Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #45:-
OBLIQUE MANOUEVRES: HELEN MARSHALL
Canadian author Helen Marshall won the British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer with her first collection. That book, HAIR SIDE, FLESH SIDE (CZP pb, 249pp, $16.95), contained fifteen stories and introduced readers to a major new talent, one that avoided easy categorisation, Marshall preferring to blaze her own trail rather than simply follow in the footsteps of those who had gone before, producing work that presented to the world an off the wall aesthetic and gonzo rationality.
Case in point opening story ‘Blessed’, which presents the familiar and ostensibly banal scenario of separated parents competing for the love of their daughter by giving her expensive presents, only in Marshall’s scheme of things those presents are the relics of martyred saints. Poor Chloe feels the agony of those who died, suffering with Joan of Arc and finding comfort in the blindness of St. Lucia, the story acting as a metaphor for the pain we inflict on both ourselves and those we love through such competitiveness and by forcing them to embrace beliefs that they can’t correctly process. It’s a story that works and surprisingly well, but only for those who are prepared to suspend disbelief and accept the central premise of the relics and their power, after which an internal logic comes into play and everything else slots into place.
Like M. R. James before her, Marshall is an academic and medieval scholar, a profession that seems to inform much of her work, albeit with a thoroughly modern sensibility and not an antiquarian in sight. ‘Sanditon’ is the story of literary editor Hanna, sent over from Canada to “handle” writer Gavin Hale, engaging in a one night stand with him only to then discover that the words of Jane’s Austen’s unfinished novel are appearing on the inside of her skin. Again nobody questions the logic of what is happening, or suggests a practical approach, and the result is a strange and eerie story, one that is beautifully paced and full of wisdom concerning human nature, with love of literature and love of people in intriguing opposition, a parasitic relationship. A similar use of human skin is at the heart of ‘A Texture Like Velvet’ in which a female academic writes to her mentor detailing discoveries she has made, but with a subtext concerning the nature of the material on which she is writing, the story asking questions about the value of art, what sacrifices we are prepared to make so that our voices will be heard and echo down the years.
There’s a very English feel to ‘No Ghosts in London Town’, and echoes also of Wilde’s Canterville in the story of a young woman learning how to cope with the spectral denizens of an old country mansion. It’s a clever story, with tongue firmly in cheek at times and a sly humour informing the narrative as the omniscient author addresses the reader directly, and at the same time, while it is undoubtedly a ghost story, themes of loneliness and tradition and belonging are all touched on. In ‘The Mouth, Open’ Jonah finds himself transformed into a kind of monster through constant eating while on a trip to Yugoslavia to visit his brother in law’s family. In part Marshall’s story is reminiscent of Barker’s ‘In the Hills, the Cities’, with the suggestion that Jonah is being primed to fight in some conflict, to act as the protector of the family he has consumed, or possibly fattened for sacrifice.
Transformation is one of the recurring themes in this collection, most overtly seen in ‘Holding Pattern’ where people are turning into statues. The story’s narrator desires just such an end to her own existence, so that a perfect moment may be preserved forever, the story addressing the transitory nature of our feelings, dramatizing the central idea that nothing lasts. Jane Austen features again in ‘The Book of Judgement’, with Lucifer as the Angel of Death sent to collect her soul and yet moved to write well of her in the Heavenly record, the story wryly amusing and inspiring me to learn more of the circumstances of Austen’s life. It was a beautiful and moving evocation of a life well lived. Clarissa has perfected ‘The Art of Dying’, inhabiting the bodies of those whose time is near and dealing with the pain they cannot, the story strange and obliquely written, as she realises that this time she is not ready, life has too much to offer.
‘Dead White Men’ was my favourite story in the collection, and the one that most obviously uses the tropes of the horror genre, though in a startlingly divergent manner. It is the story of Celia who indulges in one night stands, always taking her lovers to the burial sites of the poets she loves so that their spirits can possess her partner and fuck her by proxy. Unsettling the story draws the reader in, showing that this is far more than a simple fetish, and suggesting that we can become so involved with the past that we leave no room for the present and future, that a great love can be self-defeating. Complementing Celia’s obsession is that of Ernie, so enamoured of her that he becomes a famous writer primarily so that she will fuck him again, which deftly does the spadework for a neat final twist to the story. Love of literature is contrasted with literature as academic study in ‘Eternal Things’, with the protagonist gifted a vision of her hero Geoffrey Chaucer, showing how the soul can be ripped from a thing when it becomes no more than grist for the critical mill, which could very well be a lesson reviewers also might take away from Marshall’s work.
And so we come to Marshall’s second collection, the intriguingly titled GIFTS FOR THE ONE WHO COMES AFTER (CZP pb, 252pp, $16.99), in which she seems to move away from the academic concerns of the first book and spread her wings a bit more. It opens with ‘The Hanging Game’, a tale of childhood games and rituals, and the consequences that come with offending some greater power, as predictions of the future are soured by events in the past. A wonderful tale and moving rite of passage, it is told with a convincing narrative voice and a heartfelt sense of sadness and loss running through it, but underlying that something akin to hope. Even better, and for my money the best story in the book is ‘Secondhand Magic’, which is told in a style reminiscent of the best work of Ray Bradbury, with that same sense of small town magic, as the child Milo uses his magic act to gain the key to power from an elderly witch. Beautifully written, and in such a manner as to leave the reader hanging on every word, it contains some dazzling character studies and a parable on the nature of innocence and how easily it can be lost.
