Of Death and Mermaids

Mermaid, John William Waterhouse

When you first begin writing, it’s hard to know what’s new and what’s worn out. People tell you to read broadly and this is one reason why. If you know what’s current in your preferred genre and beyond, you have a better chance of not stepping in the same puddle. If you fully intend to step into that puddle, at least you know how it has been done before and can attempt a new path through it.

Similar ideas to tend to collide and coalesce in the slush pile; some weeks, the slush seems to be of one distinct flavor, wherein everyone has decided to write about one topic, be it birth, death, or deals with the devil. It’s the genre hive mind hard at work–what power might we harness from that mind?

Some days, one has to groan when another story about Death rises to the top of the reading stack. I would pay good money to never read another story where one’s spouse turns out to be Death. Deals with the devil or the devil in disguise? That sweet old lady the protag helped across the street–the devil? You don’t say! I would like to never again see a story wherein it was all a dream; where the two characters in the story are the last two on Earth; where the heroine is a mermaid trying to live in the human world.

And yet, some stories do succeed in giving old ideas a new twist. Shimmer has published more than a few, but here are some recent examples:

Gutted, by L.L. Hannett (Shimmer 13)

“Erl  doesn’t believe in selkies.

The only skins women in his village discard are covered in scales, separated from juicy white flesh at the points of their gutting knives. Twice a day, fisherwives make short work of the fleet’s catch. Dawn and dusk see them straddling mermaids’ torsos, cleaning plump tails with efficient, intuitive slices. Thigh-length fillets slap into piles on the jetty while bloodless heads, grey shoulders and breasts splash back into the ocean. Waters churn as surviving merfolk wrestle to feed on the scraps.”

With the opening line, the story has already caught my interest because of two things. Thing one: selkies. Selkie stories, much like mermaid stories, are a dime a dozen in the slush pile. They are very common. This story had to work to gain my trust–which it did with thing two: “doesn’t believe.” This already gives a standard idea a subtle twist. I’m already curious about Erl and where his disbelief will take him and me, the reader. It takes us to a dark land, where mermaids are killed for their flesh, and where the interior landscape of one fisherman is stranger than any coastline you may find.

A Window, As Clear as a Mirror, by Ferrett Steinmetz (Shimmer 13)

“Malcolm Gebrowski returned from his job at the stamp factory to discover his wife had left him for a magic portal. He stared numbly at the linoleum floor of his apartment, all scuffed up with hoofprints, the smell of lilacs gradually being overpowered by the mildewy stink of the paper plant next door. All that was left of eight years of marriage was a scribbled note on the back of the telephone bill.”

Magic portals and elves and unicorns. For me what makes a story is its characters. This story quickly endears a reader to Malcolm–standing on the scuffed linoleum kitchen floor to read his wife’s devastating letter–she’s leaving him for a magic portal, but has left him lasagna in the oven. What could be a story full of classic fantasy trappings (unicorns! princes! fairies!) turns into a tender tale about an eight-year marriage and what happens when one partner bolts for the hills.

Red and Grandma Inside the Wolf, by Carmen Lau (Shimmer 12)

“What fabulous fur you have,” I said.

He really did. It was sleek, the color of snow and ash. And what quantity of it! Imagine my delight upon opening Grandma’s bedroom door and finding him, lying on his side with his head propped up with one sturdy leg, as if posing for a portrait. Veritable hillocks of fat and fur, this wolf had, roll upon roll, all spilling one over the other. One small shift and his entire body trembled. His fur glistened like metal in the lamplight. Looking at him made me hungry.”

Little Red Riding Hood was a staple in the slush pile for a good while, though she seems to have faded some in recent weeks. As with any fairy tale retelling, the author may have to work a little harder to provide a new twist, especially for readers well-schooled in this genre. This story starts with the title itself–how could that not capture a person’s attention? The title immediately anchors the reader, the first paragraphs sucking the reader inside with Red’s attraction to the wolf. She shouldn’t find him lovely, should she? Why is she hungry for him? Curious, curious, and the pace keeps on, until the last haunting line.

As you commit words to paper, be aware of what has come before. Read broadly, especially of the publications you submit to. If someone tells you stories about Death are cliché, you can thumb your nose at them. Blaze a new path. You don’t have to obliterate the old with your new twist–if you can twine your story alongside the original, giving new depth to a classic, so much the better.

3 thoughts on “Of Death and Mermaids”

  1. Exactly! Yes!

    We’ve also got a delicious twist on Bluebeard coming out in #14 — another super-common theme in the slush pile, but Alison Balaskovitz takes a fresh view of it, and makes it shine with luminous writing.

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