Monthly Archives: February 2016

Between Each Breath by Adam Thorpe

between each breath.thorpeJack Middleton is a modernist classical composer and a fairly successful one. Arising from humble beginnings, he finds himself married to beautiful heiress Milly, living in a big house in Hampstead with as many lucrative commissions as he cares to accept. His life is thrown into turmoil when he encounters Kaja, a young student working in a cafe in Tallinn. He compartmentalises the encounter as a romantic interlude, affecting at the time but irrelevant to the main course of his life. But when this past indiscretion comes back to haunt him, the faultlines in his perfect existence begin to reveal themselves.

*

My heart thumped in my ears, but not from the exercise. I knew, somehow, as I pushed the cafe door’s loose handle down (it was a nicely old-fashioned French-style door), that I was doing the wrong thing, taking the wrong turn. But it excited me too because at some level it was a recognition that I was freer than I’d ever realised. (p 40)

Jack Middleton is the classic kind of English middle class sexist – the kind that has no idea that he is one. Both Milly and Kaja are made to look subtly ridiculous – Milly because she’s rich, ducks out of Oxford without getting her degree, and dresses up like Cleopatra whilst working to aid Palestinian refugees, Kaja by being made to look ten years younger than she is, by – in spite of her sexual allure – being made to seem naive and inexperienced in terms of relationships, by being foreign. Both women are gifted with intellectual capacities just sufficient to intrigue and captivate and surprise our ennui-laden hero, but never sufficient to outclass or scare him. Jack seems to have a Lawrence Durrell approach to women that sanctifies and patronises at the same time. It is intensely wearying.

Opening a book like this is always disconcerting. Is Thorpe aware of what Jack is like, or not? Is he incapable of writing women as equal human beings, or is he portraying them through Jack’s entitled eyes? In spite of any misgivings, I cannot help noticing that this is the best written book I’ve read since Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border.

The woman seemed to have a wind-billowing tent for a dress and something on her head, but she was in silhouette and the moonlight behind her was dimmer, now. She was crying. He couldn’t hear her crying but he knew she was because the whole dark room thrilled with it: the walls were – to put it in the way he was feeling it (almost as a visual thing) – running with her tears. There was nothing he could do: he knew it was a ghost, a spectral presence left over from some far-off time, like a means to an end that never came. He lay there looking at her and absorbing her sorrow. He felt he was helping her, simply by sharing the burden. (p 249)

Sudden irruption of the fantastic in a completely matter-of-fact way. There is no doubt here that the ghost is real, that Jack is seeing it. The book continues to be a mystery. Jack is the most selfish and entitled hero, squandering his talent in laziness and an ineffectual resentment of nothing very much. He has precisely nothing to say about music, his intellectual curiosity drowned in the ennui that comes from having too much and feeling vaguely guilty about it but not guilty enough to get off his arse and do better. And yet Between Each Breath is – almost unwittingly – one of the most accurate commentaries on turn-of-the-century Britain I’ve read, a pitch-perfect capture of a particular London milieu, the dire passivity of the middle classes. It chills because it’s so real. What to do? Thorpe’s writing is of a higher quality than anything McEwan has written since Enduring Love.

Jack was impressed by her history. She had somehow seen more than him. He couldn’t imagine it. (p 300) 

But Jack has seen NOTHING – and how can he believe even for a moment that he has? The way he patronises Kaja, even in his mind – for speaking English with a foreign accent, basically – is breathtakingly awful.

I’m paying for this too dearly. All I did was score with her. (p 300)

Makes me think of the review by Tibor Fischer in which he says that Thorpe ‘conjures up a whiff of the bunny boiler around Kaja’ and wonder if we’re still, genuinely in a situation where a woman’s aggrieved reaction to being lied to, patronised and emotionally deceived can be routinely described in this way. I admire Tibor Fischer and Adam Mars Jones tremendously both as writers and reviewers but really, their criticism of this novel does not even touch on these aspects and I find it lacking because of that. Are they both too immured within the social stratum Thorpe describes to see it objectively?

