Review: “The Speaking Bone,” by Kat Howard

This is my first time reviewing a single short story. Exciting! Anyway, the Ginger Waif will now examine Kat Howard’s “The Speaking Bone.” It’s a wonderfully crafted work, possessed of beauty and brevity. It’s deeply creepy. It’s unique even as it draws on some of the oldest, most visited bits of mythology we in the Western World carry around with us.

What’s the story about? Funnily enough, that’s almost always a harder question to answer when it comes to short fiction than with novels. Short stories by their nature can’t hold all the worldbuilding and explanations that a few hundred pages can manage. Without tens of thousands of words to draw on, it’s hard to pour the whole into the blender of your brain and wind up with a composite essence at the end. But sure, the story’s about an island. It’s made of bones. It has priestesses and oracles and it’s supremely creepy.

There’s something very telling in what we find scary. Trying to frighten people is one of the more revealing things you can do in writing. It says more about a person, I think, than writing romance (or erotica). There are all kinds of cultural agreements about what constitutes love or adventure or intrigue, but frightening stories have to scare you or they don’t work.  Maybe that’s just me, but when a horror story fails to be horrible, there’s not much else to it. Not that I’d really call “The Speaking Bone” horror. It’s definitely in the way of dark fantasy, and if it doesn’t scare you, I think there’s plenty left to interest, but it does its job well. And I think Howard and I are alarmed by a lot of the same things. It’s nice to feel a certain kinship.

Anyway, as you might imagine, “The Speaking Bone” has lots of… bones. I’m not scared by skeletons, not even spooked. I’ve spent too much time on comparative anatomy to be scared by bones. (As a matter of fact, Ginger Waifs are massive dorkfaces who want to know if every tooth counts as an individual bone or if a complete jaw counts for purposes of the narrative, and then wonder what’s holding the island together, since apparently there’s not any soil. Magic, self! Magic!) What I am scared by is the price of knowledge, the sacrifice of self, and the raw concept of inevitability. I’m still scared by the motif of three women possessed of tripartite magic, no matter how many times they’re spun anew. I’m scared by obsession. I am, in short, freaked deeply by this story, short and sweet as it is.

I find that my usual four criteria don’t really work for short stories, or not universally, and especially not for the strange and experimental sort of short story you’re likely to find in Apex Magazine. I’ll forego my usual ratings of world, character, writing, and plot. They don’t really apply so much here. Oh, the writing is excellent.  The wordsmithing has a poetic quality, the story is very tightly crafted with just the right detail, and the words flow in a wonderful way. The voice is odd and lovely, all passive construction and future progressive tense. (Dear rules of writing fiction, please go away. You are dumb.) And in not much more than a thousand words or so, the island does become a very real place with a strangely vivid history, told in a few sentences but none the poorer for it. The priestesses and the pilgrims and the island itself are all vivid souls. But just try and make a plot diagram. “The Speaking Bone” laughs at your attempts. The story here is a timeless one. It has a very old essence, a piece of the ancient idea of the world that went on unchanging forever, eternal and always. (Hey, that’s pretty scary, too!)

At the risk of expending more words in reviewing this story than Howard did in telling it, I do want to plug the publisher. Apex Magazine is one of my very favorite short story venues. I haven’t liked everything they’ve put out, but I’ve always read and considered and been uprooted from wherever my place was at the time. Good stories ought to grab you and scramble things up, even if at the end they settle back where they were. It’s generally got two new stories, a reprint, and a few poems every month. Perhaps someday I will try and review a whole issue! (I can’t even figure out how to review an anthology properly, so… Future. And I’m not sure poets’ daughters are supposed to review poetry. It’s like a lawyer’s daughter sitting on a jury.) Anyway, this story is available for free online. It’s from the March issue. But if you’re a nice person you’ll buy the issue anyway, and maybe a subscription. Because supporting awesome publications and small presses is what responsible, exciting readers who love their genre do.

“The Speaking Bone” has a lot of sound and fury for such a little gossamer string of words. I admire a short story that says so much with so little. Shows a real mastery of the art. Put aside some time. This one ought to be savored.

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