A review that originally appeared on the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com on the 30th of January this year:-
Published in 2011, THE UNINNOCENT (Pegasus Books hc, 256pp, $25) is a collection of short stories by Bradford Morrow, a writer better known for his novels (not mention his poetry collections and role as editor of various anthologies and the bi-annual Conjunctions). While mostly “realistic” in the telling, there is about the stories in this book a feeling of the weird, the numinous, so that labels like American Gothic spring to mind and comparisons with writers like Joyce Carol Oates (whose words of praise grace this volume’s back cover). Morrow’s tone is always restrained, with the sense of his protagonists struggling to keep things under control, the feeling that raging madness is always just a step away, while most of the mishaps that befall them are rooted in the bosom of the family unit.
The first person narrator of opening story ‘The Hoarder’ is a young man prone to obsession, whose rivalry with his older brother takes a deadly turn when he focuses on Tom’s new girlfriend, taking endless photos of her. It’s a riveting piece of fiction, one that effortlessly sucks the reader in and shows us the situation developing naturally, with each step of the process perfectly placed and the characters brought to vivid life on the page, a wealth of tiny details adding to the verisimilitude of it all. An archaeologist travelling back to his home town for the funeral of his beloved sister makes an alarming discovery in ‘Gardener of Heart’. At bottom this is a very subtle ghost story, reminiscent of the film Ghost Story in some ways, with the narrator travelling through the events of his lost childhood like the archaeologist he has become, each a footstep on the path to the moment when the truth rears its ugly head. It’s a story rich in the bittersweet sense of loss balanced with thoughts of a life well lived.
Family secrets are at the heart of ‘Whom No Hate Stirs None Dances’, with the death of a matriarch bringing her son back to the family residence, and his sister alluding to the terrible things that happened so long ago. It is a subtle story, with the truth of the terrible event only hinted at and the reader left to puzzle things out from the reactions of those who learn what happened and to suspect that something even worse took place. And there is revenge also in the mix, with the way in which one character is left to always wonder, the introduction of a snake or worm of doubt into an otherwise perfect relationship. A man struck blind becomes a motivational speaker and inspiration to others in ‘Amazing Grace’, but the return of his sight allows him to see how corrupt those about him have become. I’ll admit to some reservations about this story, though it is perfectly told, in that I wasn’t really convinced by the way in which things played out, with the husband such a holy innocent, his acceptance of things as they are, including removal from the marital bed, seeming more like a plot convenience than convincing.
Title story ‘The Uninnocent’ (perhaps an allusion to 1961 film The Innocents, based on Henry James’ classic tale A Turn of the Screw) concerns two young girls who develop a system of rituals to communicate with their dead brother. The story is told from the perspective of one of them many years later, looking back on what happened all those years ago and analysing the personality of her possibly psychotic sister Angela. Again it is a story in which far more is suggested than actually revealed; we know that something terrible happened to one of their playmates, but not the actual details. While the story hints at the paranormal, the real thrust of the narrative has to do with human evil, of how we are capable of the most appalling acts without any help whatsoever from the outré. It exists simply as a pretext for what we do, to ourselves and each other. In ‘Tsunami’ world events and personal drama play out against each other, with the story of a woman who kills her husband and children. Except the story’s narrator appears to be in a mental hospital and is unreliable. It’s a powerful piece, a story of how emotions can go rogue and the most (extra)ordinary occurrences can drive a mind over the edge, with each step of the undoing carefully delineated on the page.
Told in an almost detached tone of voice, and placing a sort of commentary/qualifier on events in bracketed sections, the next story tells of a man who has ‘(Mis)laid’ his mind, leading to a hostage situation and an armed siege. I loved the way in which this was written, with the feeling that the bits in brackets could be telling another story entirely, while the plot was beautifully laid out, the disintegration of a mind pinned down for inspection on the page, with asides on misogyny and toxic masculinity. ‘All the Things that Are Wrong with Me’ is pitched as an exercise in therapy for a young man whose love of animals has led him into extreme behaviour. There’s a lovely tongue in cheek flavour to this work, and for the reader some confusion as to exactly when the line is crossed; if we approve of the protagonist beating up somebody who tortures their pet with cigarette burns (and I certainly do) then what about the actions that follow. When does this obsession become counterproductive?
Longest story in the book, ‘The Enigma of Grover’s Mill’ is set in the town where Orson Welles’ Martians invaded, with repercussions down to the present day. Bereft of his parents, Wyatt feels further isolated when his grandmother’s home is invaded by grafter Franklin, hostility between the two culminating in murder, or perhaps not. It’s an engrossing story, with beautifully drawn characters and events that are scented with the taint of the strange, while at the same time the author leaves us plenty of room in which to fill in the blanks, such as hazarding a guess as to Franklin’s real motives and background.
‘Ellie’s Idea’ on waking up to find that her husband has left her, is to apologise to everyone that she feels she has wronged, but in doing so she, perhaps intentionally and as an act of revenge, only causes more havoc. Reading between the lines we get clues as to what has gone wrong in her life and relationship, along with hints that her husband might have done something terrible also, the whole setting us up for a delicious end note, one that leaves everything up in the air, an emotional cliff-hanger to leave the reader anxious to know what happens next. A kleptomaniac finds validation of a kind through stealing in ‘The Road to Nadeja’, but contrarily the worth that he is accorded undermines his life, leaving him feeling that there is something missing, something that he dearly wants. Looked at in the abstract, this could easily be interpreted as just another incidence of mid-life crisis, but the backdrop Morrow provides makes it that little bit special and all the more interesting.
Finally we have ‘Lush’ with two competing narrative strands each starting out from the moment of a drunk driver’s death in an automobile accident. One narrative strand comes courtesy of dead Margaret’s husband James, who recalls their life together and the part which alcohol played. The other is told from the viewpoint of Ivy, the other driver in the crash, who was left disfigured, her life and plans subsequently unravelling. Eventually the two meet, a collision that results in both finding a way out of their problems and aspiring to true love. Morrow is superb at delineating the way in which alcoholism can completely undermine a life, seeming at first a friend, but then becoming an obsession, a monster who thrives on self-destruction. Conversely, through Ivy we have the feeling of something or somebody special, an evocation of positivity and the life force. It was a superbly planned and executed story, not least for the way in which it was told, with one strand in the past and the other in the future, and the accident itself as the ever-present moment. A brilliant end to a dazzling collection by one of the brightest and least acknowledged exponents of genre fiction, though with far more in his literary armoury than the term genre might suggest, demonstrating in fact what it is capable of in the hands of a master. I loved this book.