“The Belonging Kind” is a short story by Nebula Award-winning author William Gibson and Bram Stoker Award-winning author John Shirley that was originally published in 1981 in the horror anthology Shadows 4.
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The Story: What It Takes To Belong
Michael Coretti is a sociology professor who finds himself drawn to an unusual woman he observes in a bar. Smitten with her, he finds that she has a very inhuman ability to shapeshift, changing her hair, clothes, and face by literally shedding her skin. She does not “carry” money so much as produce it from folds inside her skin and as far as Coretti can tell, she lives entirely on alcohol of every variety (hence she can be found at every bar imaginable). Coretti becomes obsessed with this woman to the point that he costs him his job. His journey culminates in two important discoveries: that this woman is not the only one of her “kind” and that Coretti has more in common with them than he ever imagined…
The Cast: You’ll Find Them In Every Bar (And Sometimes Wish You Hadn’t)
Although he interacts with several people, Michael Coretti is the only real character in this story, as in the only person with actual feelings, goals, and struggles. Even the “creatures” he tracks throughout the story are just vague individuals. It’s hard to say if they have any real personality beyond their ever-changing appearance. However, this does work great if you remember that this is supposed to be a sci-fi horror story, as their appearance coupled with their inhuman nature is a great example of the uncanny valley effect.
The Fantasy: “Oooh!” No, Wait, I Meant To Say “Eww…”
Speaking of horror (as provided by collaborating author John Shirley), the “belonging kind” have a quality that–for both Coretti and the reader–is both abhorrent and fascinating. They’re fascinating whenever you see in at a bar: perfectly blending into someone else’s conversation, always drinking but never drunk, always saying and doing the right thing. It’s when they’re in between bars or hotel rooms that the weirdness sets in: hair and clothes fall off in sizzling foam, money is produced from wet little slits inside their chests, and they sleep standing up–with their eyes open the entire time.
If that doesn’t creep you out, then congratulations! You’re probably feeling just like Michael Coretti, our beleaguered protagonist.
Final Verdict: A Blend of Horror and Sci-Fi With A Splash of Gin
In retrospect, this story reminds me a lot of another tale involving body horror and inhuman creatures: The Shadow Over Innsmouth by renowned author H.P. Lovecraft. However, this story is a lot more accessible than its predecessor and still carries that urban magic that echoes throughout a lot of William Gibson’s writing.
Bibliography: Gibson, William. Shirley, John. “The Belonging Kind.” Burning Chrome. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1986.