I don’t know whether or not I believe in unconditional love. It is something I have been thinking about a lot lately as I navigate relationships with the family I was born into and as I have become a mother growing my own chosen family. The closer I look at it, I don’t know if there is any merit to unconditional love but I remain open to the possibilities. I do know that I have been able to love a monster and that I have been a monster in need of love. I know that it takes enormous bravery to love someone who is behaving monstrously. Maybe that is unconditional love? Or, maybe the conditions of love are just unreasonable and yet we meet them because if we dig deep we can, because one day we might need others to do the same for us. I still don’t know.
I do know that Laura Mauro has some great stories about love and monsters. Her new collection, Sing Your Sadness Deep (dropping August 6th from Undertow Publications) is full of monsters and the people who love them. I don’t want to spoil too many stories with an exacting bestiary because the nature of some of her beasts is part of the surprise, but if you are into beasts that bite and beasts that suck then you will like her monsters. Mauro definitely has some things to say about this kind of love.
Mauro is generous with her characters, including the monsters. She finds their humanity when they are messing things up, when they are testing the boundaries of love, or hurting other characters physically and emotionally. There are no senseless monsters or senseless violence in these stories. Evil is done and obstacles raised often out of love. There are understandable reasons and human emotions that cause these strange things to happen. Redemption, in these stories, also comes from a place of love. I found this to be an amazing through-line in the collection. The variety of relationships that are tested makes the collection deeply human even as the supernatural unfolds again and again.
Laura Mauro is also good at including characters that are not gender binary and seems to have a comfort with characters and relationships (both friendships and romantic) along the LGBTQ+ spectrum. Her characters, with very few exceptions which I will get to, feel varied and fully alive. There is not a feeling of sameness between the different protagonists in her stories. This is where her literary chops really shine. Her characters feel like whole people from a world that could almost be our own save for the very strange circumstances her characters are faced with. For the most part, they read as separate humans from each other and from the author. The stories themselves are the same, complete unto themselves, their locations and events feel singular.
An example to the opposite of what I mean is Stephen King and/or Neil Gaiman. To me their respective characters have a feel to them. Their stories feel like one of their stories. Possibly it is a result of the characters needing to fit the world and stories that are in these writer’s heads. Which is obviously not a bad thing because people like these stories and go to them for that feeling of return.
This is not to say that there is anything lacking in Mauro’s style. I think it’s the opposite. She has so much to say and knows so many characters so well, she has to let them tell their story their own way. Mauro reads like a reporter, a chameleon. The type of writer who suspends her judgment (the kind where we look down on each other not the moral kind where we make good choices) of her characters and lets them be who they need to be. She has a special capacity for seeing how the world and it’s circumstances shapes her characters. They all have very recognizable human reactions to what strange, horrific and marvelous things they are experiencing in Mauro’s world.
There was one protagonist where I felt Mauro’s character choice taxed her capacities beyond her considerable skill. This was her character Frankie in “Strange as Angels.” There is a lot to like in this story, I thought her angel was a particularly great monster. But Frankie is her one clearly stated black woman protagonist and there was some awkwardness about how Frankie’s point of view renders her own race to the reader. It reminded me a little of when men write women who are observing their own breasts. Mauro’s is subtler and is trying to be kinder and more aware but it just fell a little short compared to her ease with other characters. She definitely had a better grasp on the mixed racial identity of a secondary character in “Sun Dogs” and does better with her non-binary characters in her other stories. She even has a pretty good grasp on tension between the way a character with a disability sees himself versus how the world perceives him and the halfway between place that his daughter sees her father and his disability and it’s perception.
This external perception is not the truth that we know as readers in this story. The father is stoic, extremely so, and is generous with his talent and suffers because of it. This rendering from “The Pain Eater’s Daughter” gives me hope that Mauro is a careful student of identity and how we construct our own and how other’s construct it for us often against our own sense of self. I believe that she will find her way with her characters of color better in the future.
I truly loved so many of the stories in this collection. “Sun Dogs” blew me away and is a perfect start to this collection. I loved the family story at the core of “Looking Glass Girl.” Mauro’s knack for ambiguity was so well deployed in “The Grey Men” and “In The Marrow.” She renders jump scares on the page in a truly impressive way in “Red Rabbit” and “Pitchka.” She flexes some serious writing muscle with her skill of myth making in “When Charlie Sleeps”, “Sun Dogs”, “In the City of Bones”, “The Pain Eater’s Daughter”, “Letters for Elodie” and in the story that I think you could justify owning the whole collection for even if you didn’t like a single other story (that isn’t going to happen, I just loved this story so much), ”Looking for Laika.” Laika has everything you want in a story. The family relationships are loving and difficult. There is a story within a story that is amazing. There is such a surprising twist to where the story goes and Mauro uses time and tension perfectly. If for no other reason, buy this collection so you can have this story.
The beauty of weird fiction is that idea stories can actually work well. You can tell a story about the injustice of healthcare and immigration, about family betrayals and rage, and love in all it’s twisted forms. The stakes are almost always death or worse so you get narrative momentum that literary fiction can sometimes lack. Mauro has a lot of literary knack on top of her weird fiction capacities making her stories well formed, beautiful, sometimes scary and always strange. The strangeness is magical as a reader because it deliberately alters your perception, rendering you more curious and open to what a story has to say.