Hair Side, Flesh Side by Helen Marshall
Reviewed by Nina Allan
27 February 2013
Towards the latter end of last year there was a vigorous online debate about the future of horror fiction. This particular incarnation of that perennial discussion was sparked by a piece on the Guardian books blog by Stuart Kelly, which argued that although SF and Fantasy showed signs of being elevated to literary respectability through the efforts of such writers as Charles Yu, Kelly Link, and of course China Miéville, horror, hampered as it is by its hidebound literary conservatism and unwillingness to think laterally, has mostly failed to raise its game. There were many, including myself, who came out to defend horror, which in reality is and always has been as multifarious and varied, both in quality and subject matter, as science fiction or fantasy or that nebulous and debatable genre that has come to be known in some quarters as litfic.
It's easy to name names from the past, the greats who keep us reading and inspire us to write. But as with any other literary endeavor, horror needs new blood to survive, to infuse old tropes with fresh vigor, to reveal the uncanny to us in different ways. I didn’t encounter Clive Barker's Books of Blood until the early 2000s, and can only imagine the impact they had, appearing as they did in the midst of the 1980s horror boom, driving a demented coach and horses through a commercially emasculated horror that had already, through sheer dint of repetition, begun to seem both prurient and dull, salacious and rather pathetic. Thomas Ligotti’s nu-Lovecraft wrought its own revolution a decade later, and writers like Caitlín R. Kiernan, whose 2012 The Drowning Girl is to my mind one of the finest novels of supernatural horror yet written, continue to bring depth and richness to a genre that has been written off so many times it’s outgrown its own embarrassment. Despite all rumor to the contrary, horror continues not only to produce enduring classics, but to inspire new writers and showcase unusual talent and original approaches. If further proof of this were needed, Helen Marshall's debut collection Hair Side, Flesh Side is it.
My first encounter with Marshall's fiction was at a reading she gave to launch her collection at last year's FantasyCon. I always enjoy author readings because they offer a pleasurably personal way of getting to know new work. But it was clear to me within a couple of pages that Marshall wasn't just new, she was good, and it was on the strength of that one story that I expressed an interest in reviewing this collection. I believe I can safely say I was not disappointed.
The story Marshall read at FantasyCon, entitled "Blessed," contains a central metaphor so startling it's unforgettable. It also happens to be the story that opens the collection. In it we meet Chloe, who has just been given an early birthday gift by her father and stepmother:
"For your birthday, kiddo," [her father] said in a warm, excited voice. "You're almost seven, and we wanted to give you this—"
"Lucia of Syracuse," her mum interrupted. He gave her a look, but it was an affectionate look, one that showed he didn't mind much. "Died 304. A real, genuine martyr." (p. 21)
If we as readers are shocked by this gift, "something peeking through, brown and leathery" (p. 20), Chloe isn't. Not only is it what she always wanted, in the world of the story the gift of a saint on a girl’s seventh birthday is entirely to be desired:
this wasn’t one of the knock-off relics that some of the other kids got; there were about five girls in her grade alone who claimed to have Catherine of Siena, and that was nonsense, there was only one Catherine of Siena and they couldn’t all have her. Melissa Johnstone admitted she only had a finger bone, and it was a hand-me-down from her sister's Theresa of Avila anyway—her parents couldn't afford a whole new saint, not for their third kid. (p. 21)
Chloe is told that Lucia has to stay at her father's house in order that the gift remain a secret from Chloe's "mum back home" who "doesn't like it" when Chloe talks about her father's new girlfriend. Almost inevitably the secret doesn't stay hidden for long, and Chloe's birth mother is quick to retaliate by giving Chloe a gift of her own in the shape of Joan of Arc:
"That'll teach him," she said, grinning sharply at Chloe. "You want to try martyrdom, try burnt at a stake." (p. 24)
As Chloe is shuttled back and forth between her warring parents, so her identification with her ghostly companions, Lucia of Syracuse and Joan of Arc, intensifies and deepens. In her imagination she first glamorizes, then envies the deadly sacrifices they made, eventually coming to believe that she alone can avert her mother’s breakdown through the refining force of a love that is truly saint-like:
and the pain was bad, it was very bad, but Chloe loved her mother very much and she was willing to bear this pain for her mother, she was willing to let the fire devour her if that was what her mother wanted, because that was what love was: it was fire and it was torture and it was being hacked to pieces, and broken fingers and knives and hammers and pitchforks and spears, and it was being drowned and it was being suffocated and it was being locked up in dark, dark places. (p. 25)
In the end of course, it is Chloe who pays the actual price of her parents' metaphorical blindness. "Blessed," in stark contrast to the incisive wit and dry, dark humor of its telling, is a devastating and eloquent indictment of the way children are used as pawns in the emotional stalemates enacted between their parents. Indeed, such selfish gamesmanship is a repeating pattern that turns out to be one of the central leitmotifs of Hair Side, Flesh Side. In "Lines of Affection," Marissa is forced to witness the disintegration of the relationship between her parents, and to accept the consequent intrusion of an attractive yet sinister "stranger" into her life, to the extent that every word her parents speak to her finally has about it the ring of falsehood. In "In the High Places of the World" a young girl's confusion over an absent father sends shock waves down the generations, finally finding disastrous solace in another's grief:
[Soledad] had not cried at all since her father left, though her mother had cried a great deal.
