There are many factors that make the short stories in the extraordinary collection so compelling. One is that you aren’t quite sure what genre you’re reading, which makes the outcomes unpredictable. That you’re still not sure by the end is no failing of the author; rather it’s that he mixes a uniquely beguiling cocktail of fantasy, science fiction, horror and something I can only describe as Other Stuff. Stories like these tend to get labelled New Weird, but I don’t think that label does them justice. It’s too alienating, and another source of readability is how incredibly moving the stories are.
Take the detail in ‘Passion Play’ in which a girl gets a letter from her absent father telling her how important she is, written in her boozy mother’s handwriting. That the girl in question goes missing following an expedition to an old church makes the situation even more affecting. For some writers, this set-up would be enough, but blended into the narrative is a visceral tale about perceptions of the miraculous, amid the kind of intense horror that has informed so much of our culture and, thus, our understanding of the world.
Both ‘Breadcrumbs’ and ‘Her First Harvest’ feature young female protagonists and deal in uncanny transformation, perhaps as a way of considering the radical alterations of puberty. ‘Breadcrumbs’ channels fairy tales like ‘Rapunzel’ through ‘Eastenders’ via JG Ballard and twists something beautiful out a potentially horrific outcome.
In ‘Her First Harvest’, a young woman debuts at a ball on a planet where nothing grows. As with ‘Two Brothers’ the story explores class repression; it even opens with quotation from Katherine Mansfield. However, instead of ball gowns, the belles sport complex fungal growths, upon which the colony survive in the absence of any other foodstuff. If ‘Breadcrumbs’ is Ballard, this one feels like early Cronenberg, when you knew to take a sick bag to the cinema. Publisher Unsung Stories seems to have a thing about fungus (see also Aliya Whiteley’s wonderful ‘The Beauty’). Indeed, both these Malcolm Devlin stories are not so much ‘You Will Grow Into Them’ as ‘They Will Grow Out Of You’.
All the stories in this collection are well worth reading, but ‘Dogsbody’ is one of my favourites. At first glance, it’s the gallingly contemporary tale about a man who cannot get a regular job, despite being well-qualified. He works on a building site putting up hoarding, along with the usual mixture of masculine types including a couple of Eastern Europeans with unvarnished views on race relations. TTA’s magazine ‘Black Static’ originally published this piece in the uniquely absurd historical experience that was 2016 and the story couldn’t have been more timely.
Like many of the titles, ‘Dogsbody’ operates on more than one level, as does the narrative itself. It takes place on the anniversary of an inexplicable event in a society still reeling from it: the transformation of a random selection of the populace into werewolves. In a stroke of genius on the author’s part, the werewolves are not a danger due to their condition, which I won’t reveal here; just read it.
The protagonist is one of these unlucky people, and is struggling to deal with society’s subsequent rejection of him despite the phenomenon never being repeated. However, is this one-off event to blame for the character’s fate, or something closer to home? When he fails yet again to get a job and meets up with his attractive female interviewer in a pub popular with those like him as well as their ‘fans’, the woman puts him straight in a way both brilliantly bleak and indicative of a wider societal failure.
‘Songs Like They Used To Play’ feels like David Lynch has been let loose on one of those documentaries in which families inhabit a house and lifestyle structured around the past (‘The 1940s House’ etc). It looks at the familial dynamics behind the camera as they blur to such an extent that the protagonist feels like he is literally lost in time. As with the werewolves, the story features fans; this time, it is they who create the strangeness. A series of coincidences brings the main character to a point of convergence of past and present when he brings his ex-boyfriend back to his lodgings, which appear to defy the laws of architecture and thus by implication time and space. There’s a real sense of dread to this story, made worse by the fact that it’s not ‘darkness’ that’s the threat so much as enthusiasm.
The title of ‘The Last Meal He Ate Before She Killed Him’ is pretty much a story in itself, with the narrative proper almost a subtext. All the stories in the collection have the hook of appearing to be about everyday lives, before revealing themselves to be about the strangeness inherent in the ordinary. Here, it’s not the grinding dystopian setting that upsets as much as the tale of supremely ill-judged ambition and misreading of character. One of the ways that bad governments stay in power is their tawdry sleight of hand gimmicks, which serve to keep enough idiots convinced for the whole sorry mess to carry on a bit longer. Here, one of the underlings thinks he has found a solution that he uses to attempt leverage, leading instead to a hopelessly dignified last line.
‘The Bridge’ is a subtle tale about a model of a town in an attic. At first, it’s hard to say what is so uncomfortable about it. Perhaps the way that everyone who discusses the model, built by a widower who left out the civic bodies he felt let him down in his hour of need, does so in such awkward terms. It’s almost as if their pity inspires guilt. Guilt is a form of fear, after all, usually of some abstract reprisal. Are the house’s pregnant new owners worried that the fate that befell the apparently childless widower might befall them?
‘The End of Hope Street’ was nominated for a British Science Fiction Award this year and was my favourite to win. It’s a beautiful tale of resolute humanity in the face of inexplicable destruction. One by one, the houses of Hope Street become uninhabitable. There are no flashing lights or weird sounds during this process; just a lethally subtle change in the fabric of the space that signals its arrival with a sense of profound unease. The people who live in the houses simply realise what is coming, and accordingly vacate their premises, never to return. Instead, they move in with others on the street, which becomes a sort of polite commune.
Interestingly, the notional villain here is not the change but an uptight man who has room to spare in his home but not in his heart, as if his soul has suffered an internalized version of the changes around him. He personifies a meanness revealed in recent real world political developments, becoming an embittered, angry little island of ill-expressed, pointless resentment.
Themes from the other stories in the collection are found in ‘The End of Hope Street’; from the patriarch maintaining his rigidity in the face of extraordinary change to the lovely and properly English evolution of a different but still recognisable community. Here again, the title works in all kinds of ways; the geographical end, the chronological end and the implied opportunity to begin something new.
Similarly, the title ‘You Will Grow Into Them’ is as much a command as it is a comfort to the kid in the baggy trousers; conveying a sense of the inevitable, regardless of what we think we might want. The protagonists in the first stories are children, running through adolescence to adulthood in the final piece. It is as if the author is exploring family from all angles, some of them not of this earth: a bold journey and one I recommend.