Strange Horizons, March 12, 2012
Reviewed by Matthew Nadelhaft
Cory Skerry’s “My Dignity in Scars” is an enigmatic fantasy tale, a difficult creature for me to review. To start with, I find fantasy as a genre ill-suited to short stories, and Skerry’s tale helped me pinpoint some of my discomfort. To me, fantasy is successful to the extent that its world-building is, and a short story is an inadequate vehicle for conveying the richness I admire in well-developed fantasy settings. In Skerry’s tale, for instance, in which demons grow out of the flesh of people (I am assuming it is a problem known by people other than the narrator and his father before him), we learn some fascinating and lovely tidbits such as children earning their names, a piece at a time, at certain ages. But so much more has to be left out, leaving the setting somewhat parched and lifeless.
At the heart of this setting is the mountain, Keppaket, said to be the source of the demons. The narrator’s father climbed the mountain and the narrator, fostering his third demon and forced to ponder what he has never experienced in his young and threatened life, decides to do likewise. This pilgrimage is pivotal to the narrator’s development, but somehow wasn’t as tense and dramatic as it could have been. Again, I’ll chalk that up to the limitations of the short story form as a vehicle for epic narrative. It’s simply hard to convey the importance, the hardship and the drama of a difficult journey in a thousand words or so.
As far as the narrative goes, I think the story was hampered by the decision to tell it in the present tense, especially as it covers several days (and the ending takes place years after the events of the main story) and includes memories and reminiscences. The prose is often evocative and heartfelt, but at the same time includes a few simple mistakes (using the word “it” to refer to a plural subject, the narrator’s eyes, at the end of the story, for example) and some dubious descriptions such as “I sift through questions, like black beach sand falling through my fingers. The sand leaves only hard chips of shell, and this is what I need: big questions, the ones that matter, so I don’t scare her into silence.” There’s something in the writing of fantasy that seems to drive writers into greater flights of metaphor.
While the narrator’s epiphany atop the fearful mountain is satisfying and dramatic, and lends the character a great deal of gravitas and likeability, the ending of the story is indecisive. I understand Skerry’s desire to leave the story as a piece, not the summation, of a man’s life and struggles, but I think the same effect could have been achieved by ending with the much more powerful conclusion to the penultimate section. As it stands, this story presents several intriguing ideas, rewards the reader with some strong prose and a powerful climax, yet feels unfinished. Perhaps, like the life of its protagonist, the tale is meant to be a work-in-progress.