At Land, Morgan M. Page’s new chapbook novelette, is a beautiful object, and the cover drawing, by the extremely talented Isz Janeway, justifies the price of admission on its own.
Which is not to say the story is any slouch either. Though its theme, of trans women undergoing unspeakable transformations, might suggest it has something in common with Red Durkin’s story “Skin” (published in our 2014 tour zine) it’s treatment of this theme is very different. Where “Skin” is grotesquely explicit, leaving, eventually, almost nothing to the imagination, At Land is elegant, mysterious and suggestive. Although it can be visceral, especially in its descriptions of smell, its story, in which a hapless and increasingly confused protagonist battles his own unreliable mind as he tries to prevent, understand, or perhaps even encourage the mutation his girlfriend is undergoing, is very much one of psychological horror.
Perhaps, instead, we might say that the story resembles Caitlin R. Kiernan in its use of unreliable and partial perspectives, misplaced memories, and half-glimpsed, possibly misunderstood monsters. Where it differs from Kiernan’s thoroughly internal, stream-of-consciousness writing is in its sharp-eyed delineations of its distinctly trans social setting. Sometimes these verge on satire:
A dank, salty stench pours out of the open car door, and it fills his nose, down into his throat, threatening to bring up bile.
“Oh gross,” Reed says, covering his nose and mouth with the sleeve of his hoodie. He honestly can’t recall the smell having been there during the trip. “Close it! Close it!”
“You see?” Bricks says. Their wide, blocky face looks all vindicated and smug. “I don’t know what you two got up to but you stank up my car. I’ll have to have the seats cleaned.”
At other times, their clarity (I almost want to say, clairvoyance) is pained, and painful:
He sits at the kitchen table trying to make a list of things he remembers about Toni. She was 5’8” or 5’9”, shorter than Gwen. Her pink hair. Her deep and constant laugh. And did it really make sense that a person who laughed so much, who was always telling a joke, could swallow fistfuls of pills like that? Her mouth always painted red. Her wide nose, and the smile lines at the edges of her eyes. Her working class Québécoise accent curling around his name. Whatever happens he can’t forget her, because if he forgets her she’ll really be dead.
This capturing, not just of the central relationship, but of the dense life and community around it, done with such rapid skill, gives the story emotional depth, and makes its conclusion far more than just spooky (though it is that too). Instead, it turns out to be a heartbreaking and subtle meditation on irretrievable loss and on the terrible failures (or impossibilities) of communication and community which accompany it. Like so many of the best ghost stories, it is an elegy, and it recasts transformation (that theme of which it has always been demanded that we speak) not as “personal triumph” but as a process that, in a hostile world, comes at a terrible cost, a cost we may just not be able to deal with at all.
As the comparisons I have already made indicate, horror, like sci-fi, is turning out to be an important genre for trans literature. It is wonderful to be able to read a piece of writing like this and see it not only speaking about distinctly trans experience in a powerful way, but drawing on the resources of other trans writers to do this. Our literature, which we are making now, will inescapably involve both celebration and mourning. On the side of mourning At Land, elliptically but unforgettably, makes itself a part of it.