I was first introduced to Maureen McHugh’s work through After the Apocalypse: Stories (2011). I just so happened to spot a review of it online – just where that was escapes me now, sadly (reading recommendations, got any?) – and, in search of new post-apocalyptic fiction (bonus points for zombies!), I snapped it up immediately. After devouring it in all of a week, I quickly tore through her novels: Nekropolis (2002), China Mountain Zhang (1997), Half the Day is Night (1996), and the epic masterpiece Mission Child (1999), which I cannot recommend highly enough. It seems only fitting that I finish off her oeuvre with Mothers & Other Monsters: Stories (2006), her first of two collections of short stories.
What with its cast of werewolves, clones, ghosts, space travelers, and genetically rejuvenated elders, Mothers & Other Monsters is an eclectic mix of fantasy and science fiction. As the title implies, motherhood is a common theme throughout – but the women featured in these stories are anything but monstrous. Herself a stepmother to a preteen boy, McHugh – whose life plans reportedly didn’t include children, at least not until Adam’s father entered the picture – regards the relationships between parents and children and generations past and present with tenderness and empathy.
Here you’ll meet a mother struggling to care for her aging mother while simultaneously guiding her rebellious daughter through her teenage years (“Oversight”); a woman who spends her life savings on an experimental Alzheimer’s treatment, hoping that it will cure her husband without erasing too much of who he is – or was, before the disease stole him from her (“Presence”); a young woman who discovers that her best friend is a werewolf (“Laika Comes Back Safe”); and a ghost who travels from her cozy corner of the afterlife to accept tribute from a distant relation (“Ancestor Money”). Aging, death, and senility are also elements shared by many of the stories – Alzheimer’s and “senility” make two appearances each – as are our all-too human struggles to overcome and defeat them (see, e.g., the thought-provoking “Interview: On Any Given Day”). It makes for a rather heartbreaking, sometimes inspiring collection – one that will dwell in your memory and heart, perhaps even staking a permanent claim there.
While it’s hard to single out any one story for special praise, it’s worth noting that Mothers & Other Monsters contains early version of two of McHugh’s novels: Mission Child (“The Cost to Be Wise”) and Nekropolis (“Nekropolis”). Each story encompasses the opening chapters of its respective book: whereas the plot of “The Cost to Be Wise” is similar to – but also significantly different from – Mission Child, that of “Nekropolis” is very nearly the same in both formats (at least judging from memory – some parts of the narration may be different, but the overall story matches up). “Nekropolis” the short story ends on a note that’s simultaneously more and less hopeful than Nekropolis the novel; “The Cost to Be Wise,” on the other hand, is much more damning in its view of the Offworlders than is Mission Child. It’s an interesting contrast, to say the least.
“The Lincoln Train” is another personal favorite. A piece of speculative fiction that explores how the Civil War might have played out had the assassination attempt on Lincoln failed, it made a previous appearance in New Skies: An Anthology of Today’s Science Fiction (2003). Mothers & Other Monsters also includes a “Reading Group Guide” with an author interview, talking points, and an autobiographical essay written by McHugh, fittingly titled “The Evil Stepmother” (though the latter feels like a bit of a cheat, since some of the sections are repeated verbatim elsewhere in the book – i.e., “Eight-Legged Story”). Readers would do well not to skip these, as they provide valuable insight into McHugh’s stories.
Fans of McHugh will adore Mothers & Other Monsters – and, if you’re not already one, Mothers & Other Monsters will make a fan out of you!
I call this series “Mags & Other Monsters.”