Who Goes There?
Alyssa Wong is one of the fresh young writers of fantasy and weird fiction to have come about in the past decade. They immediately made an impression with their first short story in 2014, “The Fisher Queen,” which garnered Nebula and World Fantasy nominations, and they would spend the next few years getting published in Uncanny Magazine, Nightmare Magazine, Lightspeed, and elsewhere. “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” is a good example of Wong’s ingenuity, adding a couple twists to the vampire tradition while also resulting in a tragic narrative. Fortunately for Wong but unfortunately for us lovers of SFF short fiction, they would go on to write prolifically in a different and probably more lucrative field: comics. Perhaps more interestingly they also worked on Overwatch, though apparently are not attached to the sequel.
Despite having a small body of short fiction thus far (and not having published in the past few years, apparently caught up in other modes of writing), Wong has earned a disproportionate amount of award wins and nominations. Whereas many authors I cover for Remembrance are those who frequent the magazines, Wong is not one of them, with at least half their work first appearing in original anthologies instead. One can only hope that they’ll someday return to writing short fiction, as while comic books and video games are almost certainly more profitable, the long-undervalued art of the short story could always use its most promising practicioners.
First published in the October 2015 issue of Nightmare Magazine, which, ya know, is free, and online. But if you’re old-fashioned like me and you like to read your fiction on paper, we’ve got options. There’s Jonathan Strahan’s The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Ten, Steve Berman and A. M. Dellamonica’s Heiresses of Russ 2016: The Year’s Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction, and Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman’s The New Voices of Fantasy. These are all in print (I think?) and easy enough to find. I didn’t even know there was a series of anthologies dedicated to Joanna Russ, but you learn something new every day.
Jen (or Jenny, or Meimei as her mom calls her) is on a date and on the prowl. The guy she’s picked up at the beginning is a real treat, and look, he’s even got a Tesla! As is typical of Elon Musk fanboys, Harvey, the guy in question, has a homicidal streak, and normally this would be cause for alarm—but for Jen, his wretchedness only makes him tastier. Jen is a telepath, and a vampire; she can read a person’s thoughts and calculate their emotions and intentions, and it seems like the more heightened someone’s emotions are (be they positive or negative) the more nutrition they provide. Because this is all told from Jen’s POV and because Harvey’s a scumbag with zero redeeming qualities, the opening scene feels less like horror and more like a small instance of karmic retribution; it does a good job, however, of establishing Jen’s character, and we get some juicy vampire action from the outset.
After her “date,” Jen meets up with Aiko, coworker and seemingly her best friend (or maybe her only friend). From an outsider’s perspective the date was a disaster, but for Jen it was easily the best she’d ever had; actually, the problem is that Harvey might’ve tasted too good. All I’ll say is that it’s a good thing, I suppose, that incel culture hadn’t quite taken off when Wong wrote this story, or else Jen would be absolutely having a feast for herself with all the lonely and resentful white dudes she could pick up.
“He should have bought you a cab back, at least,” says Aiko, reaching for a bowl of red bean paste. I fiddle with the bag of pastries, pretending to select something from its contents. “I swear, it’s like you’re a magnet for terrible dates.”
She’s not wrong; I’m very careful about who I court. After all, that’s how I stay fed. But no one in the past has been as delicious, as hideously depraved as Harvey. No one else has been a killer.
I’m not sure if this means Harvey’s killed someone before or if it just means he has strongly murderous intentions. I have to assume he’s a serial killer because he drives a Tesla, and also because I think about choosing violence all the time and I feel like Jen wouldn’t find me very tasty. Much like the Mindworm in C. M. Kornbluth’s story I reviewed the other day, Jen is a vampire that feeds off of emotions, and she can also read other people’s minds. Unlike the Mindworm, who always kills his victims, it’s possible for a vampire here to feed off someone just enough to not kill them—although, as we find out later, there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to stop themselves before the final blow is struck. Part of me wishes we got to see Harvey return much later in the story, as a sort of Chekhov’s gun, seeing as how his fate is left ambiguous at the end of the opening scene, but I get that this would also be too contrived. Harvey more just serves as an early example of what vampires can do in this story and why they act the way they do, i. e., why they would choose to feed off of violent thugs and other criminals.
