Jennifer Pelland's first short story anthology Unwelcome Bodies from Apex Publishing contains only eleven stories, but they are all winners and would be considered among the highlights of any anthology they're a part of. Jennifer's style is at once both intimate and removed, she focuses on her main characters with a detail that betrays how much she cares for each of them (especially their flaws), while the world around the characters tends to disappear into a vague "otherness". This is the strength of her stories, the faceted characters that are engaging and unique and the relationships between them. Her stories tend to focus on the conflicted desires and obsessions within her protagonists and even the secondary characters, clearly sock puppets for the conflicted feelings of her heroes and heroines, are drawn with more depth and affinity than many other authors can achieve for their protagonists in a novel.
I'd classify the genres represented as dark sci-fi, horror and a touch of "regular" dark fiction. Make no mistake, Jennifer has no trouble leading the reader into darkness using the noblest of human intentions as a guide - the phrase "the path to hell is paved with good intentions" is clearly a common factor in her stories. As I was reading the book, watching her explore different styles and points of view while growing her craft, I felt I was watching a formidable writer take shape and hone her craft. Jennifer is definitely a writer to keep an eye on, she clearly is destined to bring an understanding of the human condition back into dark fiction that, at least in my recent reading, seems to be sorely lacking.
The first story "For the Plague Thereof Was Exceeding Great", the first story Jennifer sold, tells of a grim future where the human race is on the verge of extinction, but still trying to maintain twentieth century lifestyles. Two characters set up on a collision course, both of them dealing with the loss of their friends and family and the constant fear of airborne and contact based lethal viruses, find that while they're reacting to the plague differently, their feelings are coming from the same place inside them. Finally, they are able to absolve each other in a last moment of kindness before the lights go out on humanity.
"Big Sister/Little Sister" was also in the collection Apexology: Horror, and I wrote this about it after reading that book:
Sibling rivalry goes to places it probably never should, but thanks to Jennifer Pelland's excellent treatment of the subject Big Sister/Little Sister, this utterly twisted tale of jealousy and anger is a joy to read, even while people are doing hellishly horrible things to each other. It's the best kind of horror, in my opinion, the kind that makes me ask myself what I would do in that situation and would I be any kinder or humane. Ultimately, I'm not sure I would.
Another quality I enjoyed about this book is the sense of the author's involvement in the story. Some readers don't like to feel they're sharing with the author, they enjoy a disconnected relationship and want to consume the book without any give or take. Both because of the notes included at the end of each story, and the nature of the stories themselves, this is almost like a conversation by email with the author - slightly disjointed, and wild tangents in every direction, but ultimately rewarding. The story "Immortal Sin" certainly resonates for me, as this was clearly written as a catharsis of her catholic upbringing.
"Flood" engages a device Jennifer uses often, the young woman as protagonist. Undine is a pop star, obsessed with the mysteriously disappeared oceans and rivers of a dried up and barely inhabitable earth. Her obsession drives her and is grist for her fame and fortune... but is it driving her towards something, or away from a part of herself she doesn't want to admit? Whlie there's no doubt this story ended at the right time, I would desperately like to see a sequel about Undine's life after [the things that I'm not going to spoil for you].
The most experimental piece in the collection, "The Call" is best described by the author herself: "And now that I've written my second person, all-question story, I never have to do either of those tricks again." The theme, like the rest of the collection, deals with loss, loneliness, absolution and the value of sacrifice. Unfortunately, the stylistic tricks really do take her away from what she's best at, and this was my least favorite piece.
After that mercifully short story, the 2008 Nebula nominee "Captive Girl", another especially strong piece, tells the story of a love that can only happen between unequals - and the depths - and heights - people will go for love. A haunting piece, I believe most people will relate deeply to the metaphor of needing broken things - and intentionally breaking oneself to be needed.
Sometimes good things happen to people, and I would catagorize "The Last Bus" as dark fiction, certainly not horror. Absolution is writ large across every paragraph of this story. Another not so strong piece, but the characters are so richly drawn that even though the plot treads well worn ground, reading it is a pleasure.
One of the longest, and in my opinion the real standout in the collection, is "The Last Stand of the Elephant Man". Jennifer transports Joseph Merrick (the infamous "Elephant Man" of victorian england) into a post-cyberpunk future where bodies are worn like sleeves, and often heavily modified in increasingly garish ways to shock the jaded rich and bored. Jennifer's skill at getting inside the conflicted emotions of Joseph, who suddenly wakes up centuries ahead of his time and with a gorgeous body - simultaneously confused and grateful, she uses his deformed body almost like an albotross around the antagonist Jean-Piere's neck, allowing both Joseph and Jean-Pierre to emerge at the end of the story more wholly human - and imperfect - than ever.
"Songs of Lament" is what Walter Jon Williams' Surfacing would be like, if WJW was filled with a particularly sinister sense of humor and woke up in a bad mood for a couple weeks. From the notes, "One day I thought, 'What if whales are singing about terrible, violent things?' The thought of all those hippies and new agers blissing out to whales screaming in anger was just too delicious an idea not to play with". And I'm glad she did; I've often thought the exact same thing.
Going back to young heroines again, "Firebird" covers a lot of the same emotional ground that "Captive Girl" does, but from a very different angle. Frankly, "Captive Girl" is the better implementation, though stylistically "Firebird" is written in a journal format that makes the story come alive.
"Brushstrokes" is a very pretty story, but left me feeling a little empty at the end. If it were a happy ending, though, it wouldn't be dark fiction. Again, it deals with love and the lengths people will go to for it in a dark future where humans are basically pets of some undescribed races that control nearly every facet of their lives. Shades of "1984" were clearly visible, but the entire concept of humans as domesticated animals in servitude to vastly more capable alien races has been a thought experiment of mine for years, so it was fantastic to read a story set in such a world.
Without a doubt, Jennifer Pelland is someone to keep an eye on, and her engaging and intimate characters in dark and horrific scenarios makes for some good reading, even if some of the plots and themes feel a little derivative. I highly recommend this book in the strongest terms possible; it's a very quick read and well worth the effort.