“The Empty Spaces” by Alison J. Littlewood

This story in Black Static #16 marked the second appearance in the magazine of Alison J. Littlewood, and with another title showing in the ‘Story Acceptances’ column at the publisher’s website it won’t be long before we get to see her work again.

The story opens with one of those lines that is guaranteed to grab the attention – ‘When Laurie Turner said he saw Marilyn Monroe in our sitting room, I thought he was a fool, and I told him so.’

We then get an explanation for the appearance of Marilyn – Laurie is suffering from Charles Bonnet Syndrome, a condition in which there is an impediment to vision and the mind provides imagery to fill the ’empty spaces’.

Laurie lives in a house with his friend Bill, the narrator of this story, and Marilyn Monroe isn’t the only woman he has visions of. Years ago, Laurie and Bill were married to sisters Alice and Joan, but one moment of folly cost them all hope of happiness. We are never told exactly what happened to the two women, but there are hints of a killer, and the men blame themselves for what took place as they stayed in the pub when they should have met their wives at the train station.

Laurie is seeing Joan, and he is haunted by the idea that she is accusing him, holds him responsible for her death. By the end of the story Bill is having hallucinations of his own, albeit auditory ones rather than visual, and it seems as if, like the banshee of legend, these things are a harbinger of death.

As the title suggests, this story of an ‘odd couple’ is all about those empty spaces, emotional vacuums that get filled by things we may not really wish to see but often cannot look away from. There is no comfort for the men in what they see and hear. Rather these phenomena seem to provide a focus for their own guilt, the terrible burden they bear for what happened in the past, when they left their own ’empty space’ to be occupied by a killer.

At the end the true horror for Bill is not the possibility of death, but that he’ll finally see Alice’s face and then he’ll know if she blames him or not. And we get the feeling that this will be more than he can bear.

The shortest piece I’ve discussed as yet, this is a story rich in atmosphere and with keenly felt emotions, Littlewood playing it close to her chest as to whether there really are ghosts or not. In the end the reality of the spectres, hallucinations, or whatever they are, doesn’t matter a jot – the important thing is how the men feel about what they are experiencing, how they react to what may have come to fill those ’empty spaces’.

And with that we are done with this Women in Horror Recognition Month celebration of the work of Black Static’s female contributors, though as I mentioned before I may continue to discuss work from the magazine’s back catalogue, regardless of author gender, as a way to fill my own ’empty spaces’.

Alternatively, I could just post videos on the flimsiest of pretexts…

Well it was the only video I could find where she appears to be in anything that resembles a ‘sitting room’. The whole thing with the skirt over the hot air vent at the start is just an (un)fortunate coincidence.

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