Author Topic: PC115: Monstrous Embrace  (Read 9522 times)


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on: July 27, 2010, 01:22:51 PM
PodCastle 115: Monstrous Embrace

by Rachel Swirsky
Read by Elizabeth Green Musselman
Originally Published in Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy

I am ugliness in body and bone, breath and heartbeat. I am muddy rocks and jagged scars snaking across salt-sown fields. I am insect larvae wriggling inside the great dead beasts into which they were born. Too, I am the hanks of dead flesh rotting. I am the ungrateful child’s sneer, the plague sore bursting, the swing of shadow beneath the gallows rope. Ugliness is my hands, my feet, my fingernails. Ugliness is my gaze, boring into you like a worm into rotting fruit.

Listen to me, my prince. Tomorrow, when dawn breaks and you stand in the chapel accepting your late father’s crown, your fate will be set. Do nothing and you will be dead by sundown. Your kingdom will be laid waste, its remnants preserved only in the bellies of carrion birds.

There is another option. Marry me.

Rated R: Contains Violence and Gore

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Reply #1 on: July 27, 2010, 01:27:50 PM
Oh goody!  I thought this was the story that Dave was teasing last week.  This is a great one folks (IMO).  If only I didn't have to go to work so that I could listen to it...

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Reply #2 on: July 27, 2010, 03:16:28 PM
Woohoo! Rachel Swirsky week at Escape Artists!

I have a long flight ahead of me in a couple of days so I'm saving up on stories. This is going to be fun :)


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Reply #3 on: July 28, 2010, 12:27:50 AM
I didn't like this story at first. At first, I found it a little... how do I say this... a little over-written. A little purple. It grew on me (like a fungus) and by the end, I was ok with it. You have to use the right language for the story, and this story was huge, apocalyptic, and, demanded huge and apocalyptic language.

Even then, I was only a little interested in the story for a while. I found Monstrous Embrace big on ideas and small on character, and that's just not usually my speed. However, it struck me as I was walking down the street, more than an hour after listening to it, what about the last few minutes sent chills up my spine.

Monstrous Embrace isn't a story. It's a suicide note.

The character of Ugliness doesn't just want to marry the prince and save the kingdom - though I think its love for the prince and desire to destroy the evil queen is real - what it most wants is to cease existing in its current state by wiping out the concept it embodies. Think about it, a world where everything - all flesh, all matter, all spirit - has been ugly, knows ugliness, sees past ugliness, and embraces content. The idea of something being materially unappealing wiped out. We already see that the narrator only exists in things that are seen as ugly, and we also know that she despises her own existence and hates how she is treated. Where will it go if these things don't exist anymore? The narrator will be finally freed from its own existence, allowed to sink back into the world and cease. That's what made me shiver. It's not every day a god offers to kill itself, using your benefit as the knife.

That said.

What I really want to happen next is for the prince to realize that he has been used and finally stand up for his own damned self. (Un)Fortunately, Swirsky leaves the prince's answer to my imagination, so I'll never know for certain.

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Reply #4 on: July 28, 2010, 12:39:43 PM
The reading was good.

The story...? Well, I'll echo ElectricPaladin that I think the story was quite over-written. I think I understand the points the author was trying to make -- choosing the "right" evil over the "wrong" one, the fact that ugliness has its good points (the stuff about ugly people thinking before they speak is TOTALLY true, especially if you lump "overweight" into the "ugly" category), beauty being something that can be used to make you do something you wouldn't normally and look past other flaws, all that stuff.

I just didn't like the story, or the way it was told.

First of all, we have Ugliness, who has decided THIS prince is where she's going to make her stand. She visits him in dreams, and from the way she's talking he probably won't remember all of it... I was a little confused by that part, actually. Is he going to remember his choice? Secondly, we have the second thread of the story, where we see what Alna did to make Ugliness want to end her. It was interesting, and was almost an entire story in itself, but I kept getting lost in it and then, oh yeah, this is all a story being told to a sleeping prince by Ugliness itself. Thirdly, we have another denouement by this author that goes on for what feels like too long, all in the future tense. Fourth, I think it was hammered into our heads a little TOO much that "beauty = evil, and ugliness = evil too but at least ugliness isn't lying to you about it". I think if that point had been a little more subtle I might have liked the story more, but it's like the current season of "True Blood" -- to echo IO9, we KNOW the Mickens are trash. You can stop showing us evidence of it any time now.