As he walked up the three flights to his eyrie, he thought of Kaja quoting Flaubert in French, his remark about the bracken caught in the stirrup. He was a complete pseud: he knew sod all about literature, French or otherwise. Or about much else.

All he knew about was music. In a sort of swollen, over-developed way. Parallel to life. Its own world. Like maths. 

But birds made music, didn’t they? (p 343)

Thorpe’s purpose begins to come clear as Jack’s world begins to fall apart. The novel is about the fundamental opposition between the world of capital and acquisition we inhabit, and the imperatives of art, and real thought. The latter is all but impossible in the context of the former. Jack has believed he can have both. He is being shown otherwise. Does he really love Milly, or the world that Milly has granted him access to? He is about to find out.

The drips in her arm, the bruises they made, the saline solution and waste bags around her like her innards pulled out on wires: he felt deadened to it all, to the horror of it. She’d once been a shop floor supervisor in a sausage factory, bustling about, giving orders, laughing and scolding in a white coat with a clipboard and beehive hairdo, looking like a doctor. He had to remember this. (p 349)

In his portrayal of Jack’s parents, and Jack’s mother’s decline and death, Thorpe captures with searing intensity the daily realities of a Britain – in contrast with the ludicrous excesses tussled over by sections of the capital – very much in decline. Donald and Moyna are deprived without knowing precisely how they are deprived. They are stoic, undemanding, ignorant, kind, casually, thoughtlessly racist, backward-looking, both grounded and lost. They soldier on until they absolutely cannot take another step. As a portrait of England this is testing and awful and achingly sad and real. This is everything Jack was desperate to escape – he loves his parents, he can never explain. But what has he escaped to?

As usual, despite flicking through his Selected Baudrillard beforehand in search of some killer phrase for any occasion, he found the others wittier and more intellectual, freighted with arcane, encyclopaedic knowledge about the history of music. Even the young Abigail Staunton defied her Top Shop look and sparkled with references to the Gerber Variable Scale, imperialist assumptions and her recent trip to Lebanon. Above all, they knew what they were doing when they composed. His reference to Shostakovich was mangled by nerves. If he’d been asked to spell him, he’d probably have got it wrong. (p 387)

Fascinating, how Thorpe has made Jack like this on purpose – ‘the Ulysses of subtopia’. Living with his dad in Hayes after his mother’s death, he has come full circle. ‘He would have to blow himself to smithereens and start again.’

And through all this the traffic moved steadily and with a sinuous heaped motion onwards towards no discernible place and for no discernible reason. Jack saw this through the spittled windscreen, or from the squeezed pavements of Hayes, and heard a harp. He had never heard a harp play what he was hearing it playing. It was playing the greyness of England. It was playing this weather. It was playing this English reality of ashen, utterly leaden futility. Of spoliation. Of flag-fluttering retail parks and commercial estates spread in a cancerous ring around every town. Of people with too much money and the people they’d taken it from, who no one cared a hoot about. Of the zillions that went into scuttling the green land and the clear air that must have existed once, not all that long a time ago. (p 391)

Brilliant, brilliant lines. Why do all the reviews of this book seem to concentrate on categorising it as a ‘reprise of the Hampstead novel’? In fact it is something far bleaker, far more serious, far more important. Thorpe is angry but it’s a very British, very embedded anger. What Thorpe is saying with this book does fire rage in me, and inspiration too.

Jack’s piece for St George’s Day is called ‘Grey Days’ – a complete shredding and reimagining of his former practice, which imposed all those ludicrous faux-modernist titles upon empty work.

On p 393, Jack finds himself. He finds the place he should always have started from. Everything Thorpe intended with this novel is revealed. And it is very, very good.

