Filler content with small packages – Part 3

Following on from last Friday’s post, the third part of a feature on novellas (mostly) that originally appeared in Black Static #56:-

IN SMALL PACKAGES (continued)

Benny, the protagonist of STAG IN FLIGHT (Dim Shores chapbook, 42pp, $7) by S. P. Miskowski, has a whole battery of mental health issues – fear of going out, anxiety, compulsive list making, and horrible memories of his childhood. An interfering neighbour arranges psychiatric help for him, but analyst Dot has strange methods that mostly involve telling Benny about her own perfect life, or at least that is how it appears to him (Benny may be an unreliable narrator). One day in her office a stag beetle lands on his shoulder and this simple event is the key to Benny’s transformation.

Miskowski gives us an unusual story, a case study of mental illness, soliciting our sympathy for somebody who is undoubtedly one of life’s natural victims through no fault of his own. Ultimately though it turns into a variation on Kafka’s Metamorphosis, with Benny adopting the traits of the stag beetle on a psychological level, dreaming that he is a beetle, identifying with the insect’s desires. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say the identification with the beetle gives him carte blanche to embrace his own atavistic impulses, a misogynistic subtext hinted at and resentment of psychiatrist Dot taking the form of violent fantasies in which she holds centre stage. The story ends on a note of ambiguity, one of those moments where we are paused to discover what happens next, fearful of what awaits the two women knocking at Benny’s door. It is a story of transformation, of one of society’s outcasts finding a moment of epiphany, and the subtext is that Benny has suffered so much that only by identifying with another species entirely can he endure and find meaning to his existence, but the resulting metamorphosis is not necessarily beneficial. Miskowski gives us a character who elicits sympathy for what he has gone through, but from whom we recoil when he comes fully into his own reality. As a final note, artist Nick Gucker provides some striking illustrations to accompany the text.

Nina Allan provides a cover blurb for THE ARRIVAL OF MISSIVES (Unsung Stories pb, 128pp, £9.99) by Aliya Whiteley, which is appropriate given that, just like The Harlequin, it is set in the aftermath of WWI, but there the resemblance ends. This novella takes place in a rural community and is told from the viewpoint of farmer’s daughter Shirley, sixteen going on seventeen years and with ambitions in life. Shirley wants to go away to teacher training college, but her father wants her to marry a young man to take on the farm after he has gone. And she has also set her cap at the teacher Mr. Tiller, despite local gossip that he was injured in the war and is not a real man. But when she spies on Mr. Tiller Shirley discovers that he has been changed far more than anyone suspects by his experiences at the front, and she becomes involved in a conspiracy to shape the future history of the world. The true question for Shirley is if she wants this future that she is being asked to create, and how much of her own happiness is she prepared to sacrifice to make it happen.

It’s a beautifully written work, with prose that illuminates the subject matter, and in the redoubtable Shirley we have a feisty, get up and go kind of heroine, one with whom readers can sympathise as she tries to find her way in a society where all the odds are stacked against her, simply because of gender and circumstances of birth, even as we are somewhat reluctant to approve of the methods she uses to get her own way, which at times border on blackmail. But at the same time for me this was the one weak spot in the novella. Shirley’s qualms about the future envisaged by Mr. Tiller and those he is channelling basically boil down to the idea that it’s a world run by old dead white men, and while I can understand her dismay at the role of women in this ‘perfect’ future her other reservations seem modern in outlook to me, rather than something a person from a rural community in the years immediately after WWI would have been concerned with. There is absolutely no hint of diversity in the life we are shown, so that when Shirley notices and is so concerned by this missing element in the future it doesn’t ring entirely true to me. Her objections are, of course, entirely valid and I thoroughly approve of her attitude, the stand she takes, but I can’t quite believe in it given who Shirley is. That aside, the story grips with its concept of a future in peril and people in the present being required to do absolutely anything to preserve that possibility, even commit murder. For Shirley there is the moral dilemma of being called on to renounce her own dreams, which turn out to be entirely impractical anyway, and then having to give up those she has accepted to serve some higher good. It is this dilemma, the question of what we are prepared to do to ensure the good times to come, both in our own lives and for the world at large, that makes the story interesting, and adds hidden depths to its depiction of an outwardly idyllic, if somewhat restricted, rural community. One could make the case that, thematically at least, it has echoes of M. Night Shyamalan vehicle The Village, though the polarity of present and future are reversed.

THE GRIEVING STONES (Horrific Tales Publishing hc, 141pp, £12.99) by Gary McMahon is the story of Alice, who has joined a small therapy group as part of dealing with the suicide of her husband Tony, and is given the opportunity to be part of a weekend retreat at isolated Grief House. Under the leadership and guidance of grief counsellor Clive the party set off, along the way having a collision with what they believe to be a deer. At Grief House, which used to be the property of two sisters accused of witchcraft, and is close to the Grieving Stones, ancient stone megaliths to which are attached various local legends, Alice feels strangely at home. There is the sense of mysterious forces at work in the building, with Alice seeing things, including an entity she refers to as the Backward Girl because of its strange method of perambulation. She stumbles across documents that reveal more of the house’s history, and is slowly led to the conclusion that there is a mystical link between her and the sisters, and that she belongs in Grief House which is rebuilding itself to accommodate her, while the others are interlopers who must be made to leave.

Superficially this is similar to Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House with a group of people taken to a building with an unenviable reputation and one of their number particularly susceptible to the occult influences that live within its walls, but there the resemblance ends. Clive and his group of the bereaved are not psychic investigators and guinea pigs, while Alice as viewpoint character is an entirely unreliable narrator. As we learn more of her past and the events that have shaped her life, we come to see that while projecting outwardly a harmless and thoroughly domesticated persona she is perhaps more deadly than the house itself, McMahon making her at first sympathetic and then snatching away even this safety net for the reader’s perceptions. With the atmosphere building and strange events taking place, such as the appearance of the Backward Girl, the accidents that befall the others, the way in which the derelict house is repairing and tidying itself, we begin to wonder how much of this is actually taking place and how much of it is down to Alice’s mental state, or rather whether it is Alice herself who enacts these atrocities. McMahon is superb at building tension and an atmosphere of fearful anticipation, with little details accumulating, while at the same time effortlessly muddying the waters as to how reliable his narrator is. At the end we are left with the knowledge that something terrible has taken place, but uncertain as to why these things have occurred and unsure to what degree Alice is a victim, with the real terror of the story and its ability to disturb having to do with the complexity of the human emotional response rather than any supernatural agency.

TO BE CONTINUED

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