Games With Ghouls: A Review of “Skullpocket”

Earlier this week io9 shared a copy of a short story from the newly released anthology The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015. That story was “Skullpocket“, by Nathan Ballingrud, a fantasy story set in an alternate world where ghouls and humans live together, at least in the town where the tale takes place. If the quality of this story is any indication, then this anthology is definitely worth picking up.

Ballingrud shows some amazing writing chops in this story, weaving together a tale from three different threads that illustrates the history of his fictional town Hob’s Landing. There’s the past history of the narrator as he remembers his youth and the way that the ghoul religion and culture impacted it. There’s the tale of the town’s patriarch, a ghoul named Jonathan Wormcake (or The Gentleman Corpse), who was the one who brought ghouls and other monsters into Hob’s Landing and eventually came to be its figurehead and leader. And this tale, the history of Hob’s Landing and Wormcake, is told in the present by a severed head named Uncle Digby while Wormcake and the narrator listen and discuss or remember their pasts. Ballingrud is able to seamlessly juggle all of these different timelines, allowing them to intersect in emotional and revealing ways as they unfold.

What I really love most about this story is the world building. This is certainly one of the greatest examples of how great world building can be done and showcased in a short story. So much of the culture and religion of the ghouls is fleshed out over the course of the narrative, and we get to see how it impacts the characters. This story stands alone wonderfully, and I don’t think that it needs to be expanded on, but at the same time I think that there’s enough going on in the setting that I wouldn’t be surprised if Ballingrud wrote a longer piece set in Hob’s Landing.

I highly recommend that you check out this story (linked in the opening paragraph). It’s on the longer side for a short story, but it’s still a relatively quick read and definitely worth your time. I’d especially recommend it for any aspiring fantasy authors; I think it’s a great showcase of exactly how much can be accomplished in a great short story.

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