‘You know, it was like we…us two…we coincidenced,’ she said. (p 415)

Is that what it is? The stark reality of this story is about the necessity of Jack and Kaja meeting, in order that Jaan, who is exceptional, will be born? Jack, meddling once again in something he cannot understand, indirectly brings about a tragedy. Life never stands still. There is no happy conclusion – just the march of history.

I would love to know from Thorpe: at which stage in his writing did he decide to write that prologue?

*

I picked up this book because I’d been thinking about Adam Thorpe’s first novel Ulverton, the way it is structured, its intimate relationship with history and with the English landscape. I was drawn to Between Each Breath because it is a ‘music novel’, an area of literature I am irredeemably pulled towards and that feels particularly relevant to me now because of work I’m planning. As it turns out, music specifically has less importance for this novel than the idea of art – and of making art – in general. I was prepared to find this frustrating but it turned out not to matter. Between Each Breath is one of the most absorbing, skilfully worked and finally moving novels I’ve read in quite a while.

Thorpe plays a long game – this novel does not give up its secrets or its intent in five minutes, or even the first three hundred pages. But persistence is rewarded, and intensely so. This novel has more to say about the way we live now than so many of those insipid and rather smug ‘zeitgeist’ novels that have been incessantly and needlessly discussed in the broadsheet review columns – Ian McEwan’s pompous Saturday, for example, or Martin Amis’s ludicrous misfire Lionel Asbo. Thorpe’s is the kind of fiction that does so much more than take a sideswipe at newspaper headlines from a comfy armchair. It is a sustained act of imagining, and has true purpose. In every sense of the word, it is a great English novel.

You can read a superb interview with Adam Thorpe here.

#weird 2016: Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins

gold fame citrus,cvwatkins“I’ll fix it, I will. We’ll get the birth certificate, a clean ID. I’ll take care of everything.” That was what he’d been telling Ig, that he was going to get his shit together, that he’d be on top of every damn thing from here on out. Also how quickly one’s beliefs and values and principles and philosophies – all the biggies – could be reduced to a matter of paperwork. (p 60)

I began reading Gold Fame Citrus in the midst of a monster gale, Storm Imogen. We’re high up where we are, and the winds were strong enough to snap the arm off a nearby wind turbine. I wonder now if it was this – the sense of a landscape under assault, the sense that the weather could fly off into new normals, any time it wanted – that made me begin to change my attitude towards Watkins’s first novel.

I started out hating it – an ex-model named Luz trying on a mink coat in the blistering California heat while her ex-soldier boyfriend goes about the serious business of finding water – and wondering what on Earth Watkins could have been thinking, wanting to create a character like that – so lax, so ineffectual, so preoccupied with men’s desires – when she could have written Luz any way she chose.

Now I think I get it. She wrote Luz and Ray and their adopted daughter Ig because these are the people – the totally random people – her attention happened to fall upon. They could have been anyone – a grandmother with a career in the military behind her, a discredited scientist, a teenage runaway, a businessman run amok – but they’re Ray and Luz and Ig. We’re travelling with them because we just are.

The first thing I found myself loving was Luz’s dream-list about moving to Seattle, couched in language she probably wouldn’t have used (who would?) Too beautiful. Too writerly. But why not? Watkins is trying to convey something here, something that reaches past how characters ‘should’ be or how they should behave. Watkins doesn’t give a stuff about what she ‘should’ be writing. She writes as she writes, and I am drawn steadily deeper and deeper until I am caught.

“What the fuck?” said Ray. He pressed his foot to the felling thing and where he pressed the trunk collapsed, papery. Ig laughed like a hiccup. They investigated the broken stump and found it completely hollow, save for some dry, twiny marrow inside. 

Luz pushed carefully on the trunk of another towering yucca and it too crumpled to the ground, setting Ig agiggle.

“They’re dead,” Luz said. “All of them.” Dead, without moisture enough to rot.

