7 Stories About Mermaids, Selkies, and Sea-Wolves
Aimee Ogden, author of "Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters," recommends short stories and novellas about mythical sea creatures
The final frontier is an epithet famously attached to outer space. Don’t strap on a spacesuit just yet, though: closer to hand, our home planet remains plush with underexplored terrain (or the aquatic equivalent thereof). The ocean yields newly-discovered species every year, such as 2019’s glow-in-the-dark pocket shark and 2020’s adorable entry to the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual, a “gelatinous blob” ctenophore; not to mention new appreciation for creatures like the poor misunderstood blobfish.
Of course, even as we eagerly rifle their pockets for fascinating new species, the world’s waters still maintain plenty of mystery. From the strange sound known as “the Bloop” to phenomena like phantom islands, to disappeared ships and submarines, to the sheer incomprehensible strength of a storm at sea, the ocean can be a strange and dangerous place–the perfect setting for myths and stories across the ages and around the world. Between its beauty and its innate unknowability, the deep waters of home offer fertile ground for many writers to sow the seeds of imagination.
In my book Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters, I sought to riff on the classic notes of The Little Mermaid by giving my genetically engineered “mermaid” a whole new sea to explore: the depths of space. Perhaps by the time humans have colonized worlds like hers, space really will be a true final frontier.
The Deep by Rivers Solomon
The sea can be beautiful, but it’s dangerous first. In Solomon’s novella, we get the accounting of that power as it is reclaimed by the birthright of the descendants of African women thrown from slave ships to drown. Like Solomon’s other work, this is characteristically intense, a world forcefully drawn in shades of deep blue.
Seonag and the Seawolves by M. Evan MacGriogair
The sea is full of strange creatures. MacGriogair evokes the lovely sparseness of the Hebrides with each carefully chosen word. Seonag and the Seawolves offers a character who, finding little kinship in her home village, seeks what may be found in the strangeness of the sea instead.
“Auger” in Luna Station Quarterly by Sarah Pauling
The sea is a dangerous place, of course, as are many of the things that dwell within it. Sometimes, though, human beings are the ones to be afraid of. In showing the arrival of a visiting mermaid—or what appears to be one—Pauling deftly constructs the sharp, salt-air atmosphere of a seaside town whose men are mostly destined for sailing-ships, and pokes holes in the tender places where the fabric of this life has worn thin.
“Sealskin” in Zooscape by L Chan
Short and poignant, this is a selkie story turned inside out in a fairly literal fashion. The language is both beautiful and violent, like a storm seen from a safe distance; this is a story you can’t help but feel in your bones.
“The Price of Knives” in The Dark by Ruoxi Chen
What’s a list of sea creatures without a mermaid story? The ending of The Little Mermaid, in both its Disneyfied incarnation and Anderson’s original fairy tale, can ring unsatisfactory, as the titular mermaid racks up sacrifice after sacrifice for her human love. In this story, Chen weds the detail of the mermaid’s every painful step to the practice of footbinding and exacts the denouement’s satisfying price.
“Selkie Stories Are for Losers” in Strange Horizons by Sofia Samatar
Okay, you probably don’t need me to tell you to read Sofia Samatar, but just in case, this is as good a place to start as any. Selkie stories are so often tales of love and loss, and this one is too, but it is a different sort of a love and a different sort of loss; bittersweet and beautiful in Samatar’s characteristic way with words.
“The Fisher Queen” in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction by Alyssa Wong; reprinted in audio in PseudoPod
“My mother was a fish,” this story begins; mermaids are merely fish, not people, so the story avers; mermaids are even sold at the fish market. The narrator of this chilling but gorgeous story confronts the tangled nets of familial relationships and social strictures that has been woven around her for her whole life.