Maureen F. McHugh,
Mothers & Other Monsters
(Small Beer Press, 2006)

Maureen McHugh writes beautiful, poignant, impassioned short stories. And she delivers these stories in a clear, unassuming style that allows her characters and their exploits to flow off the page with tremendous ease.

She is a near polar opposite, stylistically, to Paul Di Filippo, whose book The Emperor of Gondwanaland & Other Stories I recently reviewed. And yet these two authors share at least one thing in common, an ability to tell compelling stories in a manner that grabs hold of the reader's emotions and won't let go.

McHugh's stories are quieter that Di Filippo's. She has an economy of language that is deceptively powerful. For instance, in her story "The Cost to Be Wise," McHugh conveys both the limited education of her protagonist and Janna's terrible fear of facing a strange and potentially painful medical procedure. "I could hear her open the packet. I wanted to blink but I was afraid to. I did, because I couldn't help it. She leaned forward and spread my eye open with thumb and forefinger. Then she swiftly touched my eye. I jerked back. There was something in my eye."

"The Cost to Be Wise" is clearly a science fiction tale. Set on a distant planet, the story contains futuristic technologies, alien species, spaceships. But these tropes are always secondary to the foreground element of people living their lives while dealing with a challenging situation. In the case of "The Cost to Be Wise" the particular challenge is a clan of hunters intending to take advantage of Janna's community rather than trading fairly for farm animals and liquor. But in many of McHugh's best tales the science fictional elements are even more peripheral to the emotional thrust of the story.

"Presence" presents the reader with a revolutionary treatment for Alzheimer's disease, but it's the heartbreaking scenes between Mila and Gus, scenes which could just as easily be present day, that pack such a tremendous punch. "'I want to go out,' he says, again and again, long after she stops answering him. He finally sits and watches five minutes of television but then he gets up and goes back to the door. 'Let's go home,' he says this time, and when she doesn't answer, he runs his long fingers like spiders up and down the edge of the door. He sits, he gets up and stands at the door for minutes, twenty, thirty minutes at a time, until she is blind with fatigue and her eyes burn with tears and she finally shrieks, 'There's no way out!'"

"Presence" is a tour-de-force. Yet it is not without equal in this outstanding collection. "Interview: On Any Given Day," "Nekropolis" and "Eight-Legged Story" are each magnificent pieces of fiction. And this doesn't even take into account the inclusion here of McHugh's 1996 Hugo Award-winning short story "The Lincoln Train."

"Eight-Legged Story" is perhaps the most personal story in Mothers & Other Monsters as it chronicles a stepmother's doubts, fears and frustrations in dealing with a child not of her body but of her marriage. McHugh is, herself, a stepparent, and the insights she brings to the subject make the story sing. Then, through the interview and essay ("The Evil Stepmother") included at the tail end of this collection it's possible to assess the parallels and divergences between McHugh's life and her fiction. The combination of these three elements results in a splendid window into the creative process of this gifted writer.

Mothers & Other Monsters is an extraordinary collection of "gorgeously crafted stories," as NPR's Nancy Pearl puts it. This is one of the few cases I can think of where the quotes featured on the book cover do not, in the least, overstate their praise.

by Gregg Thurlbeck
17 February 2007

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