“The groundwater’s gone,” said Ray, though he promised he wouldn’t. (p 87)

Devastating and terrifying. One of the most astute novelistic commentaries on climate change I’ve read and an essential addition to this particular canon of speculative literature. I feel enraged at Luz for leaving the top off the gasoline, for being so careless. That Watkins picks up on this kind of detail is something I noted with pleasure even as I felt horrified by it. Luz is sorry, like she always is. She meant no harm. The difference in my impatience with Luz now from the impatience I felt with her at the start of the novel is that now I like her. I envy her compassion, her unselfishness, appreciate how vulnerable she is. I think I even understand her, at least a little.

The pages where Luz and Ray are running out of gas are arid, desolate, hopeless. Brilliant. I find am loving every page of this book by this point.

Scraping wind, five-hundred-year wind, the desert’s primal inhale raking the expired floodplain, making a wind tunnel of California’s Central Valley. In came particulate, swelling simultaneously Dumont Dunes and their southerly cousins, Kelso Dunes. In barely a blink of desertification’s encrusted eye, the two conjoined across the eighty miles that had long separated them, creating a vast dune field over one hundred miles wide, instantly the longest dune in North America. (p 118)

The red centre of the novel, the dune sea, like Hokusai’s wave, in a great arch, overreaching everything. Luz and Ray are separated: Luz to be rescued by Levi Zabriskie and his ‘family’, Ray, we find out later, to wander and to be beaten senseless (who by? You’ll find out), to be incarcerated for months in the underground Sangatte of the Limbo talc mine. There are strange legends – mole men, nuclear storage dumps, generations of unregistered Mojavs being born underground. Levi tells Luz the US government plans to nuke the whole area. What else are they to do with it? Luz thinks Ray is dead. She thinks Levi is a prophet. The language, in places, mimics the blurred, hallucinatory flow, the skewed ever-present tense of drug addiction. You came here for predictive science fiction? Fuck that bitch.

When Ray visited later that day, he visited a dingy solar-powered school bus in a madman’s colony, an outpost in the cruel tradition of outposts, peopled by prostitutes and loners and rejects and criminals and and liars, their sheriff a con and a thief and surely worse. (p 312.)

And so everything, in the end, comes back to the Spahn ranch, the lies, the seductions, the isolation. Was any of it even real?

Luz chooses for herself, finally, as she goes under. Ray soldiers on.

*

Claire Vaye Watkins’s first book was called Batteborn, a collection of stories exploring the brutal and unforgiving landscape of her native Nevada, together with the story that lurks in the background of her own family, the dark legend of Charles Manson and his groupies, the deadly fantasy world he constructed for them out at the Spahn movie ranch, a fantasy they finally, brutally inflicted on the people they killed. I loved that book, I thought it was exceptional. When I heard that Watkins was writing a near-future science fiction novel set in the same kind of landscape, I was extremely excited.

If I imagined anything going in, I suppose I was expecting something a little like Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star. Gold Fame Citrus is not like that novel, not in the least, though as speculative novels go I can see how they’re related through the importance they both ascribe to the role of language. But while Newman’s language serves her speculative conceit, Watkins’s undermines it. Constantly, determinedly. Ice Cream Star is a science fiction novel. Gold Fame Citrus exploits science fiction, but – searing commentary on environmental abuses and government cover-ups aside – it doesn’t give a damn about it.

Gold Fame Citrus is a novel affected by sunstroke. A hallucination. If it is about anything it is about the falsehoods and entrapments of communal folly, both in the private sphere and the political. About how one might wrestle free of such mental enslavement and what residual damage might exist, how it might still have the power to wreck lives and futures and thought processes long after it’s over.

I love the form this book takes: the wilful digressions, the embedded pamphlet, the theatrical interludes. I disagree totally with those reviewers who have suggested that this approach has sapped the energy of the central narrative. The central narrative is a tragedy, a predetermined sorrow. The accompanying threads of story are its Greek chorus. They’re also brilliantly compelling in their own right.

