From the acclaimed author of Roses and Rot— a “Brothers Grimm tale for the contemporary reader” (School Library Journal, starred review)—Kat Howard’s exquisite shorter works, nominated for the World Fantasy Award, and performed on WNYC's Selected Shorts.
Kat Howard has already been called a “remarkable writer” by Neil Gaiman and her “dark and enticing” (Publishers Weekly) debut novel, Roses and Rot, was beloved by critics and fans alike.
Now, you can experience her collected shorter works, including two new stories, in A Cathedral of Myth and Bone. In these stories, equally as beguiling and spellbinding as her novels, Howard expands into the enchanted territory of myths and saints, as well as an Arthurian novella set upon a college campus, “Once, Future,” which retells the story of King Arthur—through the women’s eyes.
Captivating and engrossing, and adorned in gorgeous prose, Kat Howard’s stories are a fresh and stylish take on fantasy. “Kat Howard seems to possess a magic of her own, of making characters come alive and scenery so vivid, you forget it exists only on the page” (Anton Bogomazov, Politics and Prose).
I told him to stop doing that, after we broke up. In fact, it was one of the reasons that we broke up. I mean, being a muse is all well and good, until you actually become one.
The first time it happened, I was flattered. And it wasn’t like my normal life was so great that I was going to miss it, you know? So getting pulled into that world—a world he had written just for me, where I was the everything, the unattainable, the ideal—it was pretty powerful.
When he finished the story, and I came back to the real world, the first thing I did was screw him until my thighs ached. It was our first time together. He said it was the best sex of his life.
When I asked him if someone had ever fallen into a story that he had written before, he said not that he knew of. Oh, sure, he had based characters on people he knew, stolen little bits of their lives. A gesture, a phrase, a particular color of eye or way of walking. The petty thievery all writers commit.
I asked what he had done differently this time.
“I was falling in love with you, I guess. You were all I could think of. So when I wrote Marah, there you were in my head. Always.”
I hadn’t fallen into the story right away, and I didn’t know what happened in the parts where Marah didn’t appear. Reading the finished draft was this weird mix of déjà vu and mystery.
Apparently inspired by my real-world sexual abandon, the next thing he wrote me into was an erotic novella. Ali was a great deal more flexible than I was, both physically and in her gender preferences.
I really enjoyed that story, but one night I tried something in bed that Ali thought was fun but that he thought was beyond kinky. After that, the only sex scenes he wrote me into involved oral sex.
Men can be so predictable, even when they are literary geniuses.
Maybe especially then.
The next time he wrote me into something, I lost my job. It was a novel, what he was working on then, and when he was writing Nora, I would just disappear from my life as soon as he picked up his pen. For days, or even weeks, at a time, when the writing was going well.
He said he didn’t know what happened to me during those times. He would go to my apartment, check on things, water my plants. When he remembered. When he wasn’t so deep in the writing that nothing outside registered.
I was always in his head during those times, he said, at the edges of his thoughts. As if that should reassure me.
It happened faster. He would begin to write, and I would be in the story, and I would stay there until he was finished.
The more I lived in his writing, the less I lived in the real world, and the less I remembered what it was like to live in the real world, as a real person, as me.
When the writing was going well, I would be surrounded by the comfortable, warm feeling that someone else knew what was going on, was making all the decisions, was the safety net under the high wire. Everything was gauzy, soft focus, fuzzed at the periphery.
I could have an adventure without worrying about the consequences. After all, I was always at the edges of his thoughts.
Until the day I wasn’t. Everything froze, and I was in a cold white room, full of statues of the people I had been talking to.
I walked from person to person, attempting to start conversations, but nothing happened. Walked around the room again, looking for a way out, but there was nothing. Solid white walls, floor, ceiling. It was a large room, but I could feel the pressure of the walls against my skin.
I walked to the center of the room and sat, cross-legged, on the floor. Waiting.
Have you ever had your mind go blank? That space between one thought and the next when your brain is just white noise, when there is not one thought in your head—do you remember that feeling?
Imagine that absence extending forever. There’s no way of escaping it, because you don’t know—not don’t remember, don’t know—what you were thinking about before your brain blanked out, and so you don’t know what to do to get it started again. There’s just nothing. Silence. White.
And there’s no time. No way of telling how long you sit in that vast, claustrophobic white room, becoming increasingly less.
I never was able to figure out how long I waited there. But suddenly I was in a room I had never seen before, back in the real world, and he was there.
There were wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, and grey threading through his hair. Writer’s block, he explained to me. He had tried to write through it, work on other projects, but nothing helped. Finally, that morning, he had abandoned the novel as unworkable.
I asked if he had tried to bring me back, while he was stuck.
