“En Saga” by Nina Allan

Black Static #6 is my very favourite issue of the magazine, because it contained my story “Special Needs”, but as this is Women in Horror Recognition Month and I’m supposed to be celebrating the work of the magazine’s female contributors I guess I’d better write something about Nina Allan’s story instead.

Nina is a mystery woman. She doesn’t have a website, or a facespace that I can find, and I’m not about to go searching for her on twitter, but fortunately she just did a guest post over on my Case Notes blog discussing the work of Joyce Carol Oates, and that post has links to a story by Nina that you can download and a discussion of her work far more insightful than anything you’re about to find here.

The title “En Saga” is intriguing, suggesting something that takes place ‘in’ a saga, but also possibly an abbreviation for ‘English Saga’ as opposed to the expected Icelandic and Norse versions that are referenced in the text.

The story is told in two parts. The first, ‘The Flying Dutchman’, tells of a brief encounter with a man on a train which prompts a mild sexual fantasy for Lise. A fortune teller once predicted that she would marry a Dutchman, and so she imagines that her fellow passenger is Dutch. A few days later she learns that not only was this guess correct, but that he was a murderer on the run and the girlfriend he killed looks exactly like her.

Lise loves the sagas and is fluent in Norse. She has recently translated the script of Thorunnssaga, a modern work by a female author that is to be made into a film, only the male director wants to change the emphasis and make his film about the male protagonist rather than the female Thorunn, eschewing the author’s attempt at redressing the balance of the staunchly male oriented sagas.

Lise’s friend Michaela has become a recluse after the disappearance of partner Dain on a trip to Baghdad, staying in a rundown flat with her baby Christa, waiting for a phone call or letter that will never come. In Thorunnssaga the female protagonist abandons her baby over grief at the loss of a man, and this section ends with a hint that Michaela may have behaved similarly, an ominous silence when Lise rings her to check all is well. 

The second section is titled ‘Christmas’, and as we read on it appears to be set some twenty years later, with Christa, now grown into a woman, as the viewpoint character. In a case of history repeating itself that reminds us of the cyclic nature of sagas, she is concerned about the fate of journalist boyfriend Tom, who has also gone missing on a trip to the Middle East. And, in scenes that bring to mind the film Don’t Look Now, Christa is seeing a child figure in a hooded sweatshirt that she takes to be a personification of the angel of death.

Both sections riff off of each other, with the abandoned child in Thorunnssaga mirrored by Christa’s vision, the missing Dain and Tom, Lise finding a button that may have belonged to the ‘Dutchman’ and Christa receiving a medallion.

The main characters are female. The men who feature in the story are just passing through like the Dutchman or absent, but their absence informs and shapes everything else.

This is a ghost story without a ghost, or rather a story in which everyone is a ghost, from fay Lise who is the spitting image of a dead girl and attracted to her killer, through to Christa, her death suggested at the end of the first section, but instead becoming a character with her life on hold thanks to the missing man. And in that she is an echo of her mother, who stalks the text corridors of both sections wearing her loss like a funeral shroud. Christa sees the ‘angel of death’, but it never tries to approach her, and we can conjecture that this is because in some sense she is already dead, while Lise is nothing more than a ghost to the Dutchman. We are all haunting our own lives.

It’s a beautifully written and subtle story, packed with observations and details that enrich the narrative and help the reader suspend disbelief, albeit nothing overtly supernatural takes place, with coincidence and hallucination on hand to meet the demands of rationality. And it’s also a story whose meaning eludes easy dissection, but rich in hints and allusions as to the death in life these characters seem set to embrace in one form or another, the strong suggestion of stuff going on beneath the surface of the narrative, so that what we see is only the tip of the iceberg.

At the end Christa  thinks she has discovered a clue to Tom’s fate but ‘All she found was a messy grey fluff, a cross between dust and wool.’ The stuff of dreams, the remains of a life, the substance of the spectre at the feast.

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