As a second work of fiction to follow Battleborn, I’d judge Gold Fame Citrus a step up in reach and ambition. Watkins has negotiated the leap to longer-length work with originality, dexterity, and equal intensity of focus. As story, the novel is scourging rather than satisfying because its sadness leaves us empty rather than full. As an exercise in the novel form, I would say it succeeds admirably, and with great inventiveness.

Where Watkins will go from here, it is impossible to guess.

(You can read an interview with Claire Vaye Watkins at Electric Literature here.)

New for spring…

occupy me. sullivanToday I’d like to say a few words about two brand new science fiction novels that I was lucky enough to have the chance to read in manuscript. The first is Occupy Me, by Tricia Sullivan. If I were to tell you that Occupy Me is the story of an angel discovering her true destiny, that would probably give you an extremely skewed idea of what this novel is actually like. If I were to tell you that Occupy Me is the story of a quantum being discovering the gateway to another universe, that might give you a better sense of the textures and themes you’ll find yourself experiencing if you pick up this book. Both statements would be true. Neither gives the whole picture.

“Most of the cabin class passengers are aware that they’re doing something extraordinary by flying. Even if they only let out a fleeting smile when looking out the window, or utter a silent prayer on landing, most of them sense that they are close to heaven. And heaven isn’t what you think it is. Heaven, even glimpsed side-on, is awesome. While folks are hurtling along at angel-altitude, their souls are open. Their hearts are accessible. Their minds can be touched. I’d like to think that a little nudge from me at the right moment on a flight can bring about long-term changes on Earth.”

I first read Tricia Sullivan’s Occupy Me in draft, in the summer of 2014, and I’m still trying to think of words that accurately describe it. ‘Adventurous’ and ‘ambitious’ don’t seem sufficient by themselves. ‘Experimental’ has to be in there somewhere, but I would hate to suggest that this novel doesn’t also deliver a blistering story. Occupy Me is skittish, fluid, unpredictable, rapturous, and wayward. There are so many ideas here – ideas on every page, jostling each other impatiently, like precocious children. I think the thing I love most about Occupy Me is that it feels so alive – as if those ideas are being created as you read about them, as if they’re still being thought about even as they plump down on the page. Nothing is fixed here – everything is up for grabs.

The voice of Occupy Me is alternately angry, tender, contentious and filled with wonderment. This is a novel in motion, and another thing I love about it is the way its language mirrors the mercurial fluidity of its thought processes. Sentence fragments, word cascades, thickets of imagery – this is a work in thrall to the power of the written word.

There need to be more science fiction novels like this: elusive, combative, curious, willing to take risks. Occupy Me is science fiction at its leading, not to say bleeding edge: there’s no formula for work of this kind. You won’t know exactly where you’re going until you get there.

It’s clear almost from the first that Occupy Me‘s central character Pearl is graft.2016working from a place of deep compassion. Compassionate would not be the first word that comes to mind when describing the various protagonists of Matt Hill’s thrilling second novel Graft – the book opens with a particularly brutal punishment shooting – but travel the road with them a little further and you might be surprised.  What Graft also has in common with Occupy Me is an interest in quantum dimensions and parallel futures – according to Hill as to Sullivan, these can be very dangerous places to wind up in.

For anyone who’s read Hill’s debut, the terse and wonderfully unpredictable The Folded Man, his vision of a future Manchester – cracked and bleeding – will be familiar as well as fascinating. But you don’t have to have read that first book to enjoy this new one. Graft is more immediately accessible than The Folded Man, but its concepts and characters are no less challenging, no less original. As with Occupy Me, what I admire most about this novel is its language, its wily construction. You’ll begin by wondering where you are and what the hell is about to happen. But within a short space of time you’ll be drawn into a story you won’t want to put down. Matt Hill is shaping up to be one of the most innovative and outspoken new writers of British science fiction currently on the scene. If you enjoyed Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn, or Matthew di Abaitua’s The Red Men or If Then, then I’d strongly recommend you give Graft a read as soon as possible.

