“…in my stories, transformation, while messy and painful, is also a process of liberation.”
With this framing in mind, welcome to Skin Thief: Stories, a collection of weird fiction from Suzan Palumbo and Neon Hemlock Press. Fresh on the market this October, it’s a perfect gateway into #spookyseason, bridging summer’s seductive languor and lethal heat with autumn’s ever-encroaching press of death, memory, and the past.
From fairy tales reminiscent of both Nathaniel Hawthorne and vishakanyas to operatic automatons and psychological demons, there’s a story in Skin Thief for just about every stripe of SFF reader. Vivid images leap out: a mother’s jigsaw skin as metaphor for the puzzle of our parents; a burning copy of The Count of Monte Cristo; a snake sunning itself on a gravestone. Sharp, swift interludes like “Personal Rakshasi” and “Tessellated” hone Palumbo’s fine ear for character work, while longer pieces “Laughter Among the Trees” and “Kill Jar” have space to develop a haunting relationship between protagonists, their places, and their pasts. The uneasy tension and rueful love Palumbo’s marginalized characters feel for their myths of origin and their relics of home aligns with recent film efforts like Huesera: The Bone Woman, Good Madam, and even Prey.
The collection’s first story bestows its name and in some ways, structures the entire body of work. Although the eponymous bandits are the story’s villains, lending their name to the collection prompts the audience to consider what it means to be a skin thief. How often does a majority culture steal the topmost layer of cultures it’s already subjugated? And again, how often does a majority culture foist new skins upon first contact, supplanting unfamiliar norms and ways of being? And again, what fruitful realities grow from violent colonialism, and what new futures are created by peoples whose pasts are continually re-discovered, re-interpreted, re-born?
“Skin Thief” the story resists ending on a conciliatory note, instead taking the secret third path between assimilation and nativity. In its wake, the remainder of the collection opens like a puzzle box. Bearing an evocative cover by Mia Minnis that highlights the richly-textured interior and an introduction by spec-fic luminary A.C. Wise, Skin Thief is a fully-fledged effort on the parts of both its author and its publishing team.
Below, read some of Suzan’s thoughts on Skin Thief, as well as creative inspiration and what’s up next!
Dee Holloway: Hello, Suzan, and thank you for chatting with DIS/MEMBER! Can you give us a brief background on you, your writing, and what led to the creation of Skin Thief?
Suzan Palumbo: Thank you very much for inviting me to chat! I’m a Trinidadian-Canadian speculative fiction writer. I was born in Trinidad and Tobago and grew up in Toronto, Canada. Both my short stories, “Laughter Among the Trees” and “Douen,” published in The Dark, were nominated for the Nebula Award. “Douen” was also nominated for the Aurora Award in Canada and is currently nominated for a World Fantasy Award. I like gardening, the forest, music and all things goth, and those interests appear in my writing along with a lot of Caribbean culture.
Around 2019, I realized that I had written several stories that were about queer women of color who were shapeshifters. It was a funny realization because I hadn’t set out to write that body of work purposefully. It was a “boy you must have some unresolved issues you’re working out through art” moment. After that, I kept writing what I was interested in, with the idea of eventually putting a collection together sometime in the future. By 2021, I felt I had enough stories to do that in a way that felt cohesive, weighty, and multifaceted. Those stories became Skin Thief: Stories, which is a collection of dark fantasy and horror stories that feature characters grappling with the complexities of who they are, in worlds where they don’t belong, and the heartbreaks and horror they encounter along the way.
DH: Skin Thief collects previously-published stories with a new story, and according to the author’s note, forms a sort of narrative arc all its own. Was assembling the table of contents challenging? Can you speak on this arc?
SP: I hadn’t considered how I was going to order the stories while I was writing them. When I sat down to think about sequence, the general advice I got was to order the stories chronologically or to group them by theme. As I was reading the work over, I realized that my writing had gone through a transformation. My earlier stories featured more Canadian/Western-like settings and were written in Canadian English. As time progressed, the work became more Trinidadian-centered and I’d started to write in dialect more frequently.
I’ve struggled with many aspects of who I am my whole life. I was born in Trinidad and grew up in Canada. I fit in both places and cultures but I am neither wholly one or the other. I code-switch from Standard Canadian English to Trinidadian English constantly and my writing reflects that liminal state of being. When I stood back and looked at the collection as a whole, a natural arc emerged that mimicked the transformative themes in the individual stories themselves. The book begins in a North American forest and ends in a Trinidadian one. It brings together the stories in a cohesive way and I think it’s emblematic of my internal quest to understand who I am as a person, which is fitting because it is an incredibly personal book.
DH: A thread of transformation runs through the stories in Skin Thief. In much of horror media, bodily transformation is the site of terror, dread, and abjection. How do your stories embrace this genre norm, or subvert it?
SP: I hope the stories are doing both? Embracing and yet subverting those genre norms at the same time. I love your use of the word abjection in this question. I’ve always closely identified with the “monster” figure in horror–the figure who represents the abject, the Other, or what society tells us we’re supposed to be repulsed by. I’m from several demographics that until recently have been largely Othered in horror media. I’m a woman of color, an immigrant, and queer among many other things. For much of my life I’ve had to censor, edit, or pretend to be someone I was not because of who I was. Who I am, for many people, is the abject. I am monstrous and undesirable. I am unacceptable. And so, in my stories, transformation, while messy and painful, is also a process of liberation. Yes, it can be confusing but it is also incredibly freeing to be who you are. To say, I’m not going to follow your arbitrary rules of what is acceptable and who is acceptable because those margins are so thin.
The truly monstrous act, in my opinion, has been the push to force people into conformity and to inculcate within them a profound sense of self-hate–forcing them to wear a skin or a mask over things that are integral parts of who they are, such as their heritage or culture or their orientation. The transformations in my book center people who have been made to feel monstrous and hopefully the stories can give readers comfort in knowing they are not alone if they’ve experienced similar circumstances.
DH: Do you have a favorite or stand-out horror book or movie from the past five years? What about a classic you return to, or something that continues to influence your work?
SP: There are several movies I’ve loved over the past five years. I enjoyed Malignant because it was completely unpredictable and it was able to weave together seemingly disparate tropes and tones together… and it worked! Ready or Not is also one of my favourite comfort movies. It’s black humour violence, and smashing together of a Clue-like premise with the Final Girl trope was just perfection for me. It was also filmed in Casa Loma in Toronto. It’s fun to see a landmark I know so well in a movie that I love.
My favourite book as a teenager was Jane Eyre. I haven’t reread it in some time but it had a profound influence on my tastes. It was the first Gothic romance I’d read and I’ve been in love with Gothic romances ever since. I’m currently writing a Gothic romance/horror novel set in the Edwardian era and I am very much drawing from the dynamics and atmosphere I enjoyed so much in Jane Eyre as inspiration.
DH: What’s approaching on the horizon in your publishing life?
SP: I have a novella out next year from ECW Press called Countess. Countess is a queer Caribbean Count of Monte Cristo retelling in space! It’s a bit of a departure from my usual fare in that it is a space opera, but it’s still very much my goth style in many ways. I will also have several short stories out in anthologies. The two I’ll mention here are “Jumbie Closet,” in The Crawling Moon from Neon Hemlock, edited by dave ring, and “Good Company,” which will be in the Why Didn’t You Just Leave anthology from Cursed Morsels, edited by Nadia Bulkin and Julia Rios.
Our thanks to Suzan for her insights, and to Neon Hemlock for an advance review copy of Skin Thief. Palumbo’s collection is out now and available in your format of choice from Neon Hemlock’s shop or your favorite bookseller. Happy reading, ghouls!