I didn't mind the lady/tiger ending, myself, but if I was adapting this for the stage or the screen I probably would've shown the end of the kingdom, whichever direction it went (toward beauty or ugliness). I thought the openness of the ending was good, but I didn't feel satisfied.

After hearing/reading several stories by this author, I think she's fallen into the same category I place Cat Rambo: an author who clearly has It, given that she's having success as a writer, but whose fiction I just don't like.

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Reply #5 on: July 29, 2010, 12:42:27 PM

This story is based entirely on subjective concepts: beauty, ugliness, good, evil, etc., which are being presented as objective and universal. That's pretty much my stumbling point on this one.
I don't think mud is ugly, nor swamps, nor many of the other things that were presented herein as obvious harbingers of ugliness.

As it is, I personally dislike the the whole, 'give the allegory a voice' thing that's going on here. I've encountered it in other stories and except for Pratchett (who leavens the whole thing by allowing the ANTHROPOMORPHIC PERSONIFICATIONs knowledge of their own absurdity, and a morphability based on the shifting nature of their subjective meanings), I've yet to see it done well.

The central conceit of the story is really interesting, and had this been written as a third person fable, with the spirit appearing and offering the kingdom a curse as salvation, the whole thing would have been tres cool -Arthurian, even.

There was a lot of good thought and good writing that was poured into a cracked vessel here...


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Reply #6 on: July 29, 2010, 01:56:49 PM
I gave this one a chance, but I just couldn't get into it.  Though it's clear that Swirsky has much writing talent, I think her style just isn't my cup of tea(reinforced by having pretty much the same reaction to this week's EP story by her).

This one struck me as being very overwritten right from the first line.  The narrator explaining the multitude of things she personifies just went on and on.  The peak of my interest was her demand that he marry her.  Then it switched to a 2nd person narration telling the prince how he met his wife, which is a prime example of "As you know, Bob." Putting it in narration instead of dialogue does not change that.  Presumably he knows how he met his wife, so why does he need someone else to tell him?  Then it switched back to Ugliness telling me what she personifies again.  After ten minutes there just wasn't anything that made me want to keep listening--maybe that's why I tend not to like novellas, the pace is just sooooo slooooow--but even if it's slow-paced I still need something to hook me.


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Reply #7 on: July 30, 2010, 02:55:52 AM
I liked this pretty well. At first I too was thrown by her retelling all the stuff he already knew, but then on thinking about it, I think her goal was twofold: firstly, to prove to him she was there and had seen all he had seen, and then to make her case about the things she saw but he HADN'T - his wife's duplicity. So I think her telling the whole story as she did wasn't just to reveal the story, it was to make clear her case, to prove to the Prince that she was telling the truth.

I particularly enjoyed her describing how she existed in all the little uglynesses - the mud, pockmarks, etc, not just the big uglynesses.


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Reply #8 on: August 02, 2010, 09:54:01 AM
My first post here. Really loved the story and narration. A thing of beauty must necessarily be ephemeral...


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Reply #9 on: August 03, 2010, 04:19:48 AM
I'm mostly with ElectricPaladin on this one (both in praise and disappointment), but I'd like to add that I appreciated that the beautiful elves weren't evil.  They were beautiful and they had their own problems, but the story avoided the simplistic trope-inversion of ugly=downtrodden and beauty=hypocritical.  I approve of this.


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Reply #10 on: August 03, 2010, 05:29:49 PM
I really liked this story. I'm not entirely sure I ever fully bought the personification of ugliness, but the narrative itself kept me consistently engaged.

I do wonder, however, how trustworthy the narrator is. We have no indication she is telling the truth beyond her own words. We have no indication she's lying, either, but she clearly wants to claim the prince for her own. What if his wife is innocent? (I don't actually think that's the best reading of the story, but I like that it's left open as a possibility).

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Reply #11 on: August 03, 2010, 07:36:42 PM
What I really want to happen next is for the prince to realize that he has been used and finally stand up for his own damned self.

Yeah, I'd like to see him cut that Gordian Knot and take one of many paths other than the two presented by Ugliness; it seemed a false dichotomy to me, and I like to think the prince would have seen that.

Not that I particularly blame Ugliness for presenting it that way. The prince falling for the trick may be the only way it can get the world in a state that is congenial to it.

