Mayhem & Death, by Helen McClory, is a collection of short stories, of varying length, from a writer whose bio informs us, ‘There is a moor and a cold sea in her heart.’ Her writing reflects this. It is rich in imagery, powerful and shadowed. Deep within the bowels of her carefully chosen words, reflections of the ordinary are made dark, lonely, threatening. However inspiring the view on the surface of an individual’s life may be, under McClory’s piercing gaze its desolate depths are revealed.
Yet these stories are deliciously compelling, an antidote for those who baulk at the recent trend for ‘Up Lit’, who wish to challenge their fears in our troubled times rather than escape them. Whilst offering a hat tip to the macabre in places, this collection revels in the living. Told with a scent of folklore in style, the tales remain vividly contemporary.
Automaton Town is one of the more surreal stories. The setting evokes a large country house – lawns, ballroom, servants. A model of a town is purchased, transported with some difficulty and set up for viewing. A key winds the mechanism and its components start to move. The resident family, riveted in their plush chairs, soon recognise the lives being modelled as actions and truths that generally go unnoticed are exhibited for all to see.
Such inventive thinking threads its way through many of the tales. In A Voice Spoke to Me at Night the narrator encounters a figure from the past and ponders why they have been chosen for this visitation. Their life is mundane, at times lonely, but largely nondescript. What is revealed is the generally unacknowledged determination of individuals to continue, however pointless daily life can at times appear. The tale is wistful yet retains a spirit of optimism.
Elements of the prose are akin to poetry and many of the stories allow for a degree of interpretation. The Expectation of a Job Well Done could be a metaphor for the sacrifices required to attain desired achievements, and how these will transform the subject. The protagonist willingly follows the instructions he is given, performing to an audience who remain indifferent to the damage he inflicts on himself. By the end he has become ‘other than he had been in all his days thus far’. It is not clear if these changes will be considered an improvement.
A favourite story of mine was The Romantic Comedy which opens with ‘You want the wrong things.’ The protagonist is the epitome of every heroine of romantic films, now determined to no longer acquiesce to her assigned role.
No more smiling on cue. No more men standing too close explaining how to exist, believing, if left to your own devices, you’d not quite manage such a feat.
She rides her horse away from the ‘town of unacknowledged debasement’ where she is regarded by a man who offers roses and then feels anger at her decision to choose autonomy.
Another tale I particularly enjoyed was Take Care, I Love You. This transcribes a section from the Wikipedia article on the Fermi Paradox and answers each point as though it were a questionnaire about the everyday. Somehow this innovative structure works, offering snapshots of how alienating modern living can be. It is poignant yet wryly amusing.
The collection finishes with a longer work, picking up on characters from the opening story. Powdered Milk imagines an experimental, deep water station that has been set up to study how a group of people would survive long term if cut off from everyone else, as would happen on a long space flight. Initially the carefully selected volunteers have internet access and regular supply drops. When these cease they are entirely on their own, not knowing if this cutoff has been planned, if it is a failure in the technology, or if there has been some cataclysmic event above. Thus they cannot be sure if their situation will ever change, if this is it until death. As a study in the purpose of hope, the need for a possibility of change, I found this story fascinating.
The themes and their presentation throughout are full, rich and impressive in scope and inventive thinking. There is a degree of experimentation but each tale remains accessible. This is a recommended read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, 404 Ink.