Reviewed by Jess Chua
Sword & Kettle Press is an independent publisher of inclusive and accessible speculative fiction.
In a Chill Subs interview, founding editor Kay Allen says:
“Sword & Kettle really took off when I put out a call for additional editors to work on [the] Cup & Dagger series of handmade mini chapbooks. . .Our goals are to publish inclusive feminist fantasy and speculative writing [and] make beautiful books.”
I was intrigued by this solidified focus and drawn in by the exquisitely gorgeous book cover designs. I decided to get two mini chapbooks from the aforementioned Cup & Dagger series:
A Hole Walked In is a surrealist, gothic body horror short story. As a horror fan, this sounded right up my alley. Sarah Cavar is the author of five chapbooks whose interests lie at the nexes of their own existence: transness, Madness, queerness, and disability.
Encounters with Wolves is an equally beautiful and visceral short story centered around shapeshifting entities. Shreya is a writer from Calcutta, India, whose work explores topics like history, the supernatural, gender, the body, and cultural memory.
The opening paragraph of A Hole Walked In spoke to me as a woman. The seemingly grotesque is on unabashed display here, where the narrator is on the fourth day of bleeding from their face, standing in a mall, “bleeding not of man or moon.”
The contrasts—of bleeding and sustenance, of beauty and the grotesque, of body horror and acceptance—reflect our own conflicting feelings towards the physical form. My senses were heightened as I followed the narrator’s journey, where agony and ambivalence mirrored my feelings towards bodily functions (or restrictions) like the menstrual cycle.
“My body is something special. Who else can bleed from every hole and stay alive?”
This line bridges the story’s twin concepts of body ownership and commodification. One of the best features about this short piece is that it brings up multiple topics: gender performance, exploitation, madness, without burying them in difficult or meandering prose.
The notes and acknowledgements section was enlightening as well, with the author’s nod to the imagery in Korean poet Kim Hyesoon’s work. Both writers are deliberate and assertive with their unsettling depictions to challenge accepted, expected notions of what women should be.
Encounters with Wolves is stylishly gritty, with folklore that takes place in modern Bombay.
Complex themes are neatly divided into three acts: “Seed,” “Bud,” and “Bloom.”
As someone who had a stray cat as a best friend during my early adolescent years, I found the narrator’s first encounter with the wolf cub to be nostalgic and heartwarming. These lines introduce the reader to the pack of wolves that would leave an indelible impact:
“[The wolf cub and I] didn’t start out as friends. . .[His mother] was skinny, thinner than she should have been. If she had been closer, perhaps I would have seen her ribs. But lying there with her only cub she was regal, serene—a honey-eyed lupine queen.”
This introduction leads into the second act, where the narrator mentions her family’s cultural expectations as she hides her love for a she-wolf from the pack.
“My mother and my father have been accumulating money for the twenty years I have been living. They mean to give it all, and me, away.”
We see upclose the narrator’s impossible situation in a country where traditional culture and gender norms are strongly favored by many. She faces painful truths when “the boy and his family arrive.”
The themes of physical and emotional survival, of family tension (“I do not call [the block of flats] home because it does not welcome me”), culminate in the third act, where we learn about the life the narrator has forged for herself. It’s a life where “nothing [is] simple,” but it’s an authentic one that comes from growth and radical self-acceptance.
The poetic imagery and tight, confident prose in these short stories stayed with me long after I finished the last word.
I was happy to expand my literary horizons through these samples from a decidedly non-mainstream speculative series. “Good things come in small packages,” goes the old saying, and there’s no shortage of humongous talent here.
Link to the Cup & Dagger series: Sword & Kettle / Shop
About the reviewer: Jess Chua is a poet and award-winning essayist. Her creative writing is forthcoming or has appeared in 34th Parallel Magazine, Musepaper and Mystery Tribune. Her debut chapbook is forthcoming from a small press. Her website is www.jesschua.com