‘I’m the Lady of Good Times, She Said’ is a ghost story of sorts, with the narrator seduced by the ghost of the scream queen who was the great love of his early years and betraying the wife he loves, only for her brother to kill him, at which point he also becomes a ghost, the story written in a phlegmatic, matter of fact voice which only makes it all the more convincing, the outré events used to underline the fragility of human relationships and the true strangeness of the world in which we live. Told from the perspective of a young girl trying to come to terms with the imminent birth of twin brothers, ‘Lessons in the Raising of Household Objects’ is an unsettlingly oblique tale, with the borderline between empowering fantasy and madness crossed at some point, but with the meaning of it all hovering elusively out of reach.
A tale of fathers and sons intercut with an account of primordial belief, ‘All My Love, a Fishhook’ carries a burden of guilt and a gift of compassion, showing the differences between the generations, the desire to be a good father to your son at war with the will to possess all that belonged to your own father. Young Leah in the story ‘In the Year of Omens’ feels that she has been abandoned by everyone, when all her friends and family bear witness to strange omens and find their bodies transforming, but instead of relief that she has been spared Leah feels excluded. Again, this is an eerie story, one that is obliquely told and with a strong sense of the unnatural woven into the texture of the narrative, bringing a feel to the story that is almost magic realism.
In the gloriously bizarre ‘The Santa Claus Parade’ there is a factory where Santa is assembled for work on the streets, the backdrop to the story a never ending Christmas season, one in which the very things we value at this time of year are not only heavily commercialised but twisted into something almost nightmarish. It put me in mind of nothing so much as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, tainted with an unhealthy bureaucracy and time management practises. For twelve year old Danny ‘The Zhanell Adler Brass Spyglass’ is a magical device that allows him to see into the past and future, but the real gist of this excellent story lies in the way in which the young boy has to deal with the breakup of his parents’ marriage, bullying at school, and his awakening sexuality, with a back story that will only be apparent to the reader. Marshall shows a real skill at getting inside the young mind, at finding unusual methods to pierce the surface and get to the real heart of what her character is about.
Carissa in ‘Death and the Girl from Pi Delta Zeta’ falls in love and marries the Grim Reaper, but after his death has an affair of sorts with his brother Dennis, as you do. Aside from the identity of the protagonists it’s a situation that has about it an almost soap opera banality, but Marshall elevates it far above such concerns through the narrative choices she makes. The story is filled with a wry humour and an ineffable sense of sadness, a cross between black comedy and romance, or rather a fusion of the two forms. There’s a fable feel to ‘Crossroads and Gateways’ as the warrior Dajan interacts with a trickster deity, the narrative a concoction of stories within stories, intercut with non sequiturs pregnant with meaning, and a final act of transformation that manages to neatly structure it all. Eileen returns to the family home in ‘Ship House’ to help care for her elderly mother, but as the story unfolds we learn that this is a very unusual building and its inhabitants even more so, with a narrative that is oblique and something strangely minatory moving out of the shadows and forward into the light of day. I’m not sure that I understood it all, at least on the one reading, but there are glimpses here of something very disturbing, a family lineage that is contrary to all we know of natural law.
Three episodes in the life of Carole make up ‘A Brief History of Science Fiction’. In the first she dumps every boy she goes out with, in the second she has a husband who has lost his memory, and in the third she is visited by aliens. Each section is exquisitely written and intriguing, but all the same I don’t have the feeling that there is anything more here than the sum of the parts, unless the title is the clue, with a nebulous subtext about how reality seldom measures up to our expectations, though that could be a bit of a stretch. In ‘Supply Limited, Act Now’ a group of young boys acquire a shrinking ray and go on the rampage, but eventually it all gets out of hand. Underneath this superficially gonzo narrative is a subtext about growing up, accepting our mistakes and trying to learn from them, making the best of a bad deal. It is a powerful rite of passage story, one that deals with a form of sublimation, where our world grows smaller as opportunities are denied to us at every step of the aging process. It isn’t really the world that shrinks, so much as the boys growing larger.
In ‘We Ruin the Sky’ Marshall processes the mental breakdown of a woman in a top floor apartment who appears to have shot her husband, but is blaming what happened on a hole in the supposedly unbreakable glass picture window, so that what we have is a detailed account of her impressions combined with enough evidence to realise how skewed these are. ‘In the Moonlight, the Skin of You’ tells of a community of loggers and the strange things they see in the woods where they work, and the offer of love to the daughter of one of their number, the story told from a limited perspective and with far more suggested than is actually revealed.
A family torn apart by the loss of an unborn child is at the heart of ‘The Gallery of the Eliminated’. Walter’s father takes him to a place where women give birth to the last of every extinct species that has ever existed in the hope of recovering the lost child, only it doesn’t work like that. There’s an almost Barkeresque feel to this piece, with some grim and grotesque imagery on the page, while underlying it all is a reminder of our own mortality and that life itself will always endure, if not necessarily in the forms we know it. ‘The Slipway Grey’ is a Zambezi river shark, and the narrator of this final story in the book escapes from it when a child, but it becomes emblematic of death for him. Underlying it all is a subtext that occurs in several of these tales: that death is a thing to accept rather than be scared of, that realising when your time has come is a vital part of life itself. It’s a fine note on which to end this collection of vivid and refreshingly different stories.