But outside the parakeets were beginning to sing. Soledad wanted to listen. She did not want this fierce woman gripping her wrists. She did not want to sit still while her mother read the letter one more time, and so, she began to cry after all, for she was only a little girl. (p. 145)
In the end, the only way that Soledad is able to escape her contradictory feelings of love and resentment for the adults in her life is by literally flying away from them, a power that diminishes as she grows older, thus causing Soledad to reject her own child in turn. Fear of rejection and its aftermath forms a second central plinth in Marshall's edifice. The loss of love is charted in the language of extreme disaster. Falling, burning, bodily dismemberment, corporeal nullification—Marshall skilfully deploys these imageries of forcible deconstruction to reveal the dehumanizing power of grief, and the outlandish and terrible shapes such a grief might take. In "Pieces of Broken Things," David Herschmire's absent wife Caroline finally reappears in their home—and in their marital bed—in the form of a monstrous golem, composed not of clay but of Caroline's few left-behind possessions previously buried by David in their back garden. In "The Old and the New," Becca finds herself falling gradually in love with John, "a good man, a kind man, the kind of man you ought never to leave" (p. 73). When John asks her to go to Paris with him, Becca believes their never quite expressed mutual affection is about to seek its true outlet. Instead she finds herself an unwilling tourist in the city's catacombs as John gives himself over to despair for the wife who has left him.
"It's Laura," he whispered, and his face made a thousand silent, painful ohs. "I think it's Laura.” He paused, and he was rubbing his ring finger then, and Becca stared at it, the band of light, untanned skin where that ring used to sit. In the washed-out light, he seemed to be a stranger. She didn’t recognise him anymore, there were dark smudges across his face, the eyeholes deep and sunken. And full of something. Wonder. Love. (p. 79)
John is eaten alive by his love, but in what is perhaps my favorite story in the book, "The Mouth, Open," it is the protagonist, Jonah, who ends up doing most of the eating. For Jonah, the loss of love opens in him an emptiness so vast the world itself seems barely large enough to fill it. Jonah has recently split from his girlfriend Sarah, a woman liked by the rest of his family and whom his sister Deborah had hoped her solitary brother—a computer programmer—might eventually marry. Desperate to give him an insight into what it means to be part of a tribe, Deborah encourages Jonah to accompany her on a trip to Zagreb to spend time with the large and voluble family of her own new husband, Petar. The long hot drive from the airport is only the first turning in what transpires to be a spiral into alienation and quite literal estrangement for Jonah, a character who reminded me strongly of the single men who populate the brilliantly claustrophobic fictions of Paul Bowles: men so hopelessly out of their depth in a culture they either cannot or will not understand, whose inability to connect has them stumbling ever more wildly into a situation that can only end in their spiritual and physical ruination.
For Jonah that ruination is wrought by food. Warned by Deborah at the outset to beware of Petar's Aunt Katica’s over-abundant hospitality, Jonah cannot help himself. Through the twenty or so pages of this marvelous and horrifying story, Jonah eats and eats and eats, gorging his way through a hallucinatory descent into hell, consuming dish after dish, small boys, young men, and eventually an entire country. For his new family and their kinsfolk, Jonah has become a creature of legend, a monster who might also be their savior:
He was heavy, so very heavy. The waves lapped over his face and he sank, Aunt Katica's words whispering in his brain.
The water felt cool against the heat of his skin, and he did not struggle. He could feel all the cousins inside him, the thick muscles of their bodies, their quiet strength seeping into him. There was a fierce joy to it, as if all the empty parts of himself had suddenly been filled with presence. He opened his mouth, and the water rushed inside.
