Saturday, January 14, 2017

A Human Stain, by Kelly Robson

Read this story
(Horror) Helen comes to Meersee in Germany to be a governess for her friend’s nephew. The child is young and peculiar, the staff are old and peculiar, and more peculiar things turn up by the minute. (9,734 words; Time: 32m)

Rating: ★★★☆☆ Average

"," by (edited by Ellen Datlow), published on by .

Mini-Review (click to view--possible spoilers)

Pro: The excellent narration and dialogue quickly sweep the reader into this story, and it holds one's attention all the way to the end.

In terms of plot, Helen just wants to earn some money and get back to her life in Paris. Bärchen needs to replace the nursemaid, Mimi, who is almost used up. Or perhaps they need to feed someone to the monsters in the lake from time to time. (No wonder the staff won’t tell her anything!)

Helen isn’t a good person, though. She’s the sort who gets drunk, sleeps until the afternoon, breaks into family crypts—the sort who schemes to seduce a young girl who’s subordinate to her, who wasted all her money in Paris, etc. It’s not a surprise that she comes to a bad end.

Con: She hardly deserves an end quite this bad though.

The biggest problem with the story is that the big reveal, that the beasts in the lake are the parents of the little boy, is hard to believe. Nothing to that point had suggested that Peter or Bärchen weren’t human.

It seems unfair that Helen licks the fluid from Peter’s fingers due to some external compulsion, since, from that point on, her fate is set.

Other Reviews: Search Web, Browse Review Sites (Issue 01/04/17)
Kelly Robson Info: Interviews, Websites, ISFDB

6 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. Well, that was definitely horrifying. Although I feel as if elements were chosen for their effect rather then cohesiveness with plot and world-building. For example, why giant grubs? Because reptile eggs just aren't creepy?

    The only clue I could see that the family wasn't human was Bärchen's remark about how his brother had gotten too many babies on his wife so that she was grotesquely swollen. This is just after he's told her the thing in the lake is a log. Of course, you think it isn't just a log, but the suspicion is that it's what killed them, not what they've become.

    I did a re-read trying to make more sense of things and noticed a couple very subtle details. First, Peter's skin is described as pale, grub-like, and almost translucent. Second, amongst the serpent home decor, the dining room chairs seem to portray the family life cycle: "Each one was topped by a sea serpent, thick and twisting, with staring eyes faced with mother-of-pearl. Under it was a rudely-rendered pair of human forms, male and female. And beneath them were thumb-sized lumps the shape of fat grubs."

    The underlying theme of the story seems to be addiction. Tobacco, alcohol, and finally whatever the heck Helen, and Mimi before her, succumb to. Is the salt the serpents are guarding really some extreme, euphoric, hallucinogenic drug?

  2. There are too many effects without causes here, meaning that the weird and creepy happenings are never adequately explained. What reason do the creatures have for making people eat their own offspring? Why were there so many bones lying around? Ultimately, this story started out strong, but ended as a disappointment.


    1. It's tough to make an excellent story because so many pieces need to work together in just the right way. I sometimes think even the best writers can't do it routinely; what happens is that they get closer to the sweet spot than most, so more of their efforts hit it. Kelly hits it an awful lot (in my judgment) but I agree that this one was a miss.

    2. It is tough, yes. And I should note that I'm not a fan of horror in general; if I were, this story would probably get another star out of me.

    3. Horror's a hard sell for me too, although I do enjoy it occasionally. That's why we'll review individual horror stories that appear in the top-tier magazines, but we won't review any source that's entirely devoted to horror.

      I should probably use the "Dark Fantasy" tag more often, but I still struggle a bit with what it actually means.