Black Juice is a collection of YA short stories which defies classification. SF? Fantasy? Expect charged imagery, powerful forces and frail human beings.
After all, Black Juice runs through us all.
I’ve never been good with genres. If I had to try to stick a label on Black Juice, the 2004 short-story collection by Margo Lanagan, I’d say it was horror, and then I’d take that back. Despite the frequency with which the stories plunge into the realm of the disturbing, there’s too much delicate realism and beauty in them to really fall into that category. They’re not SF either, or fantasy, despite the fact that they all take place in what appear to be different worlds from our own. Black Juice, as a collection, honestly defies classification.
According to my friendly local bookshop, however, Black Juice is apparently a Young Adult book – no, don’t stop reading yet. YA is a troublesome label, which is applied to everything from the amazing (Holly Black’s The Curse Workers) to the dismal (Sexy Night-time Supernatural Beings Academy Bulging Pectoral Muscles! Loud Swooning! #3343) that may potentially be aimed at the 13-to-18-year-old market. But despite the youth of the protagonists of most of the stories (ranging from children, to teenagers, to independent twenty-somethings) Black Juice isn’t necessarily intended for teenage audiences, and it’s definitely not for kids. The eleven stories in the collection unfold in subtle, evocative prose – Lanagan uses words sparingly, but to powerful effect, calling up strange but viscerally charged imagery. Each one explores, in a different way, the frailty of human beings against the greater forces of life-like nature, or society, or religion, or death – and, at the same time, the unexpected strength and power of the individual who dares to challenge those forces and make a stand for themselves.
Fittingly, most of the protagonists of the stories are rebellious youngsters (who, as everyone knows, make the best heroes), some of whom choose bury their frustrations inside themselves, and some of whom instead become straight-up troublemakers and misfits. All of them come to challenge the state of the world they live in in one way or another, with varying degrees of success and heartbreak. This, along with the strangeness of the worlds themselves, gives the collection a dark, dreamlike, fairytale feel.
The first story in Black Juice, and possibly the most heart-rending, is Singing My Sister Down, which was nominated for the Hugo Nebula SF award. In it, a young boy watches the ritual execution of his beloved older sister, by sinking in tar. She has attacked her husband in a fit of rage, and now she must die – publicly, in a day-long ceremony that “(feels) a bit like a party.” As her family try to comfort her as she slowly drowns, the mood moves from bittersweet, to horrific, to heart-breaking. “Several monstrous things,” the narrator says as the nature of what has occurred dawns on him, “several gaping mouths of truth were rattling pieces of me around their teeth…”
This kind of writing is what sets Black Juice apart – what turns each story into a bizarre work of art. In another story, Earthly Uses, the protagonist must summon a monstrous, stinking “angel” creature to come to his home, so that his suffering grandmother can die in piece. But when she does pass on, he, his cruel grandfather, and the angel are all dwarfed by a greater power. “Through the silence,” Lanagan writes, “comes something immense and leisurely. . .it comes for all of us, ant or angel, lost child… or lord and lady… it gathers her up out of the thing that was herself, up out of her own bones into its dark, dirty, soft, soft breast.” This same image-that of the individual as something fragile, fleeting and small in the larger scheme of things-is evoked over and over again in the stories, to powerful and humbling effect.
But this theme is not the only one explored in Black Juice. House of the Many, for example, takes on the theme of growing up and losing one’s illusions. In a setting resembling rural West Africa, a boy from a highly religious tribe led by a harsh, controlling shaman sneaks away to the nearby city and is awed by the “larger world” he finds there But when he returns home with all his new knowledge, he finds the people he once respected dull, and the world he once adored dissatisfying: “every thing,” he thinks, “living or not, was the same coffee colour.”
The Point of Roses, meanwhile, uses the concept of strained relationships transforming, through new understandings, into warmer ones-but gives it a Murakami-esque twist. When a boy experiments with psychic powers that call down “rose-ness, well(ing) up out of the evening”, his grandfather-frustrated after years of marriage to an independent, intelligent woman-comes to see that “anger was paint (he) splashed over everything… and everything looked the same”, and finds peace with his family at last. These themes may be familiar ones, but the way they are treated makes them fresh and genuinely interesting.
The fantastic worlds in which Black Juice’s stories play out provide much opportunity for symbolism and allegory, which Lanagan grasps. Rite of Spring, for example, features a stressed, furious boy struggling up a mountainside in a snowstorm, so that he can perform a yearly season-changing ritual that his well-trained but frail brother usually does. His battle against the weather and his own self-doubts act as a metaphor for his passage into adulthood, as he gains both confidence and maturity over the course of the story. Wooden Bride stars a young woman, in paper shoes and an impossible dress, about to graduate from “Bride School” (where she has been trained for years in the art of Composure) as a fully-fledged Bride… if only she can find the church where the ceremony is to be held. The story, full of stylized imagery, is a gentle satire of the amount of frippery, ceremony and old-fashioned tradition attached to marriage and to femininity.
Another strength of the stories in Black Juice is the variety of these worlds, ranging from the familiar to the bizarre. Yowlinin is set in a mediaeval town, plagued by monsters which poison everything they touch-including the heroine, who is despised by the townspeople for being “tossed aside (by the monsters) for the bigger meat of her dad and mam.” Red Nose Day takes place in an almost humorously violent world, where a pair of adolescents hunt down and shoot roving troupes of circus clowns who worship “the Weeping Yay-Zhou… his red nose… a big cabochon ruby.” Perpetual Light, meanwhile plays out in an environmentally devastated future Australia, where people live in “Mecha-Domes” and animals have been replaced by clockwork lookalikes; the protagonist must negotiate for permission to leave her dome and seal up her car against dust-storms to attend her grandmother’s funeral. There’s a measure of satisfaction to be gained simply from “exploring” these settings, many of which are so richly detailed that they would work for novels or series; Lanagan lends a touch of the surreal to each one which makes it truly her own.
Black Juice is an intense and harrowing ride, but it is a satisfying one. Each story is a trip to a new world, filled-like our own-with sickness and light. Lanagan’s prose opens up bizarre but perfectly realised landscapes, made real by the human nature of her heroes. Each story is like a miniature painting in its colour and detail; perhaps not always beautiful or pleasing to the eye, but always artful, always whole, and always painfully, nakedly, ecstatically alive.