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Archive for March, 2012

I read “Come Closer” after seeing it recommended on a Mumsnet thread asking for people to share their favourite “scary books”. Despite this, I should begin by saying that – the odd moment of utter horror excepted – this is not, strictly speaking, a scary book. At least, it’s not a scary book in the sense that it’s highly unlikely to give you nightmares (and I say this as someone who was plagued for years with terrible cold-sweat dreams about this completely unconvincing giant snake from Doctor Who).

What it is, though, is scary in the same tradition as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”, and Ira Levin’s “Rosemary’s Baby” (which I raved about here). It’s scary because it raises some uncomfortable questions about the consequences of power. Specifically, the consequences of giving power to a previously powerless woman.

At first sight, the plot is incredibly simple. The narrator, Amanda, describes the experience of being possessed by a female demon named Naamah. As the book unfolds and Naamah becomes more and more dominant, Amanda’s mental processes become increasingly unreliable. The story’s ending is ambiguous; on the one hand, Amanda has lost everything she ever valued, but on the other hand, Naamah – now fully in possession of Amanda’s body – is having the time of her life, living exactly how she pleases and enjoying every minute.

It has to be said that there are plenty of books about demonic possession. But what really makes the book sing is the ambiguity of its central premise. Is Amanda really being possessed by a separate entity? Or is she acting out some hidden part of her own character?

The opening chapter has Amanda’s boss hauling her over the coals for submitting a report to him which contains the memorable opening, “Leon Fields is a cocksucking faggot. Leon Fields eats shit and likes it.” Amanda is horrified. This isn’t the report she wrote, she assures Leon. Unsurprisingly, he believes her – because truly, who would write that in a report about their boss and then deliberately leave it on their desk for them to find? Amanda returns to her desk to think about what just happened:

I left his office and went back to my own desk. I hadn’t written the fake proposal, but I wished I knew who did. Because it was true; Leon Fields was a cocksucking faggot, and he did eat shit, and I had always suspected that he liked it very much.

Back in her apartment, Amanda and her husband Ed are plagued by a strange tapping noise. They hunt high and low, but are unable to find any cause. Later on, an apparent warehousing error at a publishing house means that, instead of a copy of “Design Issues Past And Present”, Amanda receives “Demon Possession Past And Present”. Reading it, she discovers that strange tapping noises can be the first sign of a demonic haunting.

On the one hand, Amanda’s secret and outrageous thoughts about her boss make it into a report she was seen leaving on his desk. On the other, both Amanda and Ed can hear the noises. Amanda’s experiences fit the profile of demonic possession, but this profile comes from a book she may very well have ordered herself. Is Naamah a separate entity or not? We’re pulled one way, then the other. In the hands of a more florid writer, this could be incredibly irritating, but Gran’s style is sparse and minimal, and the result is a pleasingly subtle undercutting of all possible interpretations of Amanda’s experience. By the end, we genuinely don’t know if we’ve read an account of demonic possession, or of mental illness.

Or is it, instead, something else altogether? Is this a story about the consequences of a woman throwing off the shackles of acceptable female behaviour? The central relationship of the book is Amanda’s marriage to Ed, which gradually unravels as the “possession” takes hold. But is this a tragedy, or a liberation?

Well, what do we think?

I was twenty-eight when I met Edward. I felt lucky to have found him. He was a man you could trust, a big-boned healthy blond. No skeletons in his closet…He didn’t like sports or late-night television…he had a good mind for details, a good memory, and a determination to follow through on his word: if he said he was going to call at three, he called at three…

…there were a few things about Ed, small things, that drove me crazy. For instance he was almost compulsively neat – a scrap of paper on the coffee table for longer than a day or two would upset him. He was given to a rigidity that could be slightly repulsive…if there was no thin-sliced white bread for toast in the morning he could be thrown into a mood for hours. And he didn’t take any deviation from a plan well…and the toothpaste cap that absolutely must be replaced immediately, and the shirts that had to be folded just so…

Ed also over-plays his allergies to stop Amanda from smoking or having pets, polices her drinking habits and turns up five hours late on Valentine’s Day, to a romantic dinner in he himself had proposed. He might have good hair and do the tax-returns on time; but that’s not really much of a trade.

Ed’s attitude to Amanda is bossy and paternalistic. Even though she’s an independent woman with her own career, he still tries to force her into the role of home-maker. When she (or Naamah) resists, it’s sometimes hard not to give a little cheer. Here’s Ed attempting to pick a huge fight with Amanda for failing to cater for a dinner-party for Ed’s friends:

“I don’t understand,” he yelled. “You didn’t make ANYTHING? We have people coming over in one hour and you don’t even have a box of fucking rice in the house? What the hell am I supposed to serve, cereal and ice cream?”

“No, Ed,” I told him, “You mean you didn’t make anything, you don’t even have a box of rice, and you have people coming over in one hour. And no, they can’t have my ice cream.”

This is the acceptable face of female resistance – standing up to domestic drudgery, refusing to be bullied by the patriarchy. Other incidents are more ambiguous. Is it liberating or destructive to sleep with strangers, to drink to excess, to smoke, to gatecrash parties wearing provocative clothing? Still other incidents are unequivocally hideous. We see Amanda committing acts of violence and intimidation against men and women, against loved ones and strangers – sometimes out of revenge, and sometimes just because it’s fun.

