The Inner City is a collection of short fiction by O. Henry Award-winning author Karen Heuler. The cover (a ghostly image of a hand reaching down towards a luminous fish) is apt in several ways. Not only do fish feature prominently as a recurring motif in the collection, but the fifteen short stories themselves have a kind of alien, underwater feel to them: a conscious strangeness that doesn’t seem to belong in the above-the-surface world.
Heuler’s work shifts nimbly between several genres. There’s science fiction, slipstream, hints of magical realism, as well as grimy urban fairytales and flashes of surreal humour. The main unifying factor is a cheerful disregard for normality. The stories of The Inner City are gloriously weird.
Among the strongest pieces are the titular “The Inner City” and “Down On The Farm”. The first follows the narrator Lena as, driven by curiosity, she infiltrates a mysterious company that appears to have sprung up out of nowhere, and discovers behind the facade an earth-shattering secret. “Down On The Farm” is a more sci-fi tale, which takes place on a “farm” where mutant creatures (including semi-human servants) are bred to order. The concept is fantastic, but Heuler doesn’t let it overwhelm the story or the characters. We see the farm through the eyes of innocent hybrid Tercepia, and eager-yet-slimy buyer Portafack.
Both of these stories (and many others in the collection) introduce a balanced and well-realised world that drew me in completely from start to finish. In fact, I was disappointed when each story finally came to an end; the ideas are so fantastic and the writing to compelling that I wanted these short pieces to carry on and on, and become full novels.
Even the weaker stories in The Inner City still spring from unique and brilliant ideas. “After Images” chronicles the exploits of a somewhat-philosophical rogue newscaster, who insists (despite his boss’s rising temper) on carrying out a series of absurd polls on his audience. “Beds” takes place in a hospital ward where, every night, one more patient is wheeled away to an unknown and frightening fate. The writing in these stories is still as strong and engaging as ever. Their only weakness is that, after the initial idea wears thin, they don’t appear to know how to end, and so simply fizzle out.
As usual for boutique publisher ChiZine, the book itself is a beautifully-produced volume, with a design aesthetic that lends itself well to the off-kilter stories within. The publisher is one of few who seem to have mastered the art of producing beautiful eBook versions as well as print.
This is the first time I’ve encountered Heuler’s work, but The Inner City left me breathless, and eager to seek out more of her writing. If you want just a taste, here’s a link to one of her stories online. If you enjoy it as much as I do, then I strongly suggest you pick up The Inner City from ChiZine.
Christopher Frost is a writer from the North of England. He works as a copywriter for a charity, and in his spare time writes book reviews.