Beware the Manor Lord, though. And mind the Slope…

Graft is out any day now from Angry Robot. You’ll find an interview with Matt here at SFF World, and more on his insights and inspirations for Graft here at SF Signal.

Occupy Me is out now from Gollancz. Check out Tricia’s blog for more information on the science and even the music behind the novel, and listen to her in conversation with Mavesh Murad on the podcast Midnight in Karachi.

 

#weird2016: Run the GAMUT!

There’s a wonderful project up at Kickstarter at the moment and I’m personally urging anyone with an interest in horror and weird fiction to consider backing it, or just to spread the word if you possibly can. GAMUT looks like being the most interesting new magazine venture to have surfaced in years. It’s the brainchild of Richard Thomas, writer and editor. Richard has made literary quality a defining feature of all the projects he’s been involved with, and if you glance down the tables of contents of the anthologies he’s edited – The New Black, Burnt Tongues (which was a Stoker finalist) and The Lineup – you’ll see just what an innovative and ambitious approach to weird fiction he has.

Don’t listen to me – let Richard tell you more about Gamut himself:

Gamut will be accepting solicited submissions only for a time, but Richard fully intends to open the magazine up to new writers in due course. There will be non-fiction and commentary too.

I believe that Gamut is exactly the kind of webzine the genre landscape needs right now. Independent-spirited, innovative and just more willing to take risks than other venues. I hope to see it becoming a kind of meeting point, a hub for weird writers and readers of all persuasions. With the right support and enthusiasm, Gamut really could help to increase the profile of quality speculative fiction generally.

Please back Gamut now!

#weird 2016: Little Sister Death by William Gay

little sister deathWilliam Gay died in 2012. Little Sister Death was found with his papers, only partially typed up but still ostensibly complete in longhand draft. A group of Gay’s close friends and fellow writers put everything together in the right order. The novel was published late last year. I wrote about it as I went along, breaking off from my reading to record my thoughts.  The numbered sections below do not tie in precisely to the named parts of the novel, they are my own arbitrary divisions. Still, they make a kind of sense.

ONE

He had stopped wondering where he was. He knew from the crying of the whippoorwills that night had fallen. He knew that the ground was frozen, for he could hear the iron rims of the wagon wheels turning against earth frozen in icy whorls. He knew that he’d been in the woods; a branch had rapped him hard and cut his face, a trickle of blood had frozen, crusted like a scarlet slash from a solitary fingernail. (LSD p 6)

Little Sister Death opens in Tennessee, in the year 1785. Dr Mayfield has been kidnapped off the street in front of his house, taken by a man with muttonchop whiskers and his black servant to a log house in the middle of nowhere where he has been brought, as the black man tells him, to treat ‘sick people’. He’s never seen either of them before. He has no idea why he has been chosen, or what for. The man with muttonchop whiskers has some sort of mouth injury that has rendered him unable to eat or to speak clearly, though the doctor soon discovers that this is not the reason he has been taken.

I found the opening of this novel utterly compelling. There’s a sense of malice here – of trouble brewing – that makes you feel tense even as you’re reading. When the climax of this chapter comes – you’ll know when that is, believe me – it’s staggeringly horrifying, all the more so because although you’ve been waiting for something like this to happen, it still seems to erupt out of nowhere, just when you’ve started to think the doctor may be all right after all.

Gay’s writing is clear, direct, deceptively simple. Not a single word wasted and proving in spades that if you’re as good a writer as Gay you can do anything with straight narrative fiction – deliver any surprises and shocks you want.

