Helen Marshall’s Two Short Story Mentors

Helen Marshall
photo: via ChiZine

Gifts for the One Who Comes After, the second collection by Canadian author Helen Marshall, is full of dark, unsettling stories. Not horror, precisely, although they’re certainly unworldly, in a way that enables certain moments to take up residence inside your head long after you’ve set the book aside. Heck, “All My Love, A Fishhook isn’t even a particularly supernatural story, or at least you can read it that way, and it’s still disturbing…

As I was reading, I was reminded of some of the episodes from the original Twilight Zone, ones like “It’s a Good Life” or “Nothing in the Dark,” though with greater subtlety. (Look, I love “It’s a Good Life” as much as anyone, but subtle it ain’t.) In this guest post, Marshall tells us about two writers who’ve helped shape her voice—one of whom I’ve already read with great pleasure, which inclines me to track the other down at the first opportunity.

There are stories that, the first time you read them, are so gorgeous, so powerful, and so magical that they remind you that fiction exists for the sole purpose of learning what you can get away with. There are two such experiences that have been etched into my mind. The first was when I picked up Robert Shearman’s collection Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical. The cover is sweetly unassuming: three miniature animal-headed girls in tartan skirts stand clustered on one side while a lone figure, dressed identically, but with a sleekly insectoid face of a fly slumps on the other side. It doesn’t prepare you. Not at all. Inside are a host of darkly comic stories that weave together the surreal and the achingly human. Reading these stories is like hugging a teddy bear only to discover someone has stuffed it full of razorblades. It might feel good at first, but you don’t realize until you’re bleeding out how deeply you’ve been cut.

One of my favourite among the stories is “Pang”—about a middle-aged man who lives in a universe where lovers literally hand each other their hearts in a Tupperware container. Facing the dissolution of his marriage, our hero desperately searches the house for his lover’s heart only to discover he has carelessly misplaced it while she has taken excellent care of his. As we follow his quest to substitute a pig’s heart from the local butcher shop, we come to understand his growing coldness and the possible reasons for the breakdown of their relationship. It’s a beautiful example of a story which blasts past the absurdism to find something touching and real.

Another story which picks up similar themes is “One Last Song,” which follows the trajectory of a young boy’s career as he manages to write one of the world’s greatest love songs—only to find in his later years that he can never quite live up to the early hype. These are stories that make you hurt in the best possible way, and they showed me that there’s a power in charming your audience that can be made devastating in the right hands.

The second collection? Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen. Ye gods and little fish, what to say about this one? Kelly Link is one of the most successful heirs to the fairy tale: her stories are stylish, innovative, endlessly imaginative and an absolutely delight to read. Whenever I start one, I can’t stop my fingers from itching to pick up a pen and start writing, and that’s perhaps the highest praise I can offer.

“Travels with the Snow Queen” remains my favourite fairy retelling because of the way it combines the idealism and drama of the genre with a fine sense of humour and despair. Her stories are possessed by “night-time logic”—disorientating and dazzling, but also entirely sensible when you are immersed within them. Another powerful story in the collection is “The Specialist’s Hat”—an almost-ghost story about two neglected twin daughters living in rambling old estate. It still manages to send a chill up my spine when I think about it, even though the horror is so subtle and dissonant that it’s difficult to know exactly what makes it so frightening.

These stories taught me how to write. They taught me that you could write a serious story that was still funny and haunting and beautiful and cruel all at once. I will read everything these authors write, which is handy because both are releasing new collections, Shearman with They Do The Same Things Different There and Link with Get in Trouble.

11 October 2014 | selling shorts |