Today’s OcTOBLERfest festivity is a guest post: A.C. Wise reviews “We As One, Trailing Embers” by E. Catherine Tobler. Before we get to that, here’s a bit about our reviewer!
A.C.Wise’s stories have appeared in publications such as Clarkesworld, Shimmer, and The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2015, among other places. Her collections The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again, and The Kissing Booth Girl and Other Stories, are available from Lethe Press. In addition to her fiction, she co-edits Unlikely Story, and contributes a monthly review column to Apex Magazine. Find her online at www.acwise.net and on Twitter as @ac_wise.
We As One, Trailing Embers published at Beneath Ceaseless Skies in May 2014 is part of E. Catherine Tobler’s cycle of stories about Jackson’s Unreal Circus and Mobile Marmalade. The focus of this particular story is an unnamed protagonist, a conjoined twin, a we who longs to be an I. Through a physical shape that literally embodies the idea of two-in-one, Tobler explores duality in many guises throughout the story. The twins think of themselves as Beauty and Beast, but they are each both, inseparable from one another. As with most members of Jackson’s Unreal Circus, the twins are also much more than simple conjoined humans. They have wings, and whispers of siren and angel follow them around the circus. Tobler never provides an answer for the twins’ nature, and none is needed. They are human and inhuman, male and female, good and wicked. They hunger, and while they don’t want to devour, they must.
There are but two hands participating in this destruction, weakened yet resolute; Beauty caves inward while Beast gorges. We need to stop; we cannot stop. We need to find another way; for us this is the only way. We need to stop. We cannot stop. Perhaps you need to stop, but you are not you; you are we, and we are starving.
The twins slake their hunger while making a little cash for the circus on the side. Customers can pay extra to enjoy private pleasures with almost any of the attractions. A husband and wife come to Beauty and Beast separately, and both are eaten, but not before Beauty and Beast see cigarette burns on the woman’s skin. This is an another facet of duality, the idea of the monstrous inside the human. Beauty and Beast can’t help their nature; are they truly monstrous, or simply surviving? What of the man who actively chooses to harm his wife? Both husband and the wife meet violent ends at the twins hands, making them more a force of nature than anything evil, but the line between the two blurs like they blur into each other. Similarly, desire and violence, sex and death, and multiple meanings of the word consumption are paired. Nothing can be only one thing. The line between seeming opposites is thin, and sometimes doesn’t exist at all.
Further complicating matters for the twins is Mister Hoyt, who specializes in making taxidermied and hybrid creatures to display at Dreamland, where Jackson’s Circus has temporarily set up shop. Mister Hoyt is in equal parts fascinated and frustrated by the twins. He wants to understand them, and separate them, and he wants to get rid of them as competition for his own attractions. On top of contending with Holt, the twins are also being questioned by the law, as the missing husband and wife are noticed.
The story is beautifully told, full of lush, evocative imagery, and palpable longing. Tobler explores themes of self and other, the desire for freedom, what it means to be “a freak”, and what it means to be monstrous. All of this is woven in with real life historical details of Dreamland, an amusement park at Coney Island, which operated from 1904 until 1911, when it burned. Using Dreamland as the backdrop adds to the story. The wonders present in Dreamland are a reminder that the real world can be every bit as amazing as a fantasy one. At the same time, disturbing details like the fact that premature babies were displayed as freakish curiosities for guests is a reminder that the real world can be every bit as terrible as fiction, too. Once again, this comes back to the idea of the monstrous inside the magical, Beauty and Beast, as inseparable as always. We As One, Trailing Embers, is just one example of Tobler’s gorgeous circus stories. They’re all worth reading, and links to where they can be found or purchased appear on her website.
And that’s all for today. Big thanks to A.C. for participating in the OcTOBLERfest super happy fun times! Don’t forget we have another Tobler book giveaway coming up Monday, October 10th so stay tuned for the how-to-enter post!