Jen only has a few people in her life, namely Aiko and her mom, and Aiko is a perfectly nice normal girl while Jen’s mom is a shut-in for reasons we’re not told about until later. The ramifications of “eating” Harvey are making themselves known, though; Jen finds that she’s only gotten hungrier after having such a uniquely delicious meal. We’re not told how vampires are made in-story, or if one can even turn into a vampire (maybe it’s hereditary, like a mutation), but vampirism is a blessing and a curse. You’re a telepath, and you can at least theoretically live for a very long time, but you must feed. Feeding for vampires is at least threefold: it’s nutrition, addiction, and eroticism. Because is it really a vampire story is there isn’t at least some eroticism in the mix? But Jen soon finds herself addicted, and her mom lives like a burnt-out addict as well, shacked up with jars of “food” to keep herself alive (people’s emotions being extracted as fluids, it seems), which of course Jen doesn’t wanna see herself become.
That’s when I turn my back on her, pushing past the debris and bullshit her apartment’s stuffed with. I don’t want to die, but as far as I’m concerned, living like my ma, sequestered away from the rest of the world, her doors barricaded with heaps of useless trinkets and soured memories, is worse than being dead.
Generational trauma certainly plays a role in the narrative, with Jen’s relationship with her mom being far from ideal, and her mom having made a mistake in the past that Jen fears she’ll also make with Aiko. The story’s Wikipedia article says that vampires here feed off negative emotions, but that’s not strictly true as the same also goes for positive emotions—like love. For Jen, love can prove to be even more dangerous than hate as she starts catching feelings for Aiko, though the word “love” is never used. It’s hard to say if Jen’s growing attraction to Aiko is due strictly to hunger or if she’s actually forming a crush on her friend, but I like to think it’s more the latter, though Jen doesn’t really talk about her attraction to people in romantic or sexual terms. For a vampire, it seems, hunger stands in for love as we understand it, which causes some problems later.
Oh, and as Columbo would say, one more thing…
When a vampire eats someone, they take on that person’s appearance, becoming their doppelganger. I don’t know why this is or how it works, frankly, except it serves a rather far-fetched plot use towards the end; even keeping that in mind, I think the story could’ve done well without the transformation bit, as it raises questions of the logical kind and not the spooky kind.
There Be Spoilers Here
In her efforts to find new avenues for her feeding, Jen comes across Seo-yun on a dating app, Jen’s usual method of picking up meals. Again I’m not sure if Jen is bisexual or pansexual or if she simply judges other people’s “attractiveness” based on how tasty they are, but whatever. Jen and Seo-yun go on a date and this is where the tension ramps up a bit. Now, you may recall that vampires are telepath; however, they’re one-way telepaths, which is to say that they can read other people’s minds but can’t sense when someone is projecting onto them. Vampires can’t communicate telepathically, which means that what happens comes as quite a surprise to Jen.
“So, I’m curious,” murmurs Seo-yun, her breath brushing my lips. “Who’s Aiko?”
My eyes snap open. Seo-yun smiles, her voice warm and tender, all her edges dark. “She seems sweet, that’s all. I’m surprised you haven’t had a taste of her yet.”
I back up so fast that I knock over my teacup, spilling scalding tea over everything. But Seo-yun doesn’t move, just keeps smiling that kind, gentle smile as her monstrous thoughts lap delicately at the tablecloth.
“She smells so ripe,” she whispers. “But you’re afraid you’ll ruin her, aren’t you? Eat her up, and for what? Just like your mum did your dad.”
