One of Scots Whay Hae!’s Best Books of 2017 was Helen McClory’s novel Flesh Of The Peach, which should have reached a much wider readership but it became a casualty of the sudden demise of Freight Books, being published but with little or no publicity. I urge you to get a copy, if you still can, and treasure it. Thankfully, 404 Ink are publishing her latest collection of short fiction, Mayhem & Death – an apt title, taken from the powerful opening story ‘Souterrain’, as there proves to be plenty of both between its covers.
McClory’s stories share DNA with those of Kirsty Logan, particularly those in The Rental Heart and A Portable Shelter, and Ever Dundas’ excellent novel Goblin, but they are also reminiscent of Angela Carter and Alison Lurie, often looking to the natural world and animal kingdom, and the accompanying mythology, fantasy and fables, to examine themes of grief, alienation and loneliness. In fact Mayhem & Death has a dedication which reads ‘For The Lonely’, and it’s a subject which McClory returns to and examines throughout these tales.
One of my favourite stories, ‘A Voice Spoke To Me At Night’, is unbearably poignant as the narrator reflects upon her life by thinking on that of another individual through time and space, and, for McClory, it is often in the spaces between us where the most interesting questions arise. If what I have said so far suggests that the stories are unremittingly bleak, then I assure you that is not the case. Having recently revisited the work of Muriel Spark, particularly the novellas The Driver’s Seat and The Abbess of Crewe, I can say that McClory shares a similar sense of pitch-black humour, and a keen eye for the more absurd aspects of life, love and relationships.
As with Spark, McClory doesn’t waste words which makes her fiction perfect for the shorter forms. Some of her stories, such as ‘The Language Of Heaven’ ‘The Purvey’ and the unforgettable ‘A Coven Of Two’, are are only just over a page long but they all pack a punch. ‘Museum Piece’ is like a supernatural James Kelman story, and if you can’t imagine that then you’ll just have to read it for yourself. These stories are intensely sensual but also visceral, and are often uncomfortable as a result – there’s blood, sweat and tears on these pages. They do what the best writing should, making you face your own truths, and asks questions to which you may not like the answers.
The longest story in the book is the final one, a novella-length claustrophobic horror story ‘Powdered Milk’, where Alien meets The Shining meets Agatha Christie, and it bodes well for Helen McClory’s next longer work. Whatever the form she is proving to be one of the most exciting and interesting writers around, finding and expressing the beauty and horror of everyday life as few can. At a time when it is increasingly rare that authors, and publishers, are prepared to take risks in terms of form and content, she stands alongside the aforementioned Logan and Dundas, as well as David Keenan, Graeme Macrae Burnet, Kevin MacNeil, Jenni Fagan, and too few others, as a writer to treasure.
Mayhem & Death is published by 404 Ink. They have also republished Helen McClory’s award-winning debut collection of stories, On The Edges Of Vision as well as her Jeff Goldblum themed zine, The Goldblum Variations.