Briar Ripley Page’s novella, Corrupted Vessels, from swallow::tale press, is unconcerned with the truth. Not in the unreliable narrator sense, where we have reason to doubt the story which is relayed to us—indeed, none of the four narrators are afforded the chance to mislead us any more than they, themselves, are misled or misinformed about their own thoughts and actions—but in which ambiguities flourish at every level: supernatural, romantic, family. Even on the genre level, Corrupted Vessels situates itself in a gray area, taking just enough from horror to unsettle its otherwise literary position.
Corrupted Vessels arrays these ambiguities in a fitting material world: two trans runaways have taken up residence in a decrepit house in the middle of a wooded area in a deep southern town. Ash and River are prophet and follower. The former’s communication with angels allow them to offer River a world organized by different logics than those his parents had for him, a world with a place for him as the incarnation of the element of water. Ash, in turn, incarnates fire, and the two of them are in search of the other two elementals who are destined to join them and birth God into the world. Despite the namelessness of their relationship, the way Ash provides the framework for meaning in River’s life, uses it to guide his behavior, and also provides for River in the form of food and shelter by way of their charisma, is most reminiscent of a parent and child relationship, in which Ash also takes on the job of role model, the person who River looks up to most:
River remembered how much worse it had been for him before he joined up with Ash; the only explanation for this kind of luck was genius, or magic.
And if Ash, the genius, told River it was magic, who was he to argue?
In establishing this familial relationship, Corrupted Vessels provides a corrective to the banality of the Found Family story which pervades contemporary media. It, along with vaguely-defined Trauma, is a common defense of shallow blockbusters and children’s cartoons with adult audiences, which suggests that these stories about people who all broadly get along and hug at the end constitute an examination of chosen family. Page subverts this in two ways. First, the chosen family portrayed here is one which is created by necessity, due to abandonment or estrangement from their families of origin. This aligns it with the reason why queer people have had to assemble chosen families, historically. Second, the chosen family is still subject to the dynamics which make families of all types toxic or abusive, as well as some dynamics particular to Ash’s nameless parenthood. This ambiguity means Ash has power over River, but without the attendant responsibility of care that comes with named parenthood. So Ash can circumscribe River’s behavior by saying that the angels want him to wear his ceremonial robe, or that the Angels have forbidden picture-taking due to the camera’s essence-stealing nature, but River has no recourse to contest these decisions in even the limited way children push back against their parents. Indeed, Page draws a direct parallel between the two:
River wished that he understood the world the way Ash understood it. Barring that, he wished he could always approach their rituals with the awe he knew they deserved.
But he couldn’t, any more than he’d always been able to absorb the pastor’s booming sin-and-damnation oratory when his parents had dragged him to church as a child. Of course, the pastor had probably been full of shit and Ash was probably right about everything. River no longer cared about his secret irreverence towards Jesus and Satan, but his conscience spasmed with guilt that he had to work as hard as he did to look and behave in a spiritually acceptable manner for Ash.
Further cementing its stake in ambiguity, Corrupted Vessels gives us reason to doubt that Ash’s prophecy is entirely the product of mental illness, as we might initially conclude. After a hallucinogenic ceremony gone terribly wrong, put together while Ash is afraid that they are about to lose their new sexual partner/earth incarnation Linden, they lose access to the angels. Nora is guided into the house by a deadly accurate dream, and River gains a voice advising him after Ash loses theirs. So too does it focus on romantic ambiguity, when Nora’s professed desire not to be in a relationship clashes with how she acts toward Linden, and the effects of that (Linden’s tryst with Ash, Nora’s urgent pursuit of Linden) as well as Nora’s relentless attempts to manage the interpersonal drama which can result from more familiar configurations of chosen family, and more conventional ambiguities in which something can be lost but never named.
While all four major characters get a turn narrating, the majority of the narration belongs to River and Linden, who are driven almost entirely by unknowns. For River’s part, he is plagued by doubts of his own fitness as a part of Ash’s vision of the world, misgivings and jealousies about his own body with respect to Linden’s and how it may affect the way Ash sees him, while Linden is drawn into their world by a sudden lust they can’t explain. The common thread which runs through these four narrations is how much we can’t know about other people, and how this opacity is a breeding ground for fear.
Corrupted Vessels, as a fundamentally queer story, is much more than the varied genders and sexualities of its cast, because it aligns with the promise of a particular approach to queerness: what things are called is not important, because labels are, at best, approximations. What matters instead is materiality, what happens, what people feel, how they act toward each other, and what they do, whether or not it’s motivated by a belief that’s verifiably true. As Ash and River leave town, their squat house consumed by fire, nothing has changed in name about their relationship. However, with guiding voice and boundless charisma now split between the two of them, they are no longer parent and child, but siblings, and that’s a more significant change to River’s world than any name.
Corrupted Vessels, by Briar Ripley Page. swallow::tale press, September 2021. 167 pages. $13.00, paper.
June Martin lives in Pittsburgh, PA, where she writes bizarre stories and draws comics. Follow her work at theworldsgreatestwriter.com.