I admit it, I am a total sucker for short stories. I love that the happily ever after between characters can blossom in only a few pages. It is almost an instant gratification that, as readers, we can read a whole love story in under an hour. However, not all short stories are created equal. The condensed format makes them very difficult to write. There is so much to pack into a few pages that a lot of the time readers can feel cheated, like we missed out on fundamental world building or character development. But every once in a while, a short story is so well crafted, so well written that we just can’t forget it. That’s the way I feel about Marjorie M. Liu’s “Six” from the 2007 anthology Holidays Are Hell.
“Six” begins in the back room massage parlor in the heart of Shanghai. Our heroine, Six, is there working undercover for Squad Twelve, an elite secret military force. She’s investigating the murder of the Foreign Minister’s wife. Unfortunately, this puts her in the middle of some seriously intense trouble — something paranormal that her training has not prepared her for.
While Six has a known criminal under surveillance, a mysterious man breaks into the room; he starts to chant and Six’s target dies in front of her. Assuming that a biological weapon has been released, Six calls for backup, but before her team can join her, the chanting resumes and she falls unconscious.
Joseph Besud never expected to find a Squad Twelve agent in his travels. He is a necromancer who resurrects the spirits of those who have been taken over by the Jiangshi, body-hopping ghosts that siphon off the life energy of the living. Joseph is sad to see that Six has unknowingly been infected by a Jiangshi and will soon turn into one of the vile creatures. He searches Six’s unconscious mind to see what kind of a person she is and discovers she is a woman of solitude, who takes pride in her duty and has an unbending sense of honor. Knowing this, he cannot leave her to her horrible fate. Joseph carries Six away hoping it is not too late to suppress the virus in her bloodstream.
When Six regains consciousness, Joseph explains the situation to her. Although Six is not a trusting person, after the things she has just seen she is willing to believe what Joseph tells her. Six is intensely terrified of becoming a monster. She has known such heartache in her short life, that the idea of becoming a bad guy who hurts others is simply intolerable to her. Thankfully, although Joseph is jaded by all he has seen and done, he is just as honorable as Six. And so Joseph is willing to risk his own life to give Six a fighting chance against the dreaded Jiangshi illness.
With so much happening, it is difficult to choose which part of this short story is the best. The dialogue is witty and fast-paced. The incredible fight scenes are described in realistic detail, making readers wish they had half the talent of ex-gymnast Six. But, perhaps the most intriguing parts of the tale is the Six’s backstory, which Liu intersperses with the novella’s action. We are given a broad overview of Six’s childhood from when she started being groomed for military service at the age of five. She grew up without family or love. This makes it heartbreaking to learn that what little happiness she has found is about to be lost if she transitions into a Jiangshi. (Thankfully, just as all hope seems lost, Joseph helps her remember her humanity. With his aid, Six learns how to feel and, perhaps, how to love.)
If you want to pick up your own copy of Liu’s new short story, you are in luck, the e-anthology Holidays Are Hell is now on sale for $1.99. Not only will you get to read “Six”, the collection also contains stories by authors Kim Harrison, Lynsay Sands and Vicki Pettersson. You can buy an e-copy of the anthology here.
Do you have a favorite short story? Let me know in the comments!