Author: Laura Mauro
Publisher: Undertow Publications
Release date: August 6, 2019
Your Sadness a Lovely Song
By S. L. Edwards
Laura Mauro is a master. And not a quiet one either. Resting at the firm intersection of literary fantasy and horror, Mauro’s fiction invokes Neil Gaiman, Salman Rushdie, O. Henry and Saki. And yet, despite being reminiscent of this medley of my favorite writers, Mauro’s stories are clearly her own and her characters are her own.
There were many, many great weird fiction collections published this year. But you cannot miss this one. You simply cannot. I won’t allow it.
For the most part, Sing Your Sadness Deep consists of longer stories. This gives the reader time to know Mauro’s characters, who are remarkably deep and memorable. The longest story, and in my humble opinion the clear standout of the collection is “Looking for Laika.” This is not to diminish the other stories, which I could talk about at length. However, on a crowded flight the story made this author tear up visibly to the point that the people sitting on his row asked if he was okay. When a story elicits an actual visible reaction from me, I have to talk about it.
I’m not quite sure what did it. Maybe it was because like the main character, I grew up telling stories to anyone who would listen. I was protective of younger relatives, and am close to grandparents who raised me just as much as my parents and stepparents did. The vividness of these relationships colors the story, even in the midst of the fantastic elements. There’s a healthy uncertainty to the events of the story, concerning a sickly young man who tells his younger sister fantastic stories about the Soviet space dog Laika. The stories themselves are gentle, fantastic white lies. Who wouldn’t prefer a story about a dog having space-faring adventures to what truly happened to Laika, who died in space shortly after she was launched into it by the Soviet government? I don’t want to give away the events of the story, but this is a one-of-a-kind tale that could be realistic and could be fantastic. It is made for film, to be the kind of movie that “Second-Hand Lions” or “Big Fish” is.
And “Laika” exemplifies what Mauro has that so many writers lack in their stories: kindness. And it is refreshing, overwhelmingly so. Another example of this is “In the Marrow,” a story about two twins, one suffering from cancer. In the midst of all this family pain, a sense of hurt and betrayal when one twin begins to accuse the other of being a changeling, there’s a genuine emotion of hope. Of love. And this tenderness only drives the effects of the story further. Weird fiction is rarely gentle, but what is remarkable here is that the gentleness does not at all soften the emotional gravity at the core of Mauro’s writing.
This is not to say that every story is so kind. Indeed, the opening salvo is “Sun Dogs,” a post-apocalyptic seeming tale featuring hard women, transformations and guns. This story has more action than most in the stories, but early on introduces the scope of what Mauro is capable of. Fantasy, dystopia and love. And not the easy kind of love either, romantic or platonic. But the blurry love, the love that colors all shades of life a little more rose. An uneasy thing to define but a profound thing to feel.
This feeling resonates again in stories like “Letters from Elodie,” and “When Charlie Sleeps.” The latter story is particularly cool, about a monster in the bathtub who needs to be sung to sleep. The scope of “Charlie” and his powers are unknown, but what is certain is that the narrator cares for him. And not a “Shape of Water” sort of way, but with a pity/awe that melds into an uneasy but pervasive platonic love. It makes the ending all the more heartbreaking.
“Pitchka” too is a story pervasive with love. Furthermore, it is a story that shows that Mauro is certainly not defined by one locale or genre. Here Mauro writes Russia (or Eastern Europe) vividly. The love Pitchka and his caretakers feel for each other is warming and sad. As with “Sun Dogs,” the dystopian feeling is unsettling and vividly written. Likewise, “Obsidian” is a wonderful weird tale of siblings who care deeply for each other, written in an arctic setting with indigenous characters. “Obsidian” is an example of what authors wanting to write diverse perspectives should do. I don’t know what sort of work Mauro did in researching it, but it never feels disingenuous.
It’s also refreshing to see Mauro being celebrated in horror circles. I will say, however, only one story seemed to truly be “horror” to me. “Strange as Angels,” is a horror story in every sense of the word about a strange creature and a toxic relationship. Though it is well-written, it almost feels out of place. It is a masterful horror tale, and perhaps this is my own particularity, but amidst so many other stories it was a stark dark tree.
The collection ends with “The Pain-Eater’s Daughter.” Earlier in this review I mentioned Neil Gaiman, and I feel this story channels him the most. It concerns an unusual family trade and tradition, the weight and allure of following in your family’s footsteps. I honestly thought of the final scene of “The Godfather,” where Don Corleone bemoans that his son Michael has tragically followed in his footsteps. It is a satisfying, haunting end to a masterful collection.
So here we have it. Mauro’s collection is one that I will never shake. It has joined my pantheon of favorite books. Not favorite horror books. Not favorite weird fiction books. Favorite books. Period. It spoke to me, and I believe it will speak to so many others too.
Run, don’t walk, to buy it.
S. L. Edwards is a Texan currently traveling across Latin America. He enjoys dark fiction, dark poetry and darker beer. His debut short story collection 'Whiskey and Other Unusual Ghosts' is available from Gehenna and Hinnom Books.