Review: Hunting Monsters by S. L. Huang

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My mother taught me to shoot, but it was Auntie Rosa who bought me my first rifle. It was long and sleek and shiny, varnished wood and brass and just my size. I fell in love at first sight.

“Isn’t she a trifle young for a firearm?” said my mother.

“Too young? Ha. Seven is almost too old,” said Auntie Rosa. She reached down and ruffled my hair as I ran my fingers along the stock over and over again, marveling at the living smoothness of the wood. “Happy birthday, child. Careful not to shoot any grundwirgen.” — [X]

What you see above is the very first part of S. L. Huang’s Hunting Monsters. A short story, published by The Book Smugglers in 2014, it came The Book Wars’ attention thanks to The Cover Wars. I took Retellings month as the sorely needed opportunity to explore this story and I’m so glad I did. I was utterly won over by the fact that right off the bat, we are presented with three female characters, all of whom seem to be rather self-sufficient. The fact that the protagonist and narrator says the words “I fell in love at first sight” to refer to a rifle, is the cherry on top of this enticing sundae. Or cake. I like cake better. It has layers.

The core of the story (the base layer, if you will) deals with the grundwirgen, creatures that can transform from beast to human, and how the killing of one counts as murder. Yes, murder, even if they were killed by accident on a hunting trip. When the protagonist’s mother is arrested for allegedly killing a particular grundwirgen, the girl– Xiao Hong– decides to investigate her mother’s past. As the story moves along, strange, unfortunate secrets begin to be revealed. Xiao Hong learns of the life her mother once had, a great beauty in the eyes of a grundwirgen who had been cursed to remain a beast– cursed until he found someone to love him as he truly was. We start to see that maybe no one in this story is really innocent …

Huang does a rather wonderful job of taking elements from Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood, and a small bit of Bluebeard to weave (or bake, if we’re to continue the cake metaphor) this interesting, poetic family drama. The relationship between these three ladies, especially, is excellently done and with so few words. As a sort-of familial unit, we get to see the women be hunters, providers, as well as caregivers. We get to see Xiao Hong following slowly in their footsteps. And yet, they aren’t all a sea of similar looking female characters. One detail that I absolutely loved is the hint that not every mother is the same, or has the instinct for nurturing or parenting. Very early on in the story we get some insight into Xiao Hong’s relationship with her mother:

Maybe it wasn’t that my mother didn’t know how to express love, but that she didn’t know how to interact with a child …

And yet, seeing them having to interact, seeing how much they yearn for each other’s company, we know that, while it is an atypical bond, it is still a strong one. Little details like this one enchanted me. (One detail crossed over with my own WIP and I did a little dance because, I mean, it’s nice to know you aren’t the only one who thinks this way.)

As retellings go, I do think this one is very well done. There is a small quibble I have regarding the use of the phrase “I didn’t want to understand”– you’ll see what I mean when you read it– in that, editing that phrase out would have made the short story entirely perfect. But, as I said, that’s just one small quibble. Totally worth eating reading.

S. L. Huang’s second short story with The Book Smugglers– Fighting Demons recently came out. I most certainly will be talking about it next week. 🙂