One common theme in art by and about members of the LGBTQ+ community is found family, where people who are not biologically related come together and form ‘families’ of their own.
It isn’t hard to see why so many are drawn to these stories: Many LGBTQ+ people do not have the best relationships with their biological families and have to look elsewhere for the love and support they need. Found family challenges the idea that blood relations are the most important and enduring ties one can have.
However, even these families are not perfect. In their debut novella “Corrupted Vessels”, Briar Ripley Page demonstrates that found families are not immune to abuse or unhealthy dynamics.
The majority of “Corrupted Vessels” is from the point of view of 15-year-old River, a transgender runaway who lives with the older, perpetually cheerful Ash in a dilapidated house without running water.
Ash is an unusual person: they claim to be able to speak to angels and that they and River embody the fire and water element respectively. The earth element comes in the form of Linden, a normal college student who is drawn to their house by the sound of River’s singing. Linden comes from privilege and is put off by their way of living — Ash and River do not wear regular clothes for one, only hand-sewn robes they never wash.
As Ash and Linden spend more time together, tensions arise within the group, culminating in a ritual that has disastrous and life-altering consequences for everyone involved.
“Corrupted Vessels” is not what I expected it to be — despite some dark elements and the talk of angels, anyone looking for a straightforward horror story or supernatural tale will be disappointed.
Page allows the reader to come to their own conclusions about the events that occur. Are there really angels and prophecies in this world, or is Ash just mentally ill? No answer is given. In fact, just when the reader is confident writing off Ash as delusional, Page complicates things by having River start hearing a voice coming from a photograph. The decision to keep things ambiguous is an interesting choice and ripe for discussion.
I also enjoyed the vivid sensory details, imagery and figurative language. The sex scenes are soaked with bodily fluids. Rotting porch steps “squelch and creek” under Linden’s shoes. A cockroach rests “in the moist cave” of a corpse’s open mouth. A decomposing body “splits open like an overripe peach.” This might not be strictly horror, but Page’s flair for the grotesque comes through nonetheless.
My biggest criticism concerns the character of Nora, Linden’s friend who anchors them in the “real world,” away from the divine ceremonies of Ash and River. She feels underdeveloped, and I wanted to know more about her.
“I appreciated this nuanced take on abuse and harm: we are all capable of hurting the ones we love, and I get tired of abusers in fiction being one-dimensional villains when people are more complicated than that. No one here is wholly good or evil. As Ash puts it when introducing themself to Linden: “We are all of us neither one thing nor the other in this house.” Though they mean it in reference to all of them being trans, it applies to more than just gender.”
This weakness is especially apparent compared to River’s characterization, which was my favorite part. When they first meet, Linden accidentally misgenders him, causing River to develop a grudge. He resents Linden for having access to testerone and resents Ash for sewing him a robe that makes him look like a girl.
Speaking from personal experience, this bitterness is common among LGBTQ+ people. Given how hard it can be to access hormones or safely be out, their feelings are understandable, if not necessarily healthy.
The need for found family comes from rejection. The ingrained fear of being alone can lead to codependency among those who have no one else to turn to, as is the case with Ash and River. Their relationship is reminiscent of a parent and a child or an older sibling and a younger one. It is also reminiscent of a cult leader and their follower.
River trusts Ash completely and does not question them. He grows increasingly jealous of the attention that Linden is getting from Ash because it threatens the one bond he has. Ash genuinely cares for River, but just as many parents are unable to accept their children’s full humanity and autonomy, Ash sees River as having been made for them and does not react well when this view is challenged.
I appreciated this nuanced take on abuse and harm: we are all capable of hurting the ones we love and I get tired of abusers in fiction being one-dimensional villains when people are more complicated than that. No one here is wholly good or evil. As Ash puts it when introducing themself to Linden: “We are all of us neither one thing nor the other in this house.” Though they mean it in reference to all of them being trans, it applies to more than just gender.
Page even offers the possibility of redemption in the end when Ash finally breaks down and admits wrongdoing. Following an unsuccessful suicide attempt, the dynamics switch: River becomes the strong, capable one who urges Ash to keep living. The two head off into the future, away from what is left of Linden and away from the lives they had before. They don’t know where they’re going, but they’re going together.
Overall, “Corrupted Vessels” is an engaging read with a lot of depth despite its short length. I read it in two sittings and am still thinking about it. Page excels at capturing the messy realities of interpersonal relationships and delving into their characters’ not-so-nice thoughts. I am looking forward to reading more from them.