Three Pieces: Granta 117 – Horror

Today, I’m trying out a different approach to blogging about an anthology, by concentrating on three particular pieces from it. The anthology in question is the Autumn 2011 issue of Granta, whose theme is ‘Horror’. It was my first time reading all three of these authors; I’ll go through their work in the order in which it appears in the anthology.

Will Self, ‘False Blood’

This is an account of how Self was diagnosed with and treated for polycythemia vera, a condition which causes the blood to thicken through the overproduction of red blood cells. It’s a very frank piece: Self writes matter-of-factly about his past of drug-use – neither apologising not seeking to justify it, but simply treating it as something that happened – and how it left him afraid of needles, which made his treatment (by having excess blood extracted) all the more difficult.

The horror of ‘False Blood’ seems to me to lie less in the mechanics of Self’s illness and treatment (though there is certainly some of that, and you may well find yourself picturing the blood flowing – or otherwise – through your own veins) than in something more existential. Self reflects on death and disease, and how we dress them up in metaphors in the vain hope of making them more palatable – and comes to the conclusion that it’s better to confront those phenomena without metaphors. But Self acknowledges that disease has been one of the key metaphors he has deployed in his fiction.

So, just as the very blood-flow which sustains Self’s life is now threatening it, so a cornerstone of his life’s work has gained a chillingly personal resonance. Perhaps the true horror of this piece comes from the thought of being betrayed by the most familiar and trusted of things.

Rajesh Parameswaran, ‘The Infamous Bengal Ming’

A tiger wakes up one day (“the worst and most amazing day of my life,” p. 167) and realises that he feels love – the love that comes from a deep friendship – for his keeper, Kitch. But where is Kitch today? Ming is getting hungry and wants to see his keeper and friend. When Kitch finally arrives, he’s with another, rather nervous, member of zoo staff; the tiger’s friendly move towards Kitch scares the other man, so Kitch strikes Ming with his stick – and then it all goes wrong.

When I started reading ‘The Infamous Bengal Ming’, I thought Parameswaran’s decision to give the tiger such a fluent, human-like narrative voice was amusing but perhaps misjudged – surely that wasn’t how an animal would really think? But now I see that the voice was judged perfectly, because the affect of the story is founded on the tension between the measured, reasonable tone of the narration, and the way Ming’s animal instincts intrude upon it. It’s not just that the tiger tends to misinterpret the human characters’ behaviour; it’s also that the way he reacts and explains himself can be at odds (sometimes chillingly so) with what his voice lulls us into expecting. This story is extracted from Parameswaran’s forthcoming collection, I Am an Executioner, to which I now look forward eagerly.

Julie Otsuka, ‘Diem Perdidi’

Diem perdidi is Latin for “I have lost the day”, which sums up what has happened to the woman with dementia who is at the heart of this story. The text consists mainly of declarative statements about what the woman does and doesn’t remember (sometimes addressed directly to the woman’s daughter – though neither character is ever named). With what might seem to be a rather restricted palette, Otsuka paints vividly what has passed in the lives of the woman and her family; and what is now being lost, the little cruelties of (and those caused by) being able to remember the relatively distant past, and long-held routines, but not what happened a few minutes before. Otsuka’s prose is dotted with poignant turns of phrase, such as: “She remembers that today is Sunday, which six days out of seven is not true” (p. 252). Clearly another writer whom I need to read further.

Granta magazine
Author websites: Will Self; Julie Otsuka.
Read an abridged version of ‘False Blood’ on the Guardian website.
Additional content on the Granta site.

Lisa Tuttle, ‘The Man in the Ditch’ (2011)

Linzi and J.D. are driving to their new house in the Norfolk countryside when Linzi thinks she sees a dead body in a ditch at the side of the road. As the couple renovate the property, thoughts of the dead man continue to play on LInzi’s mind, though J.D. is convinced that she’s mistaken. The initial shock seeing the corpse is very well-handled, as Tuttle lulls the reader into a false sense of security with the neutral tone of her description; and she brings the tale around to a satisfying, grimly circular ending.

