Gateways: “A Most Proper Communication Between a Lady Author and Her Editor, Alt-1871” by Leigh Hellman read by John Weagly



Content Note, please be aware that this story is of a frank, sexual nature and may not be suitable for all audiences.

TRANSCRIPT: This story is written by Leigh Hellman. Leigh is a queer writer, originally from the western suburbs of Chicago, and a graduate of the MA Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. After gaining the ever-lucrative BA in English, they spent five years living and teaching in South Korea before returning to their native Midwest.

Leigh’s short fiction and creative nonfiction work has been featured in Hippocampus Magazine, VIDA Review, and Fulbright Korea Infusion Magazine. Their critical and journalistic work has been featured in the American Book Review, the Gwangju News magazine, and the Windy City Times.

Their debut book, Orbit, is a new adult speculative fiction novel available through Snowy Wings Publishing. They also have a historical fantasy piece included in the Snowy Wings Publishing anthology Magic at Midnight, and their short fiction piece “the circle of least confusion” was previously featured in the Gateways series.

Leigh is a strong advocate for full-day breakfast menus, all varieties of dark chocolate, building a wardrobe based primarily on bad puns, and bathing in the tears of their enemies. This is “A Most Proper Communication Between a Lady Author and Her Editor, Alt-1871”

Dear Mr. Egerton—

I thank you for taking the time to compose your thoughts on my manuscript so thoroughly, and for sending your response within the week. As you know, my brother and I rely upon the commissions from my scribblings to maintain our income in the city, and your consideration of the perils in delaying these publications is appreciated. To the most pressing matter raised by your letter—the question of genre—I cannot help

but feel that your modesty is strangely misplaced. You have published several volumes of similar content within this past year alone, and have impressed upon me on numerous occasions the significance of market value over critical quality in our field of popular stories. If it is a concern over my reputation, this collection can be published anonymously or under a pseudonym that differs substantially from my current choice. Having read the work of my peers, I do not find this piece to be by any measure lewder or more morally degrading, and Percy does not believe it to be more susceptible to legal action by way of our generous obscenity laws. (My brother is, as you know, a senior apprentice at the firm of Knuckleby & Doss and well-versed in these sorts of cases.)

As to your secondary point, I must argue a case here for economic pragmatism. The market for readership, as you so often tell me, is quite narrowly confined in its current permutation and I feel that you ought to be amenable to the prospect of a wider audience for

sales. It is true that these beings do not share all of the humanistic attributes of our own species, but their integration into our society is an undeniable reality and there exists a mutual curiosity between us and them which lends itself naturally to the exploration of our interactions in these creative realms. Was it not you who told Percy of the stage rendition of Doctor Faustus featuring a cast comprised entirely of these beings? I heard that the production was a prodigious success, with mixed crowds composed of equal parts them and us, and that the theaters are now clamoring for new projects to satisfy the public demand. Surely you must see the benefit of such mass appeal and will support me by undertaking the task of publishing this manuscript—the first of its kind!—for broad consumption.

Regarding your other concerns, these—I think you must allow—are matters of preference more than strict fact. It is a simple narrative, I admit, but one which has classically delighted readers in its many iterations. The choice of a young, innocent human heroine is—to me—an obvious one (and indeed, I do not think that you had any notes on that particular point). The persistent popularity of the gothic story makes it the natural selection for my framework here, a crepe mourning veil which I have draped liberally over this tale. (This type of metaphor is a celebrated convention of the genre, though I know that you do not approve of fussy and overwrought prose as a general rule.)

The heroine, who is of course tragically orphaned from a young age and raised in draconian conditions under the oppressive shadow of her widowed uncle, will appeal to female readers especially with her humble persistence and determination to make her own way in the world. In terms of the villain—you expressed alarm at him also being human, but I should think that it would be far more troubling to make the villain instead a being. What must our readers—human and being alike—glean from this work if the vilest role is relegated to a creature for whom suspicion and apprehension already mar their daily existence? This is no puritanical parable, nor should we wish it to be, lest we risk igniting a worse sort of public outrage than merely one of moral scandal.

There are many men in my book, and only a few are ill examples of the lot. But there is only one being, and I will not compromise the core of their character in such a manner.

