I came to the works of Adam-Troy Castro quite late. Specifically, the first story I remember of his is “Of a Sweet Slow Dance in the Wake of Temporary Dogs” in the excellent dystopian anthology Brave New Worlds, edited by John Joseph Adams. (This anthology ended up being my springboard to a number of other great authors, but that’s another story.) Shortly after I read that collection, the author’s name popped up on the Nebula short list a few times, for “Her Husband’s Hands” and “Arvies.”
I’m bringing this up because I believe that, based on the three stories I’ve mentioned so far, there may be many people who labor under the misapprehension that Castro only writes short fiction that is so extraordinarily dark that it borders on the disturbing. In the afterword for his newest collection, Her Husband’s Hands and Other Stories, the author explains at length that he has also written many optimistic, entertaining and uplifting stories and novels, and that he is “not just a sick bastard.” Well, sure. I’ll take his word for it. However, you really couldn’t tell from the stories in this collection, which is as grim as it is brilliant.
See, for example, the Nebula-nominated short story “Arvies”, which takes starting ideas from both sides of the abortion debate (“Life begins at birth” vs. “Life begins at conception”) and flips them around to “Life ends at birth.” In this horrific future, only the unborn are truly considered alive. They live in the wombs of the “dead” and use their host bodies as, well, vehicles.
The story starts from that point and goes on to push the idea far, far beyond what you’d expect. Like many of the stories in this collection, “Arvies” is the deeply uncomfortable extrapolation of a very specific idea, but unlike the others it uses a clinical third person report-style narration that makes it even more chilling. I remember someone mentioning at the time that it’s more Harlan Ellison-like than the actual Ellison story that was nominated for a Nebula in the same category.
Next up is the collection’s title story “Her Husband’s Hands” which was also nominated for a Nebula and which, as far as I’m concerned, deserved the win that year. In this story, advances in technology have allowed mere body parts to be revived and loaded with the owner’s personality and memories. It’s more or less exactly the opposite of an amputation: instead of a soldier returning home without a limb, the limb returns home without the soldier. Sometimes this results in a person coming home as “just enough meat to qualify as alive.” This is easily one of my favorite short stories of the last few years. (I wrote a longer article about this story here.)
Together, these two stories make for one of the strongest one-two punches to open a collection that I’ve seen in quite a while, but Castro doesn’t slow down the pace with the next story, “Of a Sweet Slow Dance in the Wake of Temporary Dogs,” which was, yes, yet another Nebula nominee. (That’s three so far, if you’re keeping count at home.) This was the first story I read by the author, and it still holds a special place in my heart. It’s also, according to the excellent story notes included at the end of the book, the author’s favorite among everything he’s written.
The interesting thing (for me at least) about this story is that I had absolutely no idea that it was inspired by 9/11. Like many New Yorkers, friends and family elsewhere in the world questioned why I’d want to stay in the city after the attacks. Like the author, I found that attitude hard to understand. People are willing to put up with a lot to stay in the places they love. “Of a Sweet Slow Dance in the Wake of Temporary Dogs” takes this idea to its very extreme, and rereading the story from this perspective gave it a whole new meaning for me.
The following story, “Our Human,” is apparently part of a future history that includes three novels and several other pieces of short fiction. This ended up being my least favorite entry in the collection. Even though the story works on its own, it probably would have much more impact on someone who’s familiar with those works. (The story was originally published on Tor.com.)
In “Cherub” everyone carries a “demon rider”—a small creature that sits on your shoulders and shows your every sin, past or future. If you are or will become a murderer or thief, it’s impossible to hide, because right from birth your demon rider makes it clear for everyone to see what you are and will become. Into this strange, dark world, a baby boy is born whose rider looks pure and innocent, like a cherub: he is a boy without sins, perfectly innocent and good. How will he survive?
“The Shallow End of the Pool” (nominated for a Stoker Award) is a novella-length horror story that may be the most disturbing piece in the entire collection—which is saying a lot. The tale of twins used to settle their parents’ vendetta, it’s truly one of those stories you may want to scrub from your brain after reading it. In the story notes, Castro writes “Never be afraid to go there,” which may actually be a good motto for the entire collection and definitely applicable in the case of this story.
“Pieces of Ethan” is another excellent horror story that links together several themes seen elsewhere in the collection: like the previous story, it also features a twisted sibling relationship, and like “Her Husband’s Hands,” it deals with the complex ways a relationship changes when a loved one becomes disabled. In fact, if Her Husband’s Hands and Other Stories has one unifying thread, it’s the stories’ tendency to twist bonds that should be loving into much darker versions of themselves. “Pieces of Ethan” is another unforgettable, incredibly dark example of this.
And finally there’s “The Boy and the Box,” the story of a boy (“the last of his kind currently existing in what he had allowed to remain of the world”) and his box, in which he has put everything that is not himself. This story, a chilling creator myth in which the Supreme Being is a bored little kid with unlimited powers, is the only entry in the collection that I consider a bit of a missed opportunity. As it is, it makes for a surprisingly Gaiman-like ending to the collection. That’s not a bad thing per se—but based on the rest of the collection, I feel that Castro could have developed this idea more and, well, pushed it to further extremes.
On a first reading, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the concepts and themes these individual stories introduce, but let’s not ignore the fact that Adam-Troy Castro is also a masterful storyteller in terms of technique. The way he introduces and develops plot and character in the longer stories like “Pieces of Ethan” and “The Shallow Side of the Pool” is very different from the shorter entries like “Arvies,” but both work flawlessly. Regardless of length, these are tightly constructed stories that rarely if ever waste a word.
Taken altogether, Her Husband’s Hands and Other Stories is a stunning collection. Highly recommended, especially if you like a dark, not to say disturbing edge to your fiction.
This review was originally published at Tor.com on March 18th, 2014.