Imago and Other Transformations
Erica Ruppert
Trepidatio Publishing (March 17, 2023)
Reviewed by Andrew Byers

Having had the pleasure of reviewing Ruppert’s novella Sister in Arms a couple years ago, I knew going into this new short story collection that Ruppert is a powerful and evocative wordsmith. I might compare some of her prose with that of Farah Rose Smith’s; many of the stories contained in Imago are atmospheric, intended to invoke particular emotions and attitudes rather than driving a particular plot from beginning to middle to end in a straightforward kind of way. That’s not at all to say that these stories meander or are incoherent, merely that most of these stories are not what I might describe as plot-intensive. Ruppert’s goal seems to be to suggest a kind of melancholy, a sense of loss, or sorrow, or sometimes grief for something that has been lost—a time, a place, a previous equilibrium—that is now gone and cannot be easily reacquired.

Because Imago contains twenty-one stories in all, let me focus on a handful that I found most evocative.

I would describe several of the stories in Imago as being set during quiet, slow-motion apocalypses. These aren’t fiery destructions of civilization involving world-ending asteroids, or nuclear wars, or zombie plagues. Instead, these are insidious, slow but inevitable catastrophes that depopulate the Earth and will eventually end our civilization not with a bang but with a whimper. Needless to say, that’s the perfect backdrop for Ruppert’s brand of horror. One of these stories is “Here Is Where Your Proud Waves Halt.” In this tale, the world has effectively ended, likely through some kind of blight, with those who haven’t died yet still eking out an existence in a world that is crumbling around them. Aster is one such; she sets up shop at a seashore as a kind of fortuneteller. Sylvia, a woman who desperately wants to have a baby, is one of her customers. Loss and forlorn hope loom large over this one. Another such story is “The Grave of Angels,” one of the rare stories in Imago with a male protagonist. The narrator’s dying wife Corra wants to be brought back to her family’s ancestral manor to die. What comes after Corra’s death is horrifying and fascinating and dark. Really melancholic as a tale of personal tragedy and also because the backdrop for the story, barely mentioned, is a kind of slow-motion, gentle apocalypse of an unspecified nature. “Underneath” is another such story. Here, Elena is an old woman living in a remote, postapocalyptic area after her husband Aaron has died. She’s simply trying to survive by raising her own food in her garden, where horrors grow. Really good, and understated, of course, like most of Ruppert’s fiction.

Like all the best cosmic horror, much of Ruppert’s work suggests that the nature of the universe is nowhere near as understandable and comforting—to the extent that we’re currently able to convince ourselves that the universe is both knowable and at least neutral toward humanity if not actually benign—as we have allowed ourselves to believe. When some factor changes, it throws one of Ruppert’s protagonists into turmoil, and takes the reader along for the ride. For example, in “Signals,” Estella begins to hear some mysterious, intrusive sound, perhaps the “music of the spheres” that her conspiracy theorist ex-boyfriend once hypothesized, which begins to erode her sanity and inject itself into every other aspect of her life. Really good. In “A Clockwork Muse,” Delia is an automaton, a recreation of a woman now lost tragically. Delia understands that something’s not quite right with her existence, which she comes to find unbearable. Dark and tragic. In “Chrysalis,” Sela keeps to herself and lives a private life while working in a mundane office job, taking the bus to and from work, and so forth, when several new people enter her life unexpectedly and begin to suggest that Sela and what she thinks is her normal life are not at all what she imagines. Very powerful.

Lastly, I would mention three final stories that really stood out to me; each is a little more outré than those mentioned above, but I found them remarkable, though they are all very distinct stories. In “Downstream,” Tamara once had a twin sister, Essie, attached lamprey-like to her body. Now separated from each other, they seek to reunite. Grotesque and excellent. This is as close to grossout body horror that Ruppert gets in Imago, but it demonstrates that she excels at this sub-genre too. “Strange Bodies” is set in an oceanside town with a long history of interacting with the merpeople whose bodies wash up on their beaches. Like Sisters in Arms (though not, I think, linked to that story at all), this is a story about the genealogy of a community whose roots are deeply intertwined with those who live in the sea. Chilling and excellent. And finally “Still” is set in the distant past; it is the story of a young woman who led her tribe before she was entombed as their guardian goddess, and then what came after in the long centuries that followed. Really good.

Ruppert is a skilled prose stylist who excels in quiet, understated horror that nevertheless manages to unsettle effortlessly. Her characterization is a real strength and lends a sense of verisimilitude to all her work. Imago and Other Transformations is an excellent collection, definitely recommended.

About Andrew Byers