Back in the early 1990s, Simon Clark was a writer to watch, with his career on the tipping point, poised between the collection Blood and Grit from indie BBR Press (with whom Clark still maintains links, in a gratifying recognition of his roots) and the Hodder & Stoughton published novel Nailed By the Heart. Blood and Grit was one of the first books I reviewed, might even have been the very first, and I still have a signed copy around here somewhere, which I really should sell on eBay so I can retire.
Clark was our Case Notes’ featured author back in Black Static #8, but this story from #19 marks the first time his fiction appeared in the magazine, though hopefully it won’t be the last.
The story is set in Whitby, which inevitably brings to mind Dracula, but is also a venue in which Clark has set several of his own works – must be something to do with the sea air – and the setting enhances the story by suggesting various associations for the reader.
The world has undergone a most peculiar form of apocalypse, one with an incredibly bizarre, not to say creepy, element to it. People are desperately trying to stay awake, because when they fall asleep they are inexplicably surrounded by coffins and contract fatal diseases from the rotting corpses contained within these boxes.
It’s a brilliant conceit, made even more so by the lack of any attempt at an explanation for what is happening and the rich treasure trove of associations that the image of a coffin evokes. Of course there’s Dracula, unloading his coffins from The Demeter, and the plague bearing aspect of the coffins gives extra power to that connection, but there’s also the idea that this is a variant zombie manifestation. And, as if two archetypal monsters weren’t enough, there’s even a nod in the direction of the ghost – originally corpses weren’t interred in coffins but in shrouds, and the white sheeted ghost of Victorian melodrama and Abbott & Costello movies is a recognition of that, and so here we have the modern equivalent, with the revenant encased in his wooden box.
Personally, I was reminded of Magritte’s painting Pespective: Madame Recamier de David, a poignant and striking memento mori that tells us all beauty and distinction fades.
And yet, fascinating as it is, this scenario is simply the backdrop to the story of three people seeking to survive, a thrown together family unit that takes the term dysfunctional to a new level.
Central to the story is Letty, twenty one years old but with the mind of a child, a spoiled child who is used to getting her own way. And get her own way she does, because Letty acts as a neutraliser of some sort, a dampening field, so that the two adults who travel with her can avoid falling asleep, and that is the key to survival. There’s a double meaning behind the story’s title – the dead won’t stay in their graves, but also the characters cannot rest either.
John is our viewpoint character and the hard man of the group, an ex-soldier who takes a delight in killing, though he always has a rationalisation for whatever he does, a survive at any cost philosophy, and so when they encounter sleeping people John always slays them, because sleep has become contagious and they pose a threat. And then there’s third wheel Penelope, an immaculately turned out career woman clinging on to the veneer of civilisation even as it breaks down all around her, but also with an outlook that won’t allow anyone else to survive if she can’t.
These three careen through a coffin infested landscape, watching scenes of madness and social collapse unfold, pretending that there is some hope for them when it’s patently obvious that there is none, and this in its way shows that they are just as insane as the people they meet, even if the outward signifiers are not apparent. Both Letty and John appear to be having ‘fun’ of a kind – Letty because she simply doesn’t grasp the situation and so bears witness to scenes of utter despair with the curious and innocent eye of a child (and Clark gives us a slight hint at the end, that Letty might in some way be responsible for what is happening to the world); and John because the apocalypse allows him to give in to the worst aspects of his own nature without any thought of remorse or being held accountable, to excuse his conduct to whatever he has that passes for a conscience.
But it’s Penelope, the mysterious third, who acts as the catalyst for the collapse of their family unit, paranoia making her so afraid of being abandoned that she launches a pre-emptive strike against the others.
John is alone at the end, the tide of coffins receded, but bearing witness to another event that may foretell the demise of humankind. And at the end he seems to have reached a state of acceptance – ‘What is astounding is the universe – its five ages and all. It made you and me. And what’s more it made wood for the coffins that one day will rest our weary bones.’
And yet, sad and eloquent as this statement is, it doesn’t quite ring true. This story, for all its macabre aspects, demonstrates a simple truth with which most of us are familiar – astounding and strange as the universe is, human nature is even more inexplicable. Or, in the vernacular, there’s nowt strange as folk.
We are creatures conditioned to react, be it to the miraculous or the ordinary, and the nature and quality of those responses show that the human heart is the greatest enigma of all. To paraphrase Nietzsche, as we study the universe, the universe finds ways to study and test us. There’s mystery and lack of understanding on both sides of the equation.