Filler content with skein, bone, and water

A feature on the work of V. H. Leslie that originally appeared in Black Static #55:-

A SENSE OF UNEASE: V. H. LESLIE

Most readers of Black Static will already be familiar with the work of V. H. Leslie. Her first published story was ‘Ulterior Design’ which appeared back in #21, and she’s been a regular in the pages of the magazine ever since then. Five of her six Black Static stories and another that appeared in our sister magazine Interzone are reprinted in Leslie’s first short story collection SKEIN AND BONE (Undertow Publications pb, 290pp, $18.99).

Name is destiny in opening story ‘Namesake’. Cecelia J. Burden hates her surname, though she does consider that it would be appropriate for a serial killer. To rid herself of this shameful moniker she decides to marry Andrew Blithe, but he has a secret, and the loft in his flat is strictly off limits. The discovery of what Andrew is hiding leads J, as she likes to be called, to a dramatic reconsideration of both her name and role in life. There’s more than a hint of Bluebeard going on here, though Leslie takes the story in an entirely different direction. The nature of Andrew’s secret doesn’t quite ring true to me, stretches credibility a bit too far, despite the occasional news report that assures us such things do, indeed, take place, but once you allow for that what follows is a compelling and engaging study of the genesis of a serial killer. It is perhaps a story best read when not considered as realistic, a thing of coincidences and contrivances, and on those terms a hugely enjoyable and blackly comedic piece of work. Laura and Libby, two sisters travelling in France, enter an abandoned chateau in title story ‘Skein and Bone’ where they fall prey to the wiles of the spirit that haunts the place and feeds the cannibalistic dress that is the chateau’s resident monster. There’s a lot going on here, with the story part driven by the antipathy between the two sisters, the carefree and adventurous Libby contrasted with the younger but more responsible Laura. Ironically, though Libby wants freedom her love of fashion is what enslaves her to the dress with its imprisoning corset, while the more scholastic Laura is momentarily trapped in the library of the chateau. On one level this works as an old fashioned haunted house story, but Leslie takes things a step further and gives it a feminist subtext, so that the two sisters are ultimately the victims of outdated social notions, and there is an almost masochistic element to the way in which they are enslaved.

‘Ghost’ is the name of a koi carp whose life is slowly draining away in a festering pond that Annette neglects after the death of her husband Fergus from a prolonged illness. In her mind the fish becomes emblematic of her husband and its refusal to die a kind of torment that reminds her of those terrible last days with Fergus. It is, as the title would suggest, a ghost story of sorts, with a final line that gives the story an entirely different, and more genre traditional, interpretation, but at heart the subject being addressed is one of dealing with chronic and fatal illness, the ways in which our loved ones becomes ghosts in our eyes long before they actually die, and the grief attendant on that process and its aftermath. In ‘Making Room’ Julie is haunted by the idea that there is a monster lurking under the bed, but all that’s really there is the detritus from her past relationships, and there are dire consequences for new boyfriend Rob when he insists that she clear it all away. It’s a short piece, only four pages long, and for some would count as flash fiction, but the narrative drive of the story seems to lie in the implication that Julie’s past is what prevents her from establishing a new, lasting future with another man, or you could come at it from another direction and believe that an attempt to render somebody’s past irrelevant is what destroys that possibility of a future.

‘Family Tree’ is the story of Tyler, whose father has gone feral and lives in a tree house at the bottom of their overgrown garden, while his mother makes her own accommodation with the way things are. It’s a strange, off kilter story, one in which events are laid out before the reader’s eyes and we can’t quite believe what we are seeing. The subtext of the story, which comes to glorious fruition in Tyler’s closing thoughts, seems to be that a son needs the love of his father and will reinterpret events to achieve this end. While the reader believes that his father’s behaviour is entirely symptomatic of neglect, for Tyler the strangeness becomes a kind of proof of the affection that is so obviously missing from his life. Howard, the protagonist of ‘Time Keeping’ works as a horologist and is way beyond obsessive compulsive when it comes to good timekeeping, but the arrival of the woman Helen in his life upsets all Howard’s carefully calibrated plans. Delightfully written and imagined, with a strand of wry humour running through it, this is a story that revels in its ambiguity. Superficially, it is a tale of personal madness and how that impacts on the life of another, with Howard not quite able to get a handle on what he has done to Helen, thinking that he may have saved her by the drastic way in which he incorporates her into his life. On another level there is the idea that what Howard does may have a universal impact, that in some strange way he really is charged with taking care of time itself and anything that prevents him going about his duties will have repercussions for us all. Leslie plays her cards close to her chest, leaving enough wriggle room for either explanation, with Howard’s delightfully askew comments muddying the water all the more. And finally there is the Dahlesque sting in the tail, the possibility that actually Helen’s ultimate fate is other than it at first appears.