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Reply #12 on: August 03, 2010, 11:29:38 PM
Interesting ideas, but ultimately they were stretched out for too long to really carry enough impact.  I did like the way it ended -- the fact that the "salvation" Ugliness was offering to the prince was so horrifying in its own right -- but in between there was so much digression into other things (the people in the swamp, the prince's warped leg, the history of Alna's people) that I felt it diluted the force of what came at the end, rather than adding to it.  I honestly think the "choose Evil A or Evil B" ending didn't need that degree of setup, and might have done better without it.

Ditto what others said, btw, about reeeeeeally hoping the prince finds some option C.  I'm all about the rejection of false dichotomies, and I think this story was, too, so I've got my fingers crossed for him finding his own (better) outcome.


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Reply #13 on: August 09, 2010, 07:03:25 PM
I'm in agreement:

- The prose was overwrought.
- Turning a subjective concept into an anthropormorphized absolute? A stretch. Swamps can be beautiful, and so can vultures and bleached bones and pockmarks and even maggots in some contexts.
- And, UGH, the 2nd person viewpoint! Talk about ugliness! Makes getting into the story difficult - especially a story as exposition-heavy as this one. Keeps the characters flat.

Having said all that -
This story *really* worked for me.

I liked Ugliness, her power and her limitations and her complete neutrality. I liked the slow unfolding of her vision, of a world where the worth of a thing isn't in its appearance.

The endings Ugliness suggests aren't "evil door #1" vs "evil door #2". Looks more like "evil door" vs "harmoniously neutral door."

I also liked the open ending - don't need to know what the prince chooses. I hope he spots a third path, and then rejects it and takes Ugly up on her offer anyway.


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Reply #14 on: August 12, 2010, 06:00:52 PM
This story had a rather unique and interesting viewpoint. A few of it's ideas bothered me...the central being that Ugliness and Beauty are two mutually exclusive, intrinsic characteristics that everything posses. For instance: I'm from south Louisiana and I think the French Quarter in New Orleans is beautiful. Trees and hidden gardens and crumbling brick and mortar, old cobblestones worn smooth and cracked pavement. I was talking to someone who had recently visited and she complained how ugly and dirty and old everything was. Where I saw beauty and character, she saw dirtiness and ugliness. This story's ideas of Ugly vs. Beauty does not account for opposing viewpoints on the same attributes, and that rather undermines the entire story for me.

Also, I didn't get why, if she told him all this, he couldn't just kill the witch and do whatever he wanted.


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Reply #15 on: August 17, 2010, 02:28:52 PM
LOVED this story. Maybe it's just me agonizing about my appearance (as teenagers are wont to do) but I loved the story, even the prose. I didn't think it was overwrought or anything like that. It was evocative, like Cat Valente's or Greer Gilman's.


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Reply #16 on: September 29, 2010, 05:04:33 PM
I'm mostly with ElectricPaladin on this one (both in praise and disappointment), but I'd like to add that I appreciated that the beautiful elves weren't evil.  They were beautiful and they had their own problems, but the story avoided the simplistic trope-inversion of ugly=downtrodden and beauty=hypocritical.  I approve of this.


Also, I didn't get why, if she told him all this, he couldn't just kill the witch and do whatever he wanted.

Who's to say he didn't? This is probably the best open ending I've ever heard. For me, the whole story became a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't, though Ugliness's ending would have been much preferable in the longer term. But also keep in mind, Alma could have had him under a spell during his waking hours to be doting on her, so he just wouldn't even think about it. This was probably why Ugliness came to him in a dream, where Alma had no power.

Powerful story, and probably my most favorite of Swirskey's material.

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Reply #17 on: October 13, 2010, 02:02:29 AM
I can see how a listener would feel it is an overwritten story.  Keeping in mind though that this is a first person narrative by an entity that has existed from beginning of time, if you accept this premise, it should also be understandable that such a being/presence would speak like this.

I loved the story.  I thought it was masterfully written, with the background so intricately woven into the storyline, that with each revelation and unfolding, I was swept deeper into the storyline.  And then to be given a choice between two dooming scenarios--Wow!  This story really spoke to me.

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Reply #18 on: November 03, 2010, 05:26:28 PM
Ditto on the over-wrought plot and characterization.  It never felt like the story really went anywhere, but spent most of the time describing what has happened or what might happen, which was interesting, but ultimately not very rewarding.  None of the characters were likable or relatable.  "Ugliness" seems too focused on subjective outward beauty, for my taste, and it comes across as rather heavy-handed.