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"Hunting Monsters" by S. L. Huang was easily the story I was most excited about when Book Smugglers Publishing announced its first round of releases. Feminist retellings of "Little Red Riding Hood" get me every time, and when a story also mixes a bit of "Bluebeard" and "Beauty and the Beast" in there, well, just try and hold me back. Even if that combination of influences hadn't immediately grabbed me, I would have been sunk just by seeing the striking cover Kristina Tsenova created for "Hunting Monsters". Woah.

The unnamed narrator of "Hunting Monsters" (called 'Child' throughout the story) is raised by her mother and her Auntie Rosa, her mother's long term partner. As the story quickly establishes, both women are influential figures in the narrator's life but in very different ways. The first line of the story 'My mother taught me to shoot, but it was Auntie Rosa who bought me my first rifle.' sets up the idea that the two women are separate people with different ideas but also partners who have common interests and complement each other as parents. This idea of loving difference is reinforced by the fact that the two women are lovers but don't live together; a small story point which I loved seeing explicitly addressed:

'I’d asked Auntie Rosa once why she didn’t live with us, when I was old enough to understand her and my mother’s relationship. She’d smiled and said that it was better for all of us if we had our own spaces.'

A+ for explaining that people can be committed and love each other but still need the ability to retire to separate physical spaces.

"Hunting Monsters" describes both women individually; setting them up as distinct characters and making sure that the reader's eye spends time focusing on each woman. As a consequence these characters quickly become people the reader can care about:

My earliest memory is my mother placing a firm hand across my lips as we crouched in the dry leaves on a hillside, her rifle slung from her shoulder, her lean frame alert and arrow-straight and her black eyes flicking down through the woods. In my memory I am very, very still, though I remember to raise tiny hands and press them against my ears as hard as I can as my mother eases her rifle up to her shoulder and tilts her head behind the sights. The roar when she pulls the trigger is devastating, the thunder and flame of Heaven and Hell, and my mother’s blade-thin silhouette is backlit by the setting sun and she looks like a god. And I love her.

Huang is fantastic at writing short but potent descriptions, like the one above, which establish key details and fill out simple scenes. The particular way she chooses to pace the story's writing builds an almost lush tone. And this is enhanced by her commitment to fleshing out every small nugget of description with careful and specific word choice. No physical detail is left to stand alone - a frame is 'lean' and 'alert', hands are 'tiny'. And all the words she chooses to us ('roar', 'crouched' 'slung') seem deliberately designed to add embellishment, in order to make each scene as clear as possible. At the end of the description I've quoted above, the reader can see the hunt being described in their mind's eye, and they feel exactly as the protagonist does; her mother is magnificent. So, even though the young girl says her mother can be 'reserved' in comparison to Rosa, when her mother is hauled away by the King's Men for the crime of killing a grundwirgen, a human cursed to take the shape of an animal, the reader feels the full emotional impact of her capture.

From here on, the reader sees much more of Rosa; the character who eventually ties all three of the fairy tales which influences this story ("Little Red Riding Hood","Bluebeard" and "Beauty and the Beast") together. She is the grown Red Riding Hood, but also a female Bluebeard figure with a secret to keep:

She gave me her room, with its bright patterned quilt and draped crimson fabric—Auntie Rosa loved red; she blanketed her house with it and wore it in brilliant scarves and hats and shawls throughout the season—while she herself insisted on sleeping under a deep red blanket by the fire, snugged on a pile of furs. I wondered again about her other room then, the locked one. It had been locked for as long as I could remember, and when I’d been nosy about it as a child, she’d told me that it was her private storage space for things too naughty for a young one to see. My imagination had run wild as I got older, but I’d never seen her enter the locked room once, not even to clean.

The story is written in the first person and the reader gets a sense of the unnamed narrator only ever called 'Child'. However, it is the two older women, particularly Rosa, who (deliberately) steal this story's spotlight. As I illustrated above, the narrator's mother is a fantastic figure. And Rosa, while different, gives off a similar competent and solid aura of power, which guarantees she'll be adored by certain readers (like me). Both women are self-sufficient outdoors-women; hunters who live by strict codes - a top ten emotional trope if ever I met one. And the sense of family connection and love which pervades this story only adds to their impressive stature.

The importance of Rosa's relationship with the protagonist's mother (who is also unnamed throughout this story) is sketched into the story slowly. Rosa makes this aloof woman laugh. Rosa is the one who journeys into the city every day 'bullying, prodding and lobbying' for that partner. Rosa, so used to being family, is refused the right to visit her partner. Rosa's opinion is the one that matters most to the narrator's mother. Without spoiling anything, I'll say that the revelation of Rosa's terrible secret is bound to please anyone who has becomes invested in their romantic relationship. As will the fact that Rosa changed her ways once she fell in love. Fans of Red Riding Hood stories, and general fairytale fangirls, are gonna dig it, particularly as it allows Huang to include plenty of smart fairytale critique.

So, why did it take me so long to write about this story (apart from the fact that I'm slow to write about anything these days)? Well, my reluctance to write a post was mostly down to the ending of the story where Rosa escapes a terrible fate, but has to leave her partner and child behind:

We sat together holding hands, gazing out the window as if hoping we would see a bright red figure bobbing up the walk.

But the sun set, and no one came.

I so desperately wanted a happy ending, even though the poignant loss at the end fits the story well enough. Rosa survives, which makes this particular unhappy ending less troubling than the violent endings which conclude so many stories about LGBTQ characters. And thankfully this story can't be accused of fitting a 'the girls are never supposed to end up together' narrative. Before the story starts the two women have been together for years and their relationship is clearly a solid bedrock. But would is it too much to ask that a story like this reunite its two lovers (who are separated almost from the beginning of the story the reader has access to)?
Happily, there's going to be a sequel to this story - "Fighting Demons". And I'm hoping hard that it's going to involve Rosa's return. I would love to see that 'enormous presence, tall and big-boned with a personality to match' come striding back into the story's frame and find a way to forge a new complex relationship with her daughter and partner. Like many great fairy tales, "Hunting Monsters" is about awakening and growing up - opening the locked door and coming to see the truth. Rosa's secret destroys the narrator's trust in her. The narrator's relationship with Rosa is strong and full of heart; a good driving force that pushes the reader to invest emotionally in the story's final resolution. That connection between the characters, and the rift that has pulled them apart is sure to drag fans into the "Fighting Demons". I'm very much looking forward to finding out what happens next.

"Hunting Monsters" by S. L. Huang is available online from Book Smugglers Publishing.

Supplementary Materials

Renay reviews Zero Sun Game by S. L. Huang
Hunting Monsters: S. L. Huang on Inspirations & Influences


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