TWO

‘He was watching the home place and he was pondering the nature of its evil, not wondering if there was evil indeed there but knowing it with an absolute certainty that he applied to very few things. What triggered it? he wondered. How did it work, and how did it ever come to be there? Something old and evil had happened here, so evil that came after was just echoes, just spreading ripples in the water so intense that Beale and his family had ultimately abandoned the house and rebuilt in the place he was now moving into. Though that didn’t help, did it, Old Jake? Binder thought. Whatever it was just walked across the ridge and knocked at your door. (p 41)

It’s now the 1980s. David Binder, a writer, has moved with his wife Corrie and young daughter Stephie from Chicago to Tennessee, and into the ‘Beale house’. Binder has acquired the house on the six-month lease. He intends to write a book about some notorious events there, a book that will be solidly commercial and make him some money. Already after just a couple of days on the property he seems too involved, already we are beginning to get the sense that this will not end well for him. Binder seems kind of selfish. He goes after what he wants and damn the consequences.  Corrie doesn’t seem to have much choice in anything. David doesn’t ever really confide in her. He thinks of her as ‘high strung’, and therefore not to be told certain things. The accidental killing of a rabbit is a bad omen, and reminiscent of the hare that dies under the plough at the beginning of John Fowles’s Daniel Martin.

This section initially lacks the magisterial gothic grandeur of the opening but this is not necessarily a bad thing as it creates an interesting duality between past and present. The present seems at first lighter, more disposable, but that texture gradually changes as we approach the Beale house itself. Seeing Binder watching the old property we get an echo of the feelings we experienced during the first chapter.

This is concise, intensely readable prose. It reminds me a little of some of the very best of Stephen King’s writing – the early chapters of ‘Salem’s Lot, for example – but entirely lacks that writer’s tendency to over-pad. There is a languid heat to the prose – nothing is hurried, not even the tension. One longs to hear this book read aloud in Gay’s southern accent.

THREE

Back to 1933. Owen Swaw, a sharecropper, is offered the tenancy of the Beale place in return for raising and harvesting the corn crop. He’s unexpectedly reluctant – there’s something about the place he doesn’t like – but his wife Lorene insists. They have four growing daughters and no space. The Beale place is enormous. The girls love it. Swaw begins to see things – odd things, odd people, a black dog – and his temper seems addled. Nothing pleases him – and then he is seduced by a ghost:

That’s my little sister yonder, the preacher said, pointing, and Swaw turned, so caught up in the snake that he was aware of the girl’s presence for the first time. She stood in the corner facing an isinglass window of the tent watching him and slowly turned. Swaw suddenly felt chilled, aware of the cold layers of wet clothing against his skin, and for a dizzy second he thought he was going to faint, for the world darkened and everything looked vague and far away. The preacher was still talking, but sounds had diminished and Swaw couldn’t understand him. (p 89)

This whole section is dry and airless, like the oppressive summer weather that pervades it. We sense the approach of disaster – the disaster we have had described to us in Binder’s first section – but our foreknowledge of what is to happen does not diminish it.

FOUR

He was obscurely happy, drawing comfort from sourceless and insignificant things he always took for granted: the work he was doing, the soft worn feel of the faded jeans he was wearing, the sounds of the night beyond the walls, the feeling of the peace they engendered, the chaos of the world walled out.

They ate the ice cream on the stone doorsteps, touched by a sense of closeness without having to voice it. It had been a long day, an unhurried purposeless day Binder had stolen from the book, like a day he had managed to hoard from his childhood, squander when the mood suited him. 

Later he would remember it as the last outpost of normalcy, a waystation to darker provinces. (p 111)

Things are weirding up on the Beale land. The haunting is taking hold. Binder is gripped – and not just by the book he is writing. It’s his family you fear for. The atmosphere is horrifying, a kind of polluted stillness. The plot is strongly reminiscent of the movie Sinister, though with none of that film’s determination to ruin itself through horror cliché.

Following the latest from Binder we have an extract from an earlier book on the Beale haunting, referred to frequently by Binder during the course of his research. Now we begin to learn more about the origins of the haunting, and the way these events mirrored themselves compulsively in what happened to Swaw.