He hadn’t really thought of it.
That was when I broke up with him.
He had, I discovered, become quite successful while I was away. A critical darling, praised especially for the complexity, the reality, of his female characters.
Speaking of Marah in an interview, he described her as his one lost love. The interviewer found it romantic.
I found the interviewer tiresome. Being lost was not romantic at all.
Parts of me stayed lost, or got covered over by all those other women I had been for him. Sure, they were me, but they were his view of me, exaggerated, slightly shifted, truth told slant.
I would turn up a song on the radio, then remember that it was Ali who liked punk. I abandoned my favorite bakery for two weeks when I convinced myself that I had Fiona’s gluten allergy.
For three months, I thought my name was Marah.
During all of this, there were intervals of normalcy. But I still felt the tugs as he borrowed little pieces of me for his fictions. I would lose my favorite perfume, or the memory of the first time I had my heart broken. Tiny bits of myself that would slough away, painlessly. Sometimes they would return when he wrote, “The End.” More often, they did not.
I reminded him that he had promised not to write about me anymore. He assured me he hadn’t meant to. It was just bits, here and there. He’d be more careful. And really, I ought to be flattered.
But then a week of my life disappeared. I loved that short story, and Imogen was an amazing character, the kind of woman that I wished I was. That wasn’t the point.
The point was he had stolen me from myself again. I was just gone, and I didn’t know where I went. And there were more things about myself that I had forgotten. Was green really my favorite color?
I flicked on the computer, started typing madly. Everything I could remember about myself. But when I looked over the file, there were gaps that I knew I had once remembered, and duplications of events.
Panting, I stripped off my clothing and stared at myself, hoping that my body was more real than my mind. But was that scar on my knee from falling off my bike when I was twelve, or from a too-sharp rock at the beach when I was seventeen? Was that really how I waved hello? Would I cry at a time like this?
Anyone would, I supposed.
I tried to rewrite myself. I scoured boxes of faded flower petals and crumpled ticket stubs, paged obsessively through old yearbooks. Called friend after friend to play “Do you remember . . . ?”
When I remembered enough to ask. To know who my friends were.
It didn’t work. Whatever gift he had or curse that I was under that let him pull me into his stories, it was a magic too arcane for me to duplicate.
And still, the gaps in my life increased. New changes happened. I woke one morning to find my hair was white. Not like an old woman’s, but the platinum white of a rock star or some elven queen.
I didn’t dye it back.
There was a collection published of his short fiction. He appeared on “Best of” lists and was short-listed for important literary prizes.
I forgot if I took milk in my coffee.
He called, asked to see me. Told me he still loved me, was haunted by memories of my skin, my voice, my scent. I missed, I thought, those things too. So I told him yes.
It took him a moment to recognize me, he said, when I walked across the bar to meet him. Something was different. I told him I didn’t know what that might be.
He ordered for both of us. I let him. I was sure he knew what I liked.
There was a story, he explained. He thought maybe the best thing he would ever write. He could feel the electricity of it crackle across his skin, feel the words that he would write pound and echo in his brain.
He had an outline that I could look at, see what I thought. He slid a slim folder across the table.
I wondered aloud why, this time, he would ask permission. This one was longer. An epic. He wasn’t sure how long it would take him to write it. And after what had happened the last time, when I had . . . Well. He wanted to ask.
I appreciated the gesture.
I drummed my fingers across the top of the folder but did not open it.
A waiter discreetly set a martini to the right of my plate. Funny. I had thought that it was Madeleine who drank martinis. But I sipped, and closed my eyes in pleasure at the sharpness of the alcohol.
I said yes.
To one more story, this masterpiece that I could see burning in his eyes. But I had a condition.
Anything, he said. Whatever I needed.
I wanted him to leave me in the story when he was finished.
He told me he had wondered if I might ask for that. I was surprised he hadn’t known. He nodded agreement, and that was settled.
We talked idly through dinner. Occasionally his eyes would unfocus, and I could see the lines of plot being woven together behind them.
I wondered what he would name me this time, almost asked, then realized it didn’t matter. Then realized I wasn’t even sure what my own name was anymore. Grace, maybe? I thought that sounded right. Grace.
He started scribbling on the cover of the folder while we were waiting for the check. I watched him write.
“Rafe fell in love with her voice first, tumbled into it when she introduced herself as . . .”
Kat Howard’s short fiction has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award, anthologized in best of and annual best of collections, and performed on NPR. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Roses and Rot and the Alex Award–winning An Unkindness of Magicians. She is also the writer of the Books of Magic series, set in the Sandman Universe. She lives in New Hampshire, and you can find her on twitter at @KatWithSword.