Now as for the intimate scenes—I understand your trepidation that there are too many and that they are too explicit in their descriptions, but I again must implore you to consider the genre that this book would be an entry in and perhaps to compare the levels of quantity and content to the other works currently available in your catalogue. In fact, when I was on the high street this very week I caught sight of The Lusty Mummer displayed prominently in the bookshop front! Surely my tale must seem wholly virginal when read alongside Mr. Cleland’s contemporaries.

I will concede that some small edits may be advisable, particularly in the vocabulary of anatomy, but I will defend the other critiques as authorial entitlements. Your notes on two passages in particular I must address, as I feel they are demonstrative of the literary tone for which I am valiantly fighting to retain.

“Frances found herself trembling—whether from her thin cotton shift or the sudden chill in the air, she did not know. The door, which she had locked by her own hand, creaked on its hinges as though it had breath of its own. Were she under the thick-quilted covers and drifting

through the fog of sleep as she ought to have been, this could have been overlooked as a waking dream or dismissed entirely as a surprisingly strong draft. But she lay awake still—atop her mussed sheets and with her candle burning down to the wick—with her fingers stroking softly at her nethermouth. A strange sensation was building within her, one of half-bliss and half-terror, that seemed to her to beckon with it some impending danger. It was as though she were walking towards the cliff’s edge as it whispered out for her from its dark abyss, as though the locked door were willing its mechanisms to unlatch and swallow her out into whatever pulsed behind it.” (Your notes here mark concern for both audience confusion between what is real and what is imagined, and the portrayal of—as you phrase it—“feminine self-pollution”.)

To the point of confusion: I admit that I cannot muster much sympathy for a hypothetical reader who cannot parse such blunt symbolism. Should such a reader exist—who lacks the critical faculties to decipher popular prose but still insists on purchasing the volume—I believe that the financial interests (which must be for you, as my publisher, of primary importance) are rendered moot.

Regarding your second note: I do wonder at the implications of this concern, as I counted no less than 13 instances of “masculine self-pollution” in A Seaman’s Jaunty Journey (which you have labeled in genre as an adventurer’s tale). That my heroine should develop into a woman of her own self-determination is the narrative’s course, and it is only logical that her determination would include her body and pleasure. I hope that I do not shock you, Mr. Egerton, when I tell you that women are no less fascinated by our bodies and their capacities than men are by yours. To deny this characteristic would be to undermine the endeavor of this work.

The second passage—which you noted for its “crass indecency”—is as follows: 

“The being stood a full foot taller than her at its height, but now in this state seemed to curve within itself and form an unnatural angle so that its head could bend to meet hers. Its skin—which had appeared sheer as silk just a moment before—shivered and peeled back to reveal rows of iridescent scales. Its eyes—once small and dark—now blinked wide and gold as the summer sun. Its hands were cold and smooth, trailing from her waist down to the hem of her skirt before pressing beneath. She could feel something else—slick and tight as tendrils—curling up her legs and gently parting her thighs, as the being’s delight swelled bulbous and spiny before her.”

Herein you may see how I struggled to describe with both accuracy and aesthetic appeal the anatomy of the being, and if you can relate some more pleasing terms I will gladly consider them. But if you take issue with the encounter itself—as I believe you must—I can only remind you of the multitude of encounters that have been recounted in the novels of my peers, many in far more extreme and dubious scenarios. Is the mutual, consenting pleasure of our heroine and her being-lover so much more alarming than the aggressive, fearful submissions of the caricatured women to your other heroes? Is this not an opportunity for you to promote both progress and profit?

I trust that my appeals have been received in good faith and with an open conscience, and that you will once more consider thoughtfully the merits to publishing Cold Blood Runs Warm for this new quarter.

Percy sends his love—

Your faithful literary servant,

A.J.

John Weagly has been heard as the voice of HarperCollins/ HarperKids Publishers, Wendella Sightseeing and on multiple podcasts including High Country Drama and Lumpy & Sasquatch. Some of his favorite stage roles include Stefano in THE TEMPEST, Brother Matthew in MONASTERIES, Curley in OF MICE AND MEN, Marlowe in FORGET HIM and touring with Authorized Personnel: A Comedy & Improv Team.  He can be heard in the upcoming animated film WOULD YOU RATHER I WAS DEAD?


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