There are seas where the dead lie so thick they are pressed into a layer of silt the colour of yoghurt that sits at the bottom, under all that water, waiting to be churned up briefly by the fall of the next shipwrecked boat.
Scottish author Helen McClory is the winner of a Saltire Book Award and a favourite of Margaret Atwood. Her first short story collection was published in 2015, followed by a novel, Flesh of the Peach, in 2017. This most recent collection plunges the reader into the nightmarish worlds of its titular Mayhem & Death.
A woman awaiting sacrifice to arrest a tidal wave spends her last moments eating yoghurt; another makes toffee before thrusting her neck into the jaws of a rabid dog. Sometimes the danger is subtler. In “Automaton Town”, a mechanical miniature town amuses the wealthy family who have gathered to view it in their ballroom:
Down a side street, a cart was upset, spilling apples as a horse reared in fright. High up in a tenement, a man with blocky fists punched a woman in a red apron in the jaw, and she stumbled backwards against a wall. The noises grew, a mess of sounds that filled the ballroom. The daughter covered her ears while her parents sat enraptured.
As the chaos within the automaton escalates, the watchers bristle. We discover that the model includes a replica of the family’s house and ballroom. By the end, the narrative resembles a Hieronymus Bosch painting reflected from a circus mirror. In part the chill the reader feels comes from the almost entirely objective narration: the lack of human emotion is surreal. Once or twice we slip into the daughter’s consciousness, which has the effect of redoubling our discomfort.
Often the future looks strangely like the past, setting everything off-kilter. In “Means,” Lina sweeps cabins in exchange for cornmeal and coffee, and the ‘dusty golden grass’ feels like a story of early colonists – except that a war has “blown through the world”. When Lina borrows a book from a dead man’s cabin, a strange feeling causes her to dispose of it outside the nearest other cabin, one inhabited by a young man. From here the story mimics a fable or a morality tale, which suits the dust and books with gilded bindings:
The young man was never the same afterwards. Something in his life had changed. He had grown unexpectedly rich, or at least, had prospects of wealth. There was a bustle of activity around his cabin. Porters coming and going, loading up his possessions …
McClory plays with our expectations, reversing the denouement: Lena encounters the young man years later, but instead of having the look of one “who makes wild bargains and is handed his years of regret”, he has continued to prosper. The language of the story is rich too: flower beds in the park are “swollen to overflowing with white stocks and burst red poppy heads”. There is something of Angela Carter in the admixing of the archaic and the modern, the death we feel beneath the surface, and our vulnerability to perversion, as though both Carter and McClory know it’s not empathy that keeps us reading but the strength we take from others’ fear.
In a tweet, Margaret Atwood described this collection as “shiny dark licorice mind candy”. In “This Land”, images like a mouse punctured from the inside by spikes ‘shining brightly all down the length of its spine’ are scattered like two-cent chews. Elsewhere the quotidian and the remarkable jar to magical effect: “Somewhere not too far off a galaxy rotated, dragging broken glass and pink and blue vapours around it the exact way birdsong loops through a more sustaining atmosphere …” McClory’s comparing of iterative sound to a galaxy’s orbit causes electrons to fire in an unused part of one’s brain.
The imagery comes from a sharp emotional intelligence that communes with our own but that we can’t always trace back to the words on the page. At the conclusion of “Means”, we’re told “Lina tilted her face to receive [her husband’s kiss], and stared out at the space beyond her life”, a space that correlates with Lina’s fear of the dead man’s cabin at the start. Emotion like this makes the stories vibrate.
The prose is often hypnotic, so that one feels awash with it. Some sentences covet line breaks. (Indulge me.) “And it is summer time / and the moss is hanging from the trees / and all your letters come floating down the stairs / to make themselves creased in my hands”. Some seem devised for a musical quality, their sound and emphasis more important than sense: “But this is the medieval moment unspooling, in stone, fabric, candle, fevered, harsh and full of miracles.” Others read like a cipher, as though the author is present, braiding herself between words: ‘Slip into something more rumour, more horse-brass hung above the snarling fire.’ Somewhere here lies an issue with clarity; where meaning is at risk, so is impact. To find satisfaction in the book, a reader must be comfortable in dark spaces.
The pieces are very short, mostly a page or two, so we don’t know much about characters’ desires or motivations. The result is that our empathy, and the tension that usually derives from it, is looser than usual: the predominant feeling is unease. Stories also share a sense of the absurd. Mocking and resigned, these characters are willing to accept the unacceptable, such as when Death sits on a protagonist’s sofa and ‘pulls all the topping off his pizza slice’. Another piece begins:
So I woke up one morning to my own house changed around me, to find the soot fallen in the fallen down chimney, a set of tiny feline bones on what had been the rug, and now was nothing but a mouldered scrap, but I felt so rested, so glorious.
The story of someone sleeping through the destruction of her home should be one of fear; the person is unlikely to wake feeling, as she does in McClory’s story, buoyed up by light. It’s the mismatch that creates the disquiet, because the language itself is not absurd: the actions and emotion might not match, but the emotion and its language do.
The novella “Powdered Milk”, which concludes the collection, takes place in a deep-sea marine biology station shortly after an unknown event has caused a loss of communication with the surface. Relations within the crew quickly deteriorate. The closed setting and severing of the command chain create a Lord of the Flies-style unravelling of social codes. Whereas the imagery of the short stories is deeply affecting, the novella is more analytical, and while this might flow from protagonist Maddie’s role as crew psychologist, it creates a distance that is less engaging:
They had come to terms calmly but without denial with the inherent risks of the project, and the unknowability of all that could go wrong. So they were neither ants nor gears. Perhaps there was a tinge of fatalism to the general outlook, but nothing worse than that. Professionalism and the shared, self-enforced belief that they in their actions were adding to the stock of human knowledge were motivation enough to carry forwards.
There’s frequent foreshadowing and little direct speech. Instead of a lingering close-up of the crew’s degeneration, ratcheting up our unease with the same vividness we find in the short stories, the narrative hastens over weeks and months, never quite reaching the emotional intensity its events signify. There is still however the same brilliance we find in the short stories. She writes of churches:
The book is dedicated to the lonely and McClory succeeds in metabolising these “many varieties: in unendingly surprising ways. Mayhem & Death leads us through difficult material with unflinching conviction. Often what we feel being threatened in the slightly off beat, skewing of reality is not one’s own mortality, but the stability of the physical world that sustains all human life.