Ivan Bilibin, 1934

At first glance, the mention of these places in various stories might appear to be an after-thought. However, the subtle hints strengthen the underlying network of commerce and immigration that add complexity to the stories’ common world. For instance, even though “By My Voice I Shall Be Known” takes place in Bellsholm, the protagonist is gifted with a promise in the shape of a silver thimble “all the way from Lodellan” (149). She is, however, betrayed by her lover, who returns from Breakwater with a pretty bride-to-be on a clipper named Revenant: “…it plied the seas then crept up rivers like ours, to dispatch passengers and some cargo—mostly high end, expensive and small, cargo and passengers both…” (150).

Several characters, including Mother Magnus and Emmaline make cameo appearances, but the one who first made me conscious of these repetitions was Hepsibah Ballantyne, the independent, murderous protagonist in “The Coffin-maker’s Daughter.” An older Hepsibah makes an appearance as a guest teacher in “St. Dymphna’s School for Poison Girls;” Ballantyne’s Coffin Emporium is mentioned in “By My Voice I Shall Be Known;” and a weathered headstone reveals the trace of the name ‘Hepsi…tyne’ in “The Tallow-Wife.”

bitterwood-bibleOnce I saw the threads, I began to wonder what other stories existed with these characters in them. In my hunt for hidden treasure, I reached out to the author through social media. According to Slatter, A Feast of Sorrows was a U.S. collection primarily cobbled together from reprints, including pieces from The Bitterwood Bible and Other Encounters and Sourdough and Other Stories. Over the last year, Slatter’s work has become more and more available to U.S. audiences. With every story I read, I search for more connections tied to the cohesive worlds Slatter builds, worlds that exist long after the reader has finished the last page. If nothing else, I’m eager to learn more about the fates of the people inhabiting the ocean harbor of Breakwater, the ruslka singing from the riverbank near Bellsholm, and the ghostly wolfhounds guarding the Cathedral in Lodellan. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Dr-Angela-Slatter
Dr Angela Slatter (Photo by David Pollitt, June 2010)

Author website: Angela Slatter

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Short fiction collections:

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Author: cmariebissett

In another life, Carina Bissett wrote travel articles and books about the Southwest. These days, Carina spends her time crafting twisted fairy tales and cross-pollinated mythic fiction. Her short fiction and poetry can be found at the Journal of Mythic Arts, The NonBinary Review and other assorted journals and anthologies.

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