Another flash fiction, ‘Bleak Midwinter’ tells of an eternal winter and the menace of snowmen that do not melt, but are drawn to the warmth of human habitations. At the heart of the story is the relationship between a mother and daughter, with only the former aware of how much has been lost to the enduring cold, not just physical things but also a part of their humanity. It’s a bit of a stretch, but in ways it made me think of a zombie story only with snowmen in lieu of the living dead. Gwen is holidaying alone in Italy after the end of her relationship with painter David, and finds herself haunted by the inmates of ‘The Blue Room’ at the Hyde Hotel. This is a subtle, sensitive story, one that sets out its stall early on as some sort of supernatural/haunting fare, but as the story progresses it appears that inner demons are being dealt with. Gwen moves from an idealisation of David and their relationship to a state where she can deal with the fact that she has been abused by him and realises that she is ready to move on. It is, ultimately, a story of liberation, of the outré leading to a better understanding of our own reality, acting as a kind of catalyst for self-knowledge.

Inspired by genre classic ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, ‘Ulterior Design’ reverses the gender polarity of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s tale. Control freak Daniel allows partner Robyn to paper the nursery, but the paper she chooses haunts him with its tangle of woods and the strange bird that lurks within the foliage. The paper symbolises nature red in tooth and claw, the aspects of life that Daniel can’t control no matter how he wishes, and at the same time it comes to represent his antipathy towards Robyn, the feeling he has that he has sacrificed some of his freedom, been trapped into giving up something of his identity. Finally, with the nature of the bird revealed as a cuckoo, there is the unspoken suspicion that the baby Robyn is carrying is not his, all of which leads to an inevitable and violent capsizing of the couple’s relationship. Like the protagonist of Gilman’s tale, Daniel goes insane, but his madness takes a far more horrific turn. In the future world of ‘The Cloud Cartographer’ the only free space left is high up in the clouds, and Ahren is charged with mapping this terra incognito, only an encounter with some rogue settlers leads him to remember the tragedies of his past and reconsider the future that he is helping to shape. It doesn’t feel like it, but this is in many ways a dystopian piece, one in which personal concerns and the greater good of the world as a whole are deftly interwoven. Ahren chooses to go his own way, rather than contribute to the general demise and, while this may be seen as selfish, there is no denying that he makes the right choice, that while he may not be able to halt the landslide that is coming there is no need for him to loosen any more rocks (or clouds).

Set in the wake of WWII, ‘Preservation’ is the story of Dulcie and Niles. As well as fruit and vegetables, Dulcie bottles up her feelings, while Niles won’t talk about his, refuses to discuss what happened to him in the war. It’s a clever tale, one that sells the reader a dummy with the possibility that Niles is having an affair while in reality he has other concerns, and offers the picture of blissful domesticity with all sorts of turmoil simmering away beneath the surface. The subtext seems to be that the home front is every bit as fraught with danger, while the need for a couple to talk to each other is paramount, that in trying to protect a loved one we can actually undermine them. Vernon is a ‘Wordsmith’, an immortal who tends to the world tree and creates new words to constantly replenish the language, but his belief in his mission is undermined by love for the woman Felicity and her eventual death. This is a quiet, subtle tale, one whose core lies in the way a man deals with grief, but here given a mythical dimension so that we come to see how language and the manner in which we use it to create stories is a vital part of how humans define themselves and place the problems that confront them in a viable context. In some ways Vernon is analogous to Howard from ‘Time Keeping’, but his way of dealing with his problems are far sounder.

In ‘The Quiet Room’ we have Terry moving into a new house and for the first time caring for his daughter Ava, kept from him all these years by estranged wife Prue. But as Ava’s behaviour changes, Terry comes to realise that something is terribly wrong with this house and that Prue may not have gone entirely. Again, as with the best of these stories, the macabre element is used to highlight and illuminate very human feelings, such as the distress we feel at the loss of a loved one and how animosity can linger on past the moment of death to sour our future existence. Finally there’s ‘Senbazuru’ the tale of a diplomat’s wife in Japan in the days before WWII broke out. In this story the supernatural element is muted, nothing more than having the woman’s internal dialogue outwardly manifested as a swarm of cranes. Her account is gripping, a blow by blow reiteration of wrong decisions taken, all culminating in a dramatic act of self-harm, but at the same time we are conscious of the fact that our protagonist is not a reliable narrator and all the things she is describing may simply be the imaginative contortions of somebody in a mental hospital. It’s a fine end to a superb collection of stories that, while they are undoubtedly horror fiction in the main, stretch their wings and fly that bit higher, that bit closer to the sun like poor, doomed Icarus.

Feminist concerns permeate many of the stories in Skein and Bone and are also seen in Leslie’s first novel BODIES OF WATER (Salt Publishing pb, 134pp, £8.99). This is a very short book, and in fact it could easily be classified as a novella, but it packs a considerable wallop.

