Wednesday, 21 May 2014

CAUTION: Contains Small Parts by Kirstyn McDermott

CAUTION: Contains Small Parts by Kirstyn McDermott is the most recent (just, the next is due to come out soon) addition to the Twelve Planets collections being put out by Twelfth Planet Press. So far, this collection has been shortlisted for the Norma K Hemming Award, made the Ditmar ballot — both as a collection and the first and last stories individually — and was shortlisted for Aurealis Awards as a collection and for Best Horror Short Story for, again, the last story. As far as Ditmar voting goes, I'm going to have difficulty deciding how to rank the two stories — "What Amanda Wants" and "The Home for Broken Dolls" — against each other, let alone against the other stories (which I intend to read soon).
A creepy wooden dog that refuses to play dead.
A gifted crisis counsellor and the mysterious, melancholy girl she cannot seem to reach.
A once-successful fantasy author whose life has become a horror story - now with added unicorns.
An isolated woman whose obsession with sex dolls takes a harrowing, unexpected turn.

Four stories that will haunt you long after their final pages are turned.
CAUTION: Contains Small Parts contains three shorter (but not short!) stories and a novella. Aside from all dealing with the darker sides of human nature, there's not a huge amount of similarity between them. They fit together well in the collection, but beyond that, they're probably best treated individually. I'm not even sure which one I like best and I don't have a least favourite one. Looking below, it's clear I had the most to say about "Horn" but it wasn't the one I enjoyed reading the most. The only sensible conclusion is that CAUTION: Contains Small Parts is a very strong collection, which it is.

I highly recommend CAUTION: Contains Small Parts to fans of horror and contemporary fiction. For those scared of genre fiction, the stories could all be taken as magical realism, if that's what you prefer to think you read. All the stories, as I said, deal with the darker side of humanity and none of them are excessively gory (unless you count damaged and dismembered sex dolls as gory; it's kind of a grey area), though some parts might make you cringe. This is an excellent collection and one I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to most people.


What Amanda Wants — a counsellor with the power to lessen her patients’ trauma. That is, until she meets Amanda, a girl whose problems she can’t figure out. A dark tale, but a satisfying one. Some of the stories within the story aren’t for the faint of heart but then the faint of heart probably shouldn’t’ve picked up this collection to begin with.

Horn — This story is a bit less straightforward. On the surface, it’s a story about a male fantasy writer whose success is overshadowed by personal loss (which he blames on himself and his writing). But when you look at the details, there's a lot more subtext there. For a start, the writer is named Dermott Mack, although, I'm not really sure what Kirstyn McDermott was saying with that detail (perhaps indicating the gender-flip in the story? There are several possible interpretations). The most interesting parts, to me, were the discussion of Dermott Mack masculinising the fantasy genre with his best selling series about violent unicorns. To me this is either a reference to Australia's "female-dominated" fantasy scene (y'know, for a given value of "dominated"), or to the sort of reception female fantasy writers are likely to receive on a more global (well, UK/US) level. And yet, even as we are treated to a scholarly analysis of Mack's masculine work in a feminine world —
“In his efforts to redress a very real gender imbalance, Mack imbues the genre with a fresh, masculine vitality that has been sorely missing from the output of mainstream publishing mills.”
— we're presented with a fan letter that makes mention of Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, hardly overly feminine works. Is this addressing the ongoing "discussion" of the masculine and violent nature of grimdark fantasy and whether women can write it (they can)? Or is it a grim gender-flipped parody of the kind of comments female fantasy authors can expect to have thrown their way? I also couldn't help but notice some ironic parallels between this story and another novella by the same name written by Peter M Ball and published by the same publishing house. "Horn" gives this reader much to ponder.

CAUTION: Contains Small Parts — a creepy story and a sad one. The protagonist is sent a toy dog-on-wheels one day for no apparent reason. As he soon learns, it’s not an ordinary toy dog and what he experiences is not a random haunting. It turned out to be less horrifying in the end than I expected to be.

The Home for Broken Dolls — This is probably the most talked-about story (well, novella) in the collection, or at least the one I'd heard most about before reading. At the book's launch — back in June 2013 at Continuum 9 — McDermott read an excerpt which was definitely creepy and horrifying. But it was an excerpt that squicked me out a lot more back then than it did yesterday when I read it in context. I think probably because I was prepared — and it only got a little bit worse than that — and because my mental voice doesn't have the same creepy tone as Kirstyn's did at the launch. Anyway, the story is about a woman who fell into collecting and repairing sex dolls. The kind of dolls that resemble real women (or at least pornstar women) and are as anatomically correct as silicone can be. The passage I mentioned above, describes in loving detail the severe damage a particular doll had suffered when Jane, the main character, first encounters her. There are two main stories here. There's Jane's, who is a “Girl to Whom a Very Bad Thing Happened Once”, and there's the dolls who turn out to have lives of their own (minor spoiler). It's all very sordid, especially the parts about what's been done to the dolls — and the implicit questions of why and what kind of people might do such things — but the main thing that squicked me out upon reading was part of an interaction Jane had with another person, rather than with a doll (details are spoilery, I think). This isn't the kind of horror to make you sleep with the light on or check under the table for errant toys. More the kind that reminds you how unsavoury some people can be.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2013, Twelfth Planet Press
Series: Twelve Planets, the ninth collection in the series (all are by different authors about different things)
Format read: eBook
Source: Subscription to the series
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge, Aussie Horror Reading Challenge

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