The stories in this collection of dark fantasy and horror short stories grapple with the complexities of identity, racism, homophobia, immigration, oppression and patriarchy through nature, gothic hauntings, Trinidadian folklore and shape shifting. At the heart of the collection lie the questions: how do we learn to accept ourselves? How do we live in our own skin?
Content warnings: death, misogyny, domestic abuse, and body horror.
Skin Thief is a masterpiece. It is contemplative suspense and horror. Even though each story is unrelated, they are closely tied by themes of trying to find one’s place in the world. That, paired with some absolutely gorgeous writing, makes it a book I’ll recommend to anyone willing to listen.
This collection is hard for me to define. It blends contemporary fiction with the supernatural. Its stories are contemplative, quiet, and at times, surprisingly abstract. Sometimes it veers into horror, and other times it’s remarkably sweet. Palumbo blends Canadian and other Western settings and language with Trinidadian ones. One story features an exclusively merfolk cast. What ties them all together is the author herself, her beautiful prose, and her concern with self-identity.
The first story, “The Pull of the Herd,” introduces us to a shapeshifter who is living a double-life. She longs to be accepted by the shapeshifters she grew up with, and also to have a life with her human partner—all of this in a community where humans hunt or kidnap shapeshifters. It sets the tone for the stories to come all in one package, while many of the following stories will focus on one of these themes at a time.
“Her Voice, Unmasked” focuses on an automaton who’s maker pushes her impossibly hard, demanding that she sing not just technically correct but with emotion. “Tessellated” follows two domestic abuse victims as they quite literally break apart, then have to put themselves back together as they heal. “Laughter Among the Trees” shows how a traumatic event, and the guilt which follows, can make somebody lose who they are.
It’s worth mentioning that many of these stories can be found in various places online. Three are available on The Dark Magazine’s website, “Personal Rakshasi” is in a 2019 issue of Fireside Magazine, and so on. For money-conscious readers, a lot of the stories included in Skin Thief are out there for you to try before you buy.
“Kill Jar” is the only new story Suzan has added to this collection, though it was one of my favorites. It tells the story of Adelaide, who lives in seclusion with her father and a couple of maids who keep things running. We quickly see that Adelaide and her medical condition—which I won’t delve into here because spoilers—are something of a science project for her father. He’s a rather cold man, obsessed with his research, who always feels just a little bit off. Although, perhaps that’s just the perspective of a paranoid reader, who after several stories in Skin Thief, expects something to go wrong…Skin Thief is a triumph. Even if many of the stories within it can be found elsewhere, the convenience of having Suzan’s work all in one book—and the addition of “Kill Jar”—is absolutely worth picking up. Together, they invite us to consider the idea of identity, the way such a thing is questioned by others, and how we learn to accept ourselves in spite of that. Or, alternatively, what leads us to fail and become something else.