Rating: ***½

Book and story notes: Gordon, Kenworthy, Pickin

Helen Gordon, Landfall (2011)

London-based arts critic Alice Robinson is thirty-four, unsure about her place in the world, and haunted by the disappearance of her sister Janey seventeen years previously, when her magazine ‘suspends operations’; taking advantage of her parents’ offer to house-sit for them, she moves back to the suburbs to take stock. Alice’s existence there is enlivened by the arrival of her sixteen-year-old American cousin Emily (who’s been sent over for an improving visit, though she’d rather not be there), and a large dog named Selkirk, whom Alice’s old flatmate Isabel has talked her into looking after (despite Alice’s dislike of dogs). Alice is mostly drifting through life in suburbia when her former editor holds out the possibility of an interview with one of her favourite artists, Karin Ericsson, a recluse who lives on the south coast – could this be the key to Alice’s getting her life back on track?

Helen Gordon’s debut novel is a nicely observed character study, ranging from pithy observations about minor characters (for example, Alice’s artist ex-boyfriend is described as “one of those men of a certain haircut who gravitated towards the east of the city” [pp. 8-9]) to more sustained portrayals of the main players. Alice’s neighbours’ boy, Danny, is a conflicted figure: saved from drowning as a young boy, that piece of great fortune has also made it hard for him to relate to other people (though one senses he ultimately means well), which in turn has led him to dabble in crime. Emily begins as something of a grotesque, obsessed with her body-image to an alarming degree, but, by novel’s end, she is moving towards a more positive view of life; she and Danny come together in a halting, and very real, fashion.

And Alice? She spends a lot of time thinking, but also falls back on instinct, reciting maxims from her Girl Guide and London days. Those recitations may feel forced when she’s at her parents’ house, but Alice’s practical instincts come into their own when she has travelled to the coast. She, like Emily and Danny, makes not so much peace with life, as a kind of messy truce.

Christopher Kenworthy, ‘Sullom Hill’ (2011)

Our narrator recalls his childhood in western Lancashire, in particular his period of friendship with John Stack (“You’d never see him in a group: it was John and one friend for a few weeks and then he’d move on” [p. 6]) and his ambivalent attitude towards learning-disabled Neil Kingsley. The protagonist admires John for his cheek and ability to stand up to his reprimanding teachers – but John’s bravado hides a violent home life, and now he’s picking on Neil.

This is one of the latest chapbooks to be published by Nightjar Press, who specialise in dark fiction at (or beyond) the edges of the supernatural. I make a point of mentioning this here because Kenworthy’s story takes a particularly striking approach to the subgenre. There’s nothing overtly (or even necessarily covertly) fantastical about ‘Sullom Hill’, but Kenworthy portrays John’s behaviour as being rooted in a bargain – maybe not one made with a supernatural agency, but a bargain of a similar kind. Neil’s response to John can be read in an analogous way. The effect of these is to imply a different way of looking at the world, and thereby to disturb the world’s equilibrium – creating a very subtle kind of horror.

Christopher Kenworthy’s website

G.A. Pickin, ‘Remains’ (2011)

The second new title from Nightjar Press takes us to a Scottish moor, where an ill-prepared walker (who is experienced enough that he shouldn’t be in his current predicament, and knows it) leaves behind an abandoned church and the remains of its surrounding settlement, and tries to find his way to the holiday cottage where he’s due to catch up with some friends from an old volunteering project – but the dark and the weather are closing in.

As a story, ‘Remains’ is very much focused on its landscape; Pickin effectively turns what is at first, if not exactly a friendly environment then at least one open to exploration, into somewhere more threatening. The ending is both nicely open and a neat closure.

Robert Shearman, ‘Alice Through the Plastic Sheet’ (2011)

Alan and Alice thought they knew their neighbours well enough, but discovered embarrassingly otherwise when they learned that Eric had been dead for months, and Barbara was moving out because she couldn’t cope with her feelings of loneliness. New neighbours duly moved in and, though the couple never saw them, they did hear the loud music coming from next door – and that was just the beginning. This unsettling piece features the matter-of-fact treatment of strangeness that Shearman does so well; Alan’s work life and relationship with Alice fray around the edges as the bizarre events proceed. The result is a story that really get’s under one’s skin.

