Dead Relatives, by Lucie McKnight Hardy, is the book for the spooky season. It is a collection of thirteen short stories – eight of which have previously appeared in other publications, the remainder original to this collection. The author is expert at writing the macabre into the ordinary. The shadowed and shifting undercurrents permeate characters’ everyday interactions and behaviour.
The titular opening story is also the longest, building tension from the first page. It is told from the point of view of thirteen year old Iris, who lives with her Mammy and their two loyal servants in the crumbling family mansion. Iris has never been beyond the grounds, which she remembers were once well maintained. Set in the 1960s, the family own neither television nor radio. She learns of the outside world only from the array of ladies who periodically come to stay. Iris’s best friend is her doll, but even this must be kept hidden.
“‘Cold hands, cold heart,’ I say, which is what Mammy always says, and I smile my special smile, just for her. I want to show her Dolly. I think Nancy would like Dolly, because Dolly is a lot like me and it seems that Nancy likes me. But I remember what Mammy has said, and so I keep quiet about Dolly. Instead, I put my hand out and rest it on Nancy’s belly.”
The second story, Jutland, tells of a young family moving to the Danish island where the artist husband hopes to concentrate on his painting. The wife, Ana, is a writer, struggling to revive the novel she was forced to set aside following the birth of her second child. The couple’s firstborn has yet to speak, communicating with gestures. Ana is not happy, resentful of her husband’s demands now her role is defined as mother and milking machine.
“He paints shit. He paints like shit. He is shit. But me? I’m a writer. Would you like to hear about that? About the awards I have won and the reviews in the broadsheets?”
There are subtle links between individual stories, small mentions of features previously employed in the varied narratives. What runs through each tale is the unhappiness inherent in families. Some revolve around tragedies, others ingrained character traits. All are nuanced, the reader trusted to make connections.
The Pickling Jar is as shocking as it is darkly humorous, telling of a village community with competitive traditions that are seriously questionable.
Cavities is one of the shorter stories but packs a powerful punch. The lingering sadness makes it hard to blame the protagonist for her actions.
Likewise, Resting Bitch Face, provides a warning of the potential repercussions when women are badly treated. Many of these stories are not for the faint hearted.
Some of the later tales move in the direction of the supernatural rather than the macabre. Mostly these uncanny elements invade insidiously. Children in particular struggle through lack of what they long for, even those being raised by parents who care for them. Those whose lives are followed into adulthood carry with them the damage inflicted.
Wretched is set in a near future Britain and provides a timely warning about acceptance of government propaganda. Citizens are given a Value Index that determines what goods they have access to, including food. The Initiative clears the streets of undesirables, processing them to provide a compliant labour force. Even those who perceive what is being done often choose to look away for fear of social censure and personally damaging repercussions. There is a chilling recognition of the direction England could currently be heading.
The final story, The Birds of Nagasaki, details a key event in the lives of a young brother and sister. The cruelty featured is deeply upsetting despite centring on an item of clothing. The skill with which the author makes readers care is impressive.
In fact this entire collection is impressive. The writing is taut and fluid, disturbing yet compelling. The horror is subtle yet penetrating. A darkly fabulous, recommended read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dead Ink.