A Tunnel in the Sky

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The Molly Southbourne Novellas
by Tade Thompson

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted February 28, 2019
Addendum on February 15, 2020

1. The Murders of Molly Southbourne
2. The Survival of Molly Southbourne

Trigger warning for self-harm.

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"Every time she bleeds a murderer is born."

That blurb gave me a slightly mistaken notion of what to expect from The Murders of Molly Southbourne. I wondered, is the murderer an entity Molly creates by bleeding, or is it someone else unconnected to her? Is it something she does intentionally, or a result she cannot control? Is someone else doing this to Molly to create the murderers? Is the murderer the entity that is created, or is it Molly herself? Is it all a fever-dream fantasy or is it real? If so, how and why? My confusion also stemmed from the fact it had been nominated for three very different awards: British Fantasy, British Science Fiction, and Shirley Jackson (Horror). Turns out it is a mix of all three genres, with the SF element not being introduced until the end. The story actually begins toward the end, with a woman chained to a concrete wall in a basement or bunker. She can't recall how she came to be there, or even who she is, although she is surprised she has a few random memories. Is this Molly Southbourne, or is it the other woman who comes into the room later? The other woman starts telling her a story.

Molly Southbourne lives on a small farm in the English countryside. It's isolated, and she is home-schooled, so she has no friends, only books, and TV, and things her parents teach her. She is very young when she first learns about the danger of bleeding. A few days after an accident, after her mother had cleaned up the mess, she spies another young girl, naked, sprawled under a tree in their back yard. The girl looks exactly like Molly. She takes the girl into the house, up to her room to play. When her parents find out, they take the molly outside, and shortly after a gunshot is heard. Her mother teaches her what to do with the blood, cleaning with bleach, burning and burying any clothes and cleaning supplies afterwards. It is easy to assume they have had to do this many times before, but Molly has no memory of it. Later, her father teaches her how to skin and dismember an animal cleanly, with the least chance of mess and spilled blood. Her mother teaches her self-defense, with and without weapons. It is clear her parents know much more than they are telling, but Molly is intelligent enough to listen to their instructions and not ask too many questions. Things get more problematic when she begins menstruating. She runs away from home, but is found and returned by her father. She meets a boy, discovers sex, wants to leave the farm, all the while having to defend herself from other mollys when they appear.

It's less of a horror tale than you might assume, mainly because the narrative is dispassionate, as if told from a distance by an uninterested party. I'm still not sure how I should rate it, but it is somewhere between 3 and 4 stars. To detail either the positives or negatives would involve spoilers. Even some of my guesses might be considered spoilers by some. There are things implied about Molly's psychological outlook, or at least things I surmised from her actions. With the dangers she is well aware of, why would she intentionally cut herself? Is it because she is lonely and wants companionship? Does she think another molly might have attributes and qualities she lacks? Does she feel guilt for the many mollys she's had to kill? Does she want another molly to kill her instead? Did another molly kill her, then carry on the persona? Each reader has to decide those variables for themselves. Sometimes it is good for a story to leave you guessing, other times it is frustrating. This is a novella, just a little more than 100 pages, but I wanted more. Especially more information about Molly's mother. Did the same thing happen to her before she learned how to deal with the blood, or was she just a carrier of the condition, passed down to her daughter? Is Molly her daughter? I'm hoping the upcoming sequel is at least in part also a prequel. It comes out in July, and while this was not a totally satisfying read, it was intriguing enough to want to follow the story.


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Posted February 15, 2020
Since it is a short novella, I re-read Murders to refresh my memory, so I know The Survival of Molly Southbourne picks up immediately after the events of the previous story. The woman who continues the first-person narrative is not Molly Southbourne, but she is a molly. The real Molly, later referred to as the Prime, was taught self defense by her mother, how to kill swiftly and cleanly, how to efficiently dispose of a body. Molly has grown weary of battling her blood clones, but is eventually successful in calming one of them down enough to tell her story, to instruct this molly to carry on in her stead. Molly Prime apparently dies in a fire she has set, with the last molly set free, but not before having a phone number tattooed on her arm. The molly calls the number from a public phone booth as she watches the house burn. Mysterious men show up to help her exit the scene, protecting her from police and fire-fighters. They think she is Molly. I thought that at first too, that maybe Molly was pretending to be a molly for misdirection. If we can trust what she says, she is not Molly since her blood does not produce other mollys, but that doesn't mean other mollys don't appear.

It's natural that this molly would be paranoid, but it seems she is also psychotic, with the other mollys only in her head. Over time she recalls Molly's memories as if they were her own. She cuts herself on numerous occasions just to confirm that her blood does not produce another molly. She begins to suspect the mysterious men who helped her before are not acting in her best interest, later trying to avoid them when they ask her to come in for tests. She is also targeted by another woman, Tamara, who claims she does not mean her harm, but that notion is suspect due to many tamaras working with her, all of whom seem to want to control molly. Is there anyone molly can trust? Maybe the professor Molly met at university, and later worked with as lab assistant? That was one part of the first story I didn't mention previously, something that didn't make sense. Why would Molly's parents allow her to leave their isolated farm when the dangers were so great? There are also too many incidents that occur that should have landed Molly in jail, or a longer stint in a mental hospital, and her escapes should not have been so easy, especially when we know there are multiple government and/or secret organizations who are aware of her.

Another puzzling thing is Tamara has been able to interact peacefully with her tamaras, to train them to work with her. The mollys always attacked Molly. If their condition was the result of the same or similar experiments, why or how would one set of clones be vastly different than another? Were the mollys working from genetic memory, agressive because Molly and her parents always killed them? Can molly learn to live with other mollys, and if she's not producing any more, and Molly Prime killed all she encountered, will she get the chance to find out? At this time there is no word about another story, but I would be surprised if there isn't. I've probably revealed too many things already, but hopefully haven't spoiled too much. There are negatives, but also many positives. The pace varies at times, but the action scenes are vividly rendered. Molly, and molly's, mental state is like a fever dream, with just enough vagueness to keep you guessing. If there is another story, will Tamara be featured, or another with similar abilities? I'm still hoping for a pure prequel that gives more details on Molly's mother and the original experiments. Will we find out if there is anyone molly can trust? Can we trust molly? Many things to ponder while we wait.


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Tade Thompson


Murders won:
2018 Nommo

Finalist for:
British Fantasy
British SF
Shirley Jackson

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