FIVE

Sunday afternoon was more of the same, hot and clear and a mile long. The steady clack clack clack of the typewriter ceasing only when he paused to light a cigarette, make coffee, go to the bathroom. She was counting the days till Labor Day. (p 138)

As Binder becomes ever more deeply possessed by the rhythms and secret murmurings of the haunted dell, Corrie remembers other occasions when her husband was needlessly, destructively selfish. Binder stops watching TV and especially the news, anything that will remind him of the world beyond Beale Station, which comes to seem increasingly dreamlike, increasingly irrelevant.

On Labor Day weekend, Corrie’s sister Ruthie and her odious husband Vern come to visit. Binder can’t stand Vern, and feels increasingly annoyed with Corrie for not disliking him more. When they go to a local dance to celebrate the holiday, Vern is in his element. Binder is relieved to be out of the house for a bit. Then he sees someone in the crowd:

There was an eerie familiarity about her, as if she were a creation from his fantasies, from his dreams – or worse, he suddenly thought, fearing madness, from the book he was writing. The face was placid and smooth, seemed touched with the remnants of a lost, corrupt sweetness, a doomed innocence, and he knew irrevocably that he wanted her more than he had ever wanted anything. The book, Corrie, life itself. (p 176)

And Vern? I love this:

In the stark clarity of the moonlight his face looked vacuous and haggard, less like a bored housewife’s dream and more like a man drifting against his will aimlessly into middle age. (p 181)

Throughout this novel, Gay’s writing is strongest when he’s describing the gaunt and vaguely threatening beauty of the Tennessee landscape. The landscape is not to blame for the tragedy exactly, but it is complicit, it grants it asylum.

QUEEN OF THE HAUNTED DELL

We leave Binder hanging, arguing with Corrie in a hospital car park. Suddenly we’re in the present, and William Gay is recounting the true history of the Bell Witch haunting, on which Little Sister Death is based. We meet Chris Kirby, who now owns the Bell farm and who is obsessed with the story. The Blair Witch Project is referenced. Gay tells us about his own brush with the ghost. It’s a surprising and intriguing breach of the fourth wall and not surprisingly I find I like this aspect of the novel a lot. It makes the book feel strange, telescoped back into itself. What are we to make of it? The fact that it was published posthumously, reconstructed from Gay’s own longhand notes and typescript, makes us ask ourselves if it was finished, even.

In a sense, there are three books here: the grim southern gothic of the opening chapters, pulsing with life and cruel mysteries, the initially languid, steadily escalating horror of the Binder chapters, and finally the metafictional idea of a writer collating research material for that very novel. I like the resulting composite, a lot, though there is a part of me that still yearns for the novel that might have been, the novel we glimpse in that opening chapter, the kidnapped doctor on his fatal journey, the terrible act we see perpetrated in a remote farmhouse.

The problem with affect horror is its fatalism, the way its entire energy is directed towards generating an atmosphere of dread rather than pursuing the active forward momentum of a story. The opening sequence of Little Sister Death forms one of the most gripping and beauteously written passages of horror fiction I’ve read in a long time. Most of the rest of the book lacks that tension, because the law of affect horror tells us that David Binder is doomed from the beginning. There is nothing for us to do but sit around waiting for him to go crazy.

For me at least, the irruption of the metafictional into this scenario goes a long way towards mitigating the deadening effect of affect horror. It throws everything into question, even Binder’s eventual fate. If Gay had continued with Binder’s story we know exactly how it would have played out – he showed us already, with Owen Swaw. As things stand at the end, who knows? Perhaps Binder got lucky and got out. I know I like to think so.

A wonderfully engrossing read, with some enthralling writing, this is exactly the kind of novel we should be seeing on horror fiction awards shortlists, but rarely do. Little Sister Death is a valuable addition to the canon. Although its compact length is a refreshing and welcome change, I nonetheless find myself wishing this book had been longer. I miss the Binders.