This story is something of a follower to the author’s previous Podcastle story “The Half Dark Promise” (episode 287), focusing on the same protagonist: a young Haitian-American girl in an alternate Chicago whose mother is a doctor specializing in steampunk medical devices and whose father is…something else. “The Half Dark Promise” was an immersive, darkly horrific tale with the sort of menace that can only be felt by a young child who knows the monsters in the dark are real. “Shadow Man, Sack Man, Half Dark, Half Light” brings in the more personal horror of family secrets and the sorts of fates that await disobedient children. The protagonist is a monster hunter–not by profession or as a hobby, but simply because monsters must be hunted to survive and protect her friends. But in the half dark as day turns to night, it can be impossible to tell who the monsters really are.
This is a story that requires you to surrender yourself to the world it’s building and wait for understanding to emerge from that half dark. I remember the first story being difficult in a good way–the way you have to work to build that picture and it’s worth it to do so. This time, having recognized the world, I was able to return easily. (And my impression is that the author is counting on return visits, so if you haven’t yet read or listened to “The Half Dark Promise”, I recommend doing so first.)
The prose is laced through with bits of Haitian Creole to good effect in the scene setting, and the cadence of the writing is yet another example of the type of story that works so well in audio. I also liked the steampunkish bits of worldbuilding: the references to the protagonist’s steam-clock heart, and how her mother came to Chicago to make clock-hearts for children stricken with polio, and how everything went so horribly wrong. Just enough bits to sketch a picture, and no more. This series of stories could be viewed either as fantasy or horror, and there are some times when I feel Podcastle is a bit too generous in embracing stories that really should be horror, but in this case I agree with the categorization because of the fiercely positive outcome.