Somewhere he could hear Sarah's voice: I don't want to see what you are becoming. (p. 128)
The language of this story—burgeoning, grandiose, terrifying—has a divine madness to it that is immediately, forcibly reminiscent of Clive Barker's great tale "In the Hills, the Cities," and Marshall's story, like all the stories in this book, shows a similarly naked enthusiasm for the power of the written image. It is this power—and the impact of writers past upon our written present—that forms a third abiding motif for this exceptional collection. In "Sanditon," Hanna, a literary editor about to embark on an affair with a married client, discovers that she has the complete manuscript of Jane Austen's unfinished final novel growing inside her. The story that follows—a comedy of control and dissemblance almost worthy of Austen herself—is an extreme metaphor for that state of being in limbo that is inevitably the product of such liaisons, whether you're the cheating spouse, the partner deceived, or the third person hanging around at the end of the phone. The story is also an homage to the enduring power of great literature, which will finally always transcend its petty origins:
"And the truth is—the real truth, between us women—is that I'd rather have Sanditon. Even if Gavin never wrote another word, there are plenty of Gavin Hales in this world and no one would really mourn." Her smile quirked up, reminding Hanna of Gavin's smile, the way two people can come to look alike when they have shared a life together. "But then there's you, my dear, and then there's Jane. And maybe the world can't live without her. Maybe that's what it all means." (p. 57)
Jane Austen appears again in "The Book of Judgement" as the devil's protégée, and in "Eternal Things" it's the ghost of Geoffrey Chaucer who brings the comfort of eternity to a mortally ill student of medieval manuscripts.
"I was never a very good lover," he continued, "too busy with books when I was young, never quite had the temperament for it. I wrote books on the subject, certainly, but when it came to that gate, he said it wasn't for me, the good or the bad, the well of grace or the prison of love. I don't think he meant to be cruel. Meant to help me, actually, to make it easier."
"I'm here now, aren't I? Not lonely, exactly. It's a kind of curse, I think, though Lord knows what I did to deserve it." (p. 226)
It is perhaps in this story and its examination of the gap between those who study literature and those who create it that Marshall finds her greatest inspiration. A medievalist scholar herself, Marshall combines a good academic's precision with a poet's instinct. The result is always inspired and often close to magic, a tapestry of language in stained glass colors, an array of words most perfectly selected for the description at hand. The stories in this volume—a series of existential horror nightmares that finally tip over into enchantment—rise far above being "just" horror stories. Yet they possess exactly that heightened sensibility, that hothouse atmosphere of the fever-dream, the hallucinogenic enlightenment that most epitomizes true horror fiction. When the unfortunate narrator of the lusciously Lovecraftian "A Texture Like Velvet" describes the substance of his life to us he describes us also, both readers and writers, and offers us a vision of our fate:
I have been a scholar for some years, and I have given all of my energies and most of my eyesight to the study of books. When I sleep, I smell the musty scent of their pages; when I wake, my fingers explore them, probe their bindings, the threads that stitch them together. I know the soft velvet of the flesh side and the smooth, oiled surface of the hair side. . . . I have devoted my life to recovering the irrecoverable and rebuilding what was lost, searching out its ghosts and giving them flesh within monographs and articles. . . . It should have been a thing of beauty, an act of the greatest love, but I cannot think upon it now without shuddering. (p. 62-3)
It is difficult to do justice to this collection in a review because there is almost too much to talk about, certainly in an article of this length. Every story in Hair Side, Flesh Side would stand up to more rigorous examination, and would I am certain reveal new depths and facets of itself at each subsequent rereading. The text does contain a few odd inaccuracies. You might apply to Oxbridge and sit the Oxbridge entrance exam, but you don't grow up there, you grow up in either Oxford or Cambridge. No Londoner would refer to Tottenham Court Road station as Tottenham Court, and while you might attend a theater performance in the West End or domicile in the East End, you live in North London or South London, full stop and no "end" required. But these missteps are so minor and so parochial, so few and far between it seems churlish even to mention them. Similarly, although the table of contents page has been designed in such a way as to obscure the order and even the full titles of stories, a conceptual decision I personally found mildly annoying, I could equally see the sense of this in further cementing the book’s aura of dislocation and surprise. The graphic artwork provided by Chris Roberts I found wonderful, and wonderfully complementary to the stories. ChiZine are once again to be congratulated on their innovative and inspirational approach to publishing fiction.
Sometimes a book comes along that is so original, so vibrantly alive, so beautifully imagined and so much a law unto itself that the only comment or advice a reviewer can offer is to say: go read it. Hair Side, Flesh Side is one such book, and having experienced it I am left with a genuine sense of excitement, thinking about where Helen Marshall might take us next.