Get lost in the swampland in this short novella exploring grief, climate change anxiety, colonization, and mental health.
Note: Tiffany Morris includes the following content warnings at the beginning of the novella: parental death, suicidal ideation, animal death/gore, explicit sex.
Tiffany Morris’s eco-horror novella Green Fuse Burning keeps a tight focus on place, a large pond, while exploring major issues from grief, PTSD, climate change, colonization, and more. Rita Francis is a Mi’kmaw artist working in landscaping paintings. She goes on a week-long residency paid for by a grant that her white girlfriend, Molly, applied for in her name in hopes of igniting Rita’s artistic spark again. The cabin is on the shore of an isolated pond, and Rita goes early in the season since the warming climate has made the summers too hot and the winters shorter.
The novella opens with Rita’s first night at the cabin when she’s woken up by what sounds like people dragging a body to the pond. She tries to watch through the window but decides not to go outside. Since she hardly has any cellphone signal at the isolated cabin, she resigns herself that there’s nothing she can do, and she’s not entirely sure what she might have seen was real. She reassures herself: “She’d sleepwalked as a kid, hallucinated all manner of things, found herself waking up on the porch some mornings with muddy feet and the imprint of grass on her arms, impressions of an unknown hour” (13). When she goes into town the next day to ask around, she’s met with the typical rude locals suspect of anyone new, particularly an Indigenous woman.
Rita only has a week at the pond to work on her paintings. Even if the pond seems to have some odd flora and fauna—including some loud and bloody crows—that’s no reason to run away and possibly strain her relationship with her girlfriend even further. But the longer she stays at the pond, the more things unravel. Her girlfriend leaves her a cryptic voicemail, her paintings are oozing, her will to live is fading, and there may or may not be something coming for her from the swamp.
This novella tackles a lot of themes in a tightly plotted story. One of my favorite parts was the meditation on what it means to be an artist. Rita’s livelihood influences her reaction to the weirdness of the pond as she processes it through her paintings. Beyond that, art influences this book, from the great cover, to the inside illustrations. Importantly, the story is structured as if the reader is walking through a gallery of Rita’s work, reading the descriptions of each painting. The following section of the story features some of the inspiration from that painting, and they grow weirder as Rita spirals into the swamp. I loved how the voice of the gallery descriptions differed from the voice of Rita and gave the reader such lines as: “In these paintings we see the murky, urgent depths of a woman’s spiritual journey into the swamplands of uncertainty” (7). Through these paintings and descriptions of Rita’s artistic process, Morris captures one branch of eco-anxiety not depicted as often as a general fear of the changing climate. For artists who work intimately with the land, that change is explored through art, which means a much more intense focus. It’s impossible for the artist to look away from the climate crisis if their chosen focus is landscape, such as Rita.
While this novella is a fecund meditation on grief and its branching impacts, one of my favorite aspects was the descriptions throughout. Morris’s title comes from the Dylan Thomas poem “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” Thomas’s body of work is full of lush, wordy poems, so for Morris’s to draw inspiration from his work—and to quote from the titular poem as an epigraph to the novella—promises the reader an equally lush reading experience. She absolutely delivers, and I enjoyed the natural descriptions throughout, especially as they become weirder and more horrific. One of my favorites opens the second chapter: “As Rita made her way through the fog-wreathed world of the pond loop, she admired the vibrant greens around her with a morbid thrill. […] It invaded, pillaged, choked out everything else that breathed, leaving only a teeming verdant landscape in its wake” (31). Morris’s poetic power of description adds depth to the relatively simple—but effective—plot and makes for a rich reading experience.
Without dipping into spoilers, the swampy weirdness comes fast and quick. While a more common critique of books is that the middle lagged, in this novella, I wish we had lingered in the middle and let the weirdness build a little more slowly. Morris tackles so many themes—which connect back to the central grief of the death of Rita’s father—but I wish more of these paths could have been explored more fully with a slightly longer novella. Then again, that’s the struggle with the novella form—it’s a snapshot in many ways. Much as Rita’s paintings cannot capture everything about the pond, I found myself wanting to spend a bit more time there in the middle of this novella.
In her debut novella, Tiffany Morris comes out swinging. This short, tightly plotted novella lives up to the linguistic delight of Dylan Thomas’s work, which is referenced in the title Green Fuse Burning. It also brought to mind Annie Dillard’s foundational work Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) with the connections to animals that don’t quite behave as we would expect. Morris’s meditation on grief, climate change, colonization, art, family, and more reminds the reader of the interconnectedness of life—even after death. In that realization is where I find the power and importance of eco-horror. This subgenre, much like horror in general, offers a way to overcome the fear of climate change and move toward an acceptance of this grotesquely changing world. With this acceptance opens up the possibility to live a fuller life, to keep living, even in the face of terrible loss.
Reference: Morris, Tiffany. Green Fuse Burning [Stelliform Press, 2023]
POSTED BY: Phoebe Wagner is an author, editor, and academic writing and living at the intersection of speculative fiction and climate change.