I really like that Amanda’s story doesn’t progress from you-go-sister to that’s-a-bit-much-actually to Jesus-you-need-locking-up. The violent, selfish, destructive acts committed by Naamah are there from the start. In this narrative, the opposite of “repressed” is not “liberated” but “dangerous”. We never get our moment of perfect balance between Amanda’s good-girl obedience and Naamah’s destructive rage.

And that’s what makes this story really interesting. By casting off the shackles of societal expectation, Amanda discovers she can do pretty much anything she pleases. She can insult her boss. She can threaten strangers. She can steal what she wants. She can hurt and even kill people who annoy her. She can have sex with any piece of pretty rough-trade that takes her fancy. She can almost drown a child in full view of her parents. She can burn her husband with cigarettes. She can do anything she likes, because she’s stopped caring what other people think. Even in the mental hospital where the novel ends (of course Amanda – quite literally a Madwoman in the Attic – ends up in a mental hospital…where else could a Feminist Horror novel possibly end?), Naamah / Amanda is still having the time of her life:

First I stabbed a girl with one of those home-made knives. I don’t know why. Then, in solitary, I grew my nails long and attacked on of the guards. Luck for her she wasn’t pretty to begin with. So I got moved to high security.

She has a grand old time here, she has all the girls following her orders, she’s sleeping with one of the guards and maybe one of the doctors. She’s like a fox in a chicken coop here in the hospital.

I’m a feminist. (I have the mug and everything.) I am absolutely committed to the concept of equal rights, and to a life lived according to individual abilities, rather than gender expectations. I believe we all have the right to live our lives in a way that makes us happy, rather than a way society says we ought to live them.

But of course, there’s always one crucial caveat, which is that we don’t harm others by doing so. Whether she’s a true demon, or just the externalisation of Amanda’s own self, Naamah is the inevitable outcome of liberation without conscience.

“Come Closer” is available from Amazon for £7.19 in paperback and for £6.83 as a Kindle edition. I’m sure these price points make sense to someone.

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Well, to be fair to them, it probably does.

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So, my goodness; I’m on the Edge Hill Short Story Prize longlist…

I’m in some scary talented company on here. I’m on the same list as authors whose work I’ve read in awe; authors who review other people’s books for The Guardian; authors whose work has featured in the Times 100 Best Books of the Decade; authors who’ve previously been long-listed for the Orange Prize and the Booker (!!!); and my fellow Scott Prize winner AJ Ashworth, whose dark, beautiful collection “Somewhere Else, Or Even Here” is simply glorious.

All these brilliant people’s brilliant books. And then my book. My book! My book that I love. Here it is again, just because I love posting the cover that magically turned out to be exactly how I dreamed it would look, and because I probably need to do better at posting links to the Salt Publishing and Amazon pages where you can buy it from.

I’m trying to express how making the long-list feels, and the closest analogy I can find is that it’s like watching one of your children at Sports Day. Of course, you’d love it if they were in the medals. If they actually won, you’d die of pride. But basically, you’re just thrilled that they’re taking part. There there are, by themselves on the field with the big boys and the big girls; a proper citizen, out in the world.

Go, go, go, little collection of Fairy Tales! And remember, I’ll love you, no matter what.

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…or, we could just go to Pizza Express instead.

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I’m So Ashamed Of It, But Must Admit…

Oh, Elena. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love the way you sit in your Trigonometry lesson, artlessly pouring forth the secrets of your heart into you diary. I love the way you decide not to press charges against Tyler for sexually assaulting you, because that wouldn’t be romantic or feminine or anything, so apparently we’re just going to sweep that one under the carpet. (Okay, just to be clear – I don’t love that at all. In fact, I find that depressing beyond words.) I love how you appear to have skipped every meal anyone has offered you in the last few days, and I love how this is presented as evidence of your ineffable female delicacy. Most of all, I love your naive and icky assumption that adults find watching you and Stefan lick each other in public even the slightest bit arousing:

“…he was right, not to go up to each other in a public hallway, not unless we want to give the secretaries a thrill.”

Kissing was not invented until 1989. TRUFAX

And it’s not just the secretaries who are in danger of spontaneous combustion from their mere proximity to two horny teens who really, really want to have sex with each other:

“When we’re with each other I can feel how he feels, and I know how much he wants me, how much he cares. There’s an almost desperate hunger inside him when he kisses me, as if he wants to pull the soul right out of my body. Like a black hole that

Well, a little break there because Ms Halpern caught me. She even started to read what I’d written out loud, but then I think the subject matter steamed her glasses up and she stopped.”

Yes, Elena, I’m sure Ms Halpern was completely turned on by the thought that when Stefan kisses you it feels like he’s sucking the soul right out of your body. Or maybe she was disturbed by your revelation that you were assaulted by Tyler, but won’t be pressing charges, and none of the adults around you seem to have a problem with that. Perhaps she was concerned that both you and Stefan seem to have an incipient eating disorder. It could even be that she stopped because she couldn’t keep going without crying with laughter.

Or maybe she stopped from compassion, