Sair Back, Sair Banes and Skin Grows Over, Reviewed

A Double Measure of Scotch:

Two Novellas from Ghost Orchid Press

Sair Back, Sair Banes by Anthony Engebretson

Skin Grows Over by Lucy Elizabeth Allen

(Both published by Ghost Orchid Press, 2022)

The speculative fiction novella is having a bit of a moment right now. I’m not sure I could have named a single novella growing up, and I’d probably never even heard the term ‘novelette’, but over the past couple of years I’ve found myself reading more and more of these pint-sized publications. (For reference, definitions can vary, but the Hugo Awards categorize novellas as anything between 17,500–40,000 words). In the doorstopper-heavy world of genre publishing, and in an age of dwindling attention spans, the speculative novella offers a happy alternative: a whole fictional universe you can absorb in one sitting, during your commute or on a lazy Saturday morning.

Ghost Orchid Press is one of the numerous small presses which have recently emerged as champions of the speculative novella. Sair Back, Sair Banes by Anthony Engebretson tells the story of Genevieve, an emotionally stunted woman who travels to a small village in Scotland, hoping to revisit old family connections, but instead finds herself stalked by a murderous, shapeshifting monster. Clocking in at under 100 pages, the story is fast-paced and engaging. Ancient creatures, family curses, and creepy drowned horses combine to create a powerful folk-horror backdrop, which Engebretson weaves effortlessly around and into the modern-day world of the story.

The village of Fonniskie is entertainingly populated with characters who seem stereotypical at first glance but won’t quite stay two-dimensional, and Genevieve is a complex protagonist, often unlikeable but always relatable. The setting is well-drawn, especially considering that the author, as he mentions in his acknowledgements, has never actually visited Scotland. Even the forays into dialect were mostly accurate – although, as a Scottish reader, it did amuse me to see ‘crabbit’ (Scots for ‘bad-tempered’) being used as a noun.

From spooky Highland lochs to peat bogs, the Scottish landscape continues to provide folk horror inspiration in another Ghost Orchid Press novella, by Lucy Elizabeth Allen. The concept at the heart of Skin Grows Over is an unusual one: a thousand-year-old bog body, preserved in a museum, is going to be laid to rest by means of a humanist ceremony.

The narrator, Ali, is a young woman who isn’t good at letting things go. She can’t stop worrying at the piece of playground grit still trapped beneath the skin of her hand from a childhood injury. She has recently lost her best friend, Ana, and she can’t stop reading the memorial comments left on Ana’s social media pages. Worst of all, she can’t stop seeing the face of the bog mummy, whose silent presence looms ever larger and more insistent in her life as the ceremony draws nearer.

This is a fascinating exploration of loss, religion, and the objectification of the human body. The bog mummy repulses and fascinates onlookers, her preserved corpse objectified for its ugliness, just as female corpses are objectified in the media, “all the more beautiful for being dead”. The experience of inhabiting a female body is a central theme, examined from a variety of angles. The characters all have hidden layers, private fears or past experiences which they keep to themselves. Ali, helping to officiate at the ceremony, is unable to talk about her interest in becoming a celebrant because it brings up painful memories of her lost friend. Morag, the woman who found the body and owns the museum, doesn’t want the bog body to be reburied and is firmly against any religious involvement: “I didn’t want them getting near her with their incense and their holy water, locking her up in a box and covering her up with hallowed dirt. As if she hadn’t spent enough time in there already.” Morag’s distrust of religion causes friction with Hazel, the humanist celebrant, who has her own, deeply unusual, religious beliefs.

“A dead body is something to be hidden away; the process of decomposition unsightly and dehumanising.” This applies equally to Ali’s buried grief, which she struggles to process for fear of making others uncomfortable. Beautifully written and deeply thought-provoking, Skin Grows Over is a story that will stick in your head long after reading, like a piece of grit lodged beneath the skin.

Katie McIvor grew up in Scotland and studied at the University of Cambridge. She now lives in England and works at a language library, where she is surrounded by books and films in over 200 languages. When not struggling to alphabetise Japanese textbooks, she likes to go on long walks with her husband and two dogs. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in, Mythaxis Magazine and Potato Soup Journal.

Katie can be found on Twitter @_McKatie_

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