REVIEW: “The Donner Party” by Dale Bailey

Review of Dale Bailey, “The Donner Party,” Fantasy & Science Fiction 134, 1-2 (2018): 228-256 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Standback.

“The Donner Party” is amply clear about its subject material from its title, and from its first line:

Lady Donner was in ascendance the first time Mrs. Breen tasted human flesh.

In this dark Victorian story, those at the apex of high society, at the most elevated of occasions, will eat human meat — “ensouled flesh” — and thus celebrate “the divinely ordained social order.” The horror of the story is far less in the gore of genteel cannibalism itself, although that’s definitely there too. Far more, it’s in the readiness with which Mrs. Breen, and others trying to touch that apex, are willing to accept, pursue and defend the practice — assuming themselves, of course, to be considered among the cannibals, and not the cannibalized.

This is definitely not a story for the squeamish. But if you’d like to read something that will make you squirm uncontrollably, “The Donner Party” is sharp and powerful. Its tone and characters are spot on; plausibly unconscionable, resplendent in their cruel self-aggrandizement.

The story’s conclusion is not unexpected; I don’t think it’s meant to be. Rather, it’s expertly built up to — and then served alongside a final twist of the knife. Recommended.