SH Flashback: “Who in Mortal Chains,” by Claire Humphrey

A new entry in my weekly Strange Horizons retrospective.

This week's Strange Horizons Flashback story:

Who in Mortal Chains,” by Claire Humphrey
This is one of the most compelling stories I've read about the dynamics of violence. It's also about other things: community, history, breaking things, stories we tell ourselves, and more. Parts of it literally take my breath away every time I read it. (Potentially triggery for violence, including domestic violence.) (Published in 2010.) (4,700 words.)
If you want to listen to this story in audio form, Julia Rios did an excellent reading of it for Podcastle. (37-minute audio.) But I recommend ignoring Dave Thompson's intro; this is not the lighthearted story about drinking beer in the 1960s that his description seems to me to imply. (Also, I'm disappointed to see that the reader comments on the Podcastle version seem to have disappeared; there was some interesting discussion there.)

(See also the full list of Flashback stories.)




I'll start my discussion with a side note: I really liked this story's take on immortality. Gus's low-key references to her very long life are pretty unlike the ways I'm used to seeing immortality handled in stories—here, it's not a problem to be addressed or even something to be explained, it's just a background part of who she is.

But that's not the main thing I wanted to talk about; mostly I want to discuss the story's handling of violence.

In 2011, I wrote about our having published a few stories in 2010 that focused on violent female protagonists. This story was one of the ones that led me to write that post. In that post, I wrote the following about this story:

“Who in Mortal Chains” is, more than any of the others here, about violence. (That's not at all the only thing that it's about, but it's the main thing, at least in my reading of the story.) The protagonist is a kind of character I've rarely if ever seen before; on first read, I kept trying to figure out who she was, to fit her into the mold of being a new take on some recognizable person from folklore or mythology, but eventually came to understand that she's an original character, not a reworking of a traditional character. I found her wholly believable, and fascinating. And despite, or possibly because of, my real-world pacifism, I loved this story's treatment of violence and the ways that it works, both for the protagonist and for others. And I loved Gus's self-awareness about who she is and what she does.

To elaborate on that old post a little: among other things, I loved Gus's clear-eyed understanding of the ways that we sometimes lie to ourselves about our relationships with violence, about what we want and what we're looking for. From Gus's line about Tom, after Tom claims he doesn't mean any harm (“there was harm in him, meaning to happen”), to Ryder beginning to wonder whether he might be capable of the kind of violence Gus engages in, to the discussion of what exactly Mylene wanted Gus to do. And yet I was also glad to see that, unlike what I've seen in most stories about violence, Gus allows for the possibility of other people not being violent (although she's skeptical); and I loved her awareness that even when violence is what we want in the moment, it doesn't fix things (“I knew it would not help”).

This is the part that takes my breath away:

“Look at me,” I said, as gently as I could. “You wanted this to happen.”

“Not like this—”

“That's right,” I said. “But this is the only way it ever happens.”

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