It’s the closest the story comes to being scary, because up to this point Jen has been perfectly hidden, the only fellow vampire she knows of being her mom, and being discovered like this would naturally throw her for a loop; little does she know it’s about to get worse. Seo-yun invites Jen to a party with some fellow vampires, who have apparently found a way to get the most bang for their feeding buck while still remaining hidden. At first it looks like Jen will get a happy ending, having found a community of like-minded people who would understand where she’s coming from, but as she’ll find out a community of vampires will be closer to a pack of animals than humans. Personally I always find it a bit hard to believe that a group of vampires would be able to prosper, in small packs or especially as a civilization. Flawed as it is, the movie Daybreakers logically concludes that a world run by vampires would quickly and inevitably run into a food source problem. I also have to wonder how many vampires there are supposed to be. Like how common is this mutation? How often do vampires eat each other, knowingly or knowingly?
Anyway, Jen attends a vampire party with Seo-yun and it things are looking up. She’ll be with others of her kind and she’ll get quite a meal out of the affair. There’s just one problem: the meal turns out to be Aiko.
Jen and other vampires make no big deal out of devouring people who have done enough bad things, or if they’re people that supposedly no one would care about, but this is different. Aiko loves Jen, or at least is very fond of her, and Jen clearly has come to love Aiko, yet the person she loves most is the person she also wants to eat the most. This is why I say the vampirism of the story is based on strong positive emotions along with negative ones, because otherwise it would make no sense for Jen to find Aiko of all people so appetizing, or why Jen’s mom would have eaten Jen’s dad (who may or may not have been a vampire himself, we’re not told about that) presumably by accident. The tragedy of the story is that Jen, who wants to better off than her mom and who wants to be with someone who will love her, has a condition which highly incentivizes her to reject love and stick to east targets: people who are hateful, people she doesn’t care about. Seo-yun sucks Aiko’s essence out of her, and while Jen is able to stop Seo-yun with Aiko’s help and even devour the bitch entirely, it may be too late.
The story ends with Jen, having totally eaten Seo-yun and taken her form, regurgitates her essence (if you think vomit is the grossest thing ever then boy do I have something to tell you about human babies) and tries to find Aiko’s emotions so that she can be revived. If she can be revived. The ending is somewhat open-ended, and personally I think it’d hit harder if it was a straight-up downer. Sure, it’s tragic that Jen’s growing hunger would possibly result in Aiko’s death, but having her fate be more concrete would heighten the tragedy in the proper sense of the word, since it’d be Jen’s main character fault that brings her to this point, i. e., her all-consuming need to be loved that costs her the person she cares for most. Since Jen ends up in a purgatorial state and since we don’t get a proper conclusion, the ending comes off a little too soft, or rather not willing enough to embrace the tragic aspect of its lead character. For me, if “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” doesn’t last as long in the mind as it could’ve, it’s because of this deficiency.
A Step Farther Out
I’ll be asking the same question with every one of these Halloween stories: Is it scary? Nah. Is it spooky even? Not really. When I think spookiness I think of atmosphere, of setting, of locations, but there are next to no descriptions of the setting or atmosphere. This is not entirely a bad thing. “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” works better as tragic character study than as horror, but then it seems to aim more for the former than the latter anyway. Wong acts on the (correct) assumption that vampire lore is largely old, dusty, overused, and nonsensical in parts, instead opting to play fast and loose with Jen and others like her only being identified as vampires by their parasitic hunger. Of course it wouldn’t be a vampire story with at least a little eroticism, and readers will be pleased to know this one is very queer, the physical hunger and the erotic hunger (or maybe it’s love?) being almost indistinguishable for vampires in-story. The result is a race of people who are pariahs by virtue of the fact that, despite being capable of love, they’re unable to love others without putting them at serious risk.
I didn’t intend it like this (reading these stories blind and all), but it feels like “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” is a good counterpoint to Kornbluth’s “The Mindworm,” as if Wong took the animalistic vampire of that story and made him human—all too human.
See you next time.