Bodies tells the story of two very different women living in different periods of time, with the narrative focus alternating between each one (and, as far as that goes, with the theme of the “fallen woman” it reminded me very much of the film based on John Fowles’ novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman). In the present day, after the breakup of her ten year old relationship with boyfriend Lewis, Kirsten moves into Wakewater House, a hydropathy establishment in Victorian times that has been turned into modern apartments. The only other occupant of the building is Manon, a scholarly recluse who is obsessed with the river Thames that runs by outside the building, and in particular with the dead women who were pulled from its waters in Victorian times, mostly prostitutes who found their lives intolerable. Back in 1871 Evelyn, a young society lady who has exhausted herself in trying to help fallen women, is admitted into Wakewater House and the care of Dr. Porter, who is to administer the Water Cure, though we suspect that this was her father’s idea, rather than Evelyn’s own. As we learn more of her back story we discover that Evelyn had formed an attachment to one of the young women she was supposed to be saving, the beguiling Milly, or Melusine as Evelyn names her, and the tragic end of this relationship was in part the root cause of her breakdown.

Within the confines of Wakewater House, both women in their separate periods begin to experience strange events. For Kirsten there is the omnipresent water, leaks that she can never truly locate, so that her whole apartment becomes saturated, and down by the side of the river is a strange and minatory figure, a woman who remains always tantalisingly out of reach, and who she comes to fear approaching. In Evelyn’s time there are problems with the plumbing at Wakewater House and she believes that the ghost of Milly visits her and tells her what to do. For both women it is all fated to end in violence, though acts of a very different nature.

Enhancing the story is the wealth of research Leslie has done into aspects of the Water Cure and similar medical procedures of Victorian times, but she wears this learning lightly, with information imparted by means of conversation among the patients at Wakewater and simply woven into the text of the book, so that we discover what is necessary but never feel that we’re being subjected to a history lesson. It creates a convincing backdrop and sense of verisimilitude that makes the supernatural aspects all the more sustainable when they occur.

And at the heart of this novel is a ghost story, though Leslie leaves open the possibility that there may be a psychological aspect to what the women are going through. Of course, with the neat dovetailing of events, so that actions in the life of one woman almost seem to mirror those in the life of the other, it’s almost impossible to argue that there is no supernatural element, but at the same time it is the psychology of the two leads, the baggage they carry and that society imposes on them, which renders them so susceptible to the paranormal. Through the use of lush descriptive language Leslie creates a vivid atmosphere, one of slowly mounting unease in which the pervasive drip, drip, drip of water seeps into the psyche of the reader as surely it does into the environment occupied by the characters. Wakewater House itself is not haunted. Rather it is the river that runs by outside and the things that lurk in its depths that cause the trouble. Reinforcing this oppressive atmosphere is the character of Manon, an eccentric and a convenient source for info dumps about the women who committed suicide by throwing themselves into the Thames, and the uses to which those women’s cadavers were put by the medical establishment in Victorian times. From Manon Kirsten learns of the plethora of female entities that are associated with water, especially the Rusalki. In Manon’s book she reads – “It is believed that when women die in or close to water, especially those who have committed suicide or those who have been intentionally drowned by others, they often return to haunt that particular body of water. Women who are pregnant at the time of their death are believed to be especially potent.” – two sentences that foreshadow the menace that is to come.

And all this talk of female spirits leads to another theme of the book, that of sexual politics and the oppression of women in both Victorian and modern times. Kirsten has been damaged by the way in which Lewis brought their relationship to an end, his promises of everlasting love revealed as a sham. She feels that he didn’t want a real woman, someone with “human frailties and imperfections”, but a doll akin to the anatomical figures shown in Manon’s books, nothing more than “a beautiful package”. Kirsten comes to identify herself with the hordes of dead women she senses in the water, creatures whose avatar is the lonely figure standing by the waterside, and whose brooding presence comes to dominate her existence. Similarly Evelyn is a victim of the patriarchy, her love for Milly denied and the fate of her physical body dictated by first her father and then the experts into whose hands he delivers her. In Wakewater House she enters a society of women, but their every action – how they dress, when and what they eat, the exercises they do – is dictated by the men on the staff, and with the hint of far worse punishment for those who baulk at this control. At one point in the story Evelyn examines the instruments of the doctor’s profession and compares them to devices of torture.

What is especially interesting is the way in which the two characters react to their newfound knowledge of male domination, the ways in which they express this previously sublimated rage and resentment. For all her aspirations to be independent of men and behave better, Evelyn acted out a male role in her relationship with Milly, was every bit as controlling as her father, though she doesn’t see things in that way. When she finally revolts, it takes the form of an attack on one of her supposed persecutors and then a flight from Wakewater House and into the embrace of the river. For Kirsten though, sacrifice to the spirits of the Thames, the hordes of dead who float beneath its surface, is the only solution, the only way to appease their hunger, but the irony is that the victim she focuses on is not a man but the old and feeble Manon, another woman. She attempts to act out the basest desires of the patriarchy even as she struggles to reify her existence along less patriarchal lines. For both women, and for the reader also, Leslie allows nothing in the way of comfort at our journey’s end.

This is a harrowing novel, one that punches far above its weight, and in combination with Skein and Bone is an assured debut mapping out the concerns and aesthetic sensibilities of a writer who may well go on to become one of the most significant new voices in our genre.

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