Published by Unsung Stories
ISBN 9781907389436 pbk
ISBN 9781907389443 ePub
Metamorphoses sudden and brutal characterize many of the stories in Malcolm Devlin’s excellent collection of – what? Speculative fiction? Horror? Gothic? Supernatural? Dystopian? I am happy to say I don’t know what it is precisely, for, like a lot of good writing, Devlin’s eludes definite classification and description, and to pigeon-hole it as one thing or another would be to diminish and distort its achievement. It evokes genre without being bound by it; its ideas and metaphors speak of larger things beyond genre expectations; its departure point is ordinary life made extraordinary by the seepages and eruptions of the inexplicable, the unknown and half-suspected, the fearful and the beguiling.
Devlin’s prose is polished to a bright colloquial sheen that rarely dulls; his characters speak as if they have just thought what to say. It is confident stuff that puts the reader immediately at ease: it is reassuring to sense one is in the hands of a writer who knows exactly where they are going and how to get there.
The collection traces a nervous line that leads from adolescence to adulthood, from isolation to community. In ‘Passion Play’, the opening story, Cathy McCullough, a schoolgirl, has gone missing; her ‘best friend’ is chosen to re-create Cathy’s last known journey, a walk that leads through dense thickets present and remembered to something very dark indeed. Here and throughout, one of the most interesting themes of the collection is revealed: power, a subject rarely written about with any seriousness in the current cultural moment. Devlin writes about power in its various guises: the power of the past over the present; the power of the unknown and inexplicable over daily life; the power that exists in unequal measure between people. Power is exercised, revealed, in these stories both casually – a conversation in Betty’s Tearooms, for example (‘Songs Like They Used to Play’) – and ominously – societal reaction to ‘Lunar Proximity Syndrome’ (‘Dogsbody’), the dark magma of unliveability in ‘The End of Hope Street’.
Paradoxically, ‘Passion Play’ sets the tone for the collection despite a certain confusion of tone: for me, the interior voice of the young girl is intermittently endowed with the vocabulary and imagination of her creator, which undermines the premise of the story. The tone of ‘Two Brothers’, on the other hand, is perfect, its dissection of the effects of public school, the internalization of the worst Victorian values and its disdain for honest feeling, is chilling. This is power again, but this time that of institutions, of upbringing, of tradition over the natural and spontaneous.
The spontaneous outgrowth of unstoppable transmogrification in ‘Breadcrumbs’ has venerable antecedents in classical myth – one thinks of all those dryads, especially – and also in fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty and the tales of Angela Carter. This is an amoral transformation that just happens – one doesn’t know what to think of it, which is perhaps the point. One suspects that even the author was taken aback by the fecundity of this story, which, in common with ‘The End of Hope Street’, is a little too long for its own good.
Elsewhere, the abnormal continues to pullulate and ramify, overwhelming the normal:
In her turbulent world, any island of normality, no matter how small, stood little chance of remaining a sanctuary. (‘We All Need Somewhere to Hide’)
The monster within – literally, beneath the skin – prowls this story and ‘Dogsbody’, where he is ‘uncomfortable, under his human skin’. Here, ideas connect in Jekyll and Hyde fashion via Leopard Man to a particularly unsettling fear: ‘It’s frightening, isn’t it? That sense that you’re not quite in control of who you are?’, a resonant insight that could stand as epigraph – and epitaph – for the entire collection, as Tom in ‘Songs Like They Used to Play’, understands:
Tom imagined his life as a transplant operation. The fictional world he’d lived in was being cut out of him and a weighty reality was being wired into the hole it had left behind. But transplants were dangerous, and Tom found himself living at one remove, convinced his body would rebel at any arbitrary moment, rejecting the reality he had been forced to accept.
This is how many persons in existential anguish can feel, day in, day out. ‘Songs Like They Used to Play’ reads like something out of Twin Peaks, complete with weird nightclub at the end of a hidden passage behind shimmering curtains (shades of Blue Velvet), with strange music and even stranger habitués – Lynch’s signature grotesques would not have been out of place in this place of dread, where time seems poised on the brink of revelation. I suggest these linkages, not to belittle You Will Grow Into Them, but to illustrate its depth and power.
And in ‘The End of Hope Street’ (a gloriously ambiguous title):
This was how it started, he thought. In corners. In clefts. In alcoves where the shadows conspired and bred like spiderwebs. As he stared into the corner of the room, he imagined how the darkness might creep across the contours of the ceiling tiles, snaking across the room like tangles of long black hair.
The same story has this intensely human gesture of rebellion:
There would be a Christmas that year in Hope Street, no matter what happened, no matter what it represented. It would be both spiritual and secular, and in its own peculiar way, it would be an act of rebellion. Because even joy and companionship could be subversive under the right conditions.
This spark of hope is probably a good place to end: reviews can only do so much, and this one has left much that is interesting out of account. If it has left you with a wish to discover these stories for yourself, you will not be disappointed. Prepare yourself for the genuinely unheimlich.