Rating: ****

Robert Shearman’s website

Ramsey Campbell, ‘Getting it Wrong’ (2011)

Misanthropic film buff Eric Edgeworth is interrupted one evening by a phone call purporting to be from a radio gameshow; would he be the ‘expert friend’ of the current contestant, Mary Barton, a work colleague he barely knows. Edgeworth is convinced this a hoax being staged by some of his fellow-staff at the Frugoplex cinema; but, as the calls continue and Mary is absent from work, it becomes apparent that something more sinister is happening. This is a typically well-constructed story from Campbell, with a satisfying pay-off and a portrait of the crabby Edgeworth that’s grimly amusing. But there’s a sense of artificiality about the piece – perhaps from the fake brand names used, perhaps from those moments when the characterisation becomes a little too broad-brush – which stops it from being truly creepy.

Rating: ***

Ramsey Campbell’s website

John Ajvide Lindqvist, ‘The Music of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer’ (2011)

Six months after his partner Annelie died in a road accident, our narrator moved with his son Robin to a cheap house in the forest; he got rid of the things he thought were unnecessary, but soon regretted being so rash in destroying Annelie’s things. All that remained was her old piano, which he now insists Robin learn to play. But what is the strange music that the narrator hears his son play, and what does it have to do with the murderer who once lived in their house. This is a great story (excellently translated by Marlaine Delargy), as Lindqvist ratchets up the tension and the sense that the narrator is losing his grip on reality. What makes the tale for me is the wonderful uncertainty or whether the supernatural explanation for events is valid, or whether it’s all in the mind of a desperate father.

Rating: ****

John Ajvide Lindqvist’s website

Dennis Etchison, ‘Tell Me I’ll See You Again’ (2011)

One sweltering day, Sherron sees her friend David cycle perilously close to his father’s truck… and finds him lying underneath the bicycle, apparently with no breath or heartbeat – yet, a short time later, he’s fine. Could this be some kind of survival mechanism, and what exactly could have brought it on? ‘Tell Me I’ll See You Again’ is a short piece that uses its brevity to great effect; an atmosphere of strangeness and disorientation builds up because we have so little time to grasp what’s going on. And Etchison’s closing sentences are simply beautiful.

Rating: ***½

Brian Hodge, ‘Roots and All’ (2011)

Cousins Dylan and Gina travel to the remote farmhouse of their recently-deceased Grandma Evvie, to sort through her effects; a long-term drug problem has caused the area to go to seed. Never far from Dylan’s mind are Evvie’s old tales of what she called the Woodwalker, and the mystery of his sister Shae’s disappearance eight years previously – a mystery which will be solved by tale’s end. Hodge brings the disparate elements of his story together in unexpected ways, and thre’s a grimly satisfying inevitability about the ending.

Rating: ***

Brian Hodge’s website

Angela Slatter, ‘The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter’ (2011)

Quieter in tone than the previous three, Angela Slatter‘s story concerns Hepsibah Ballantyne, a coffin-maker who arrives at the D’Aguillar household to deal with the recently-deceased father, and takes rather a shine to young Lucette D’Aguillar while she’s there. The coffin-maker’s trade is particularly important in this fictional world: get the rituals wrong, and the spirits of the dead will remain behind — as Hepsibah herself knows, because her own dead father, Hector, never leaves her side. The atmosphere of this story builds up quite nicely — Slatter evokes Hepsibah’s burgeoning attraction towards Lucette particularly well — and the  complexities of Heispibah’s character are revealed gradually and effectively.

Rating: ***½

Peter Crowther, ‘Ghosts with Teeth’ (2011)

Hugh and Angie Ritter return home to Tuboise, Maine (popn. 41), to find that something’s not right — people keep disappearing suddenly, or are in places they cannot possibly be. It’s Hallowe’en, and something is about to come trick-or-treating… Peter Crowther‘s story builds its atmosphere slowly, using commonplace things — a radio in the background, a phone call from a familiar voice — that turn abruptly sinister. The ending is also effective, making good use of the fact that, in a community as small as Tuboise, everyone knows each other — something that could have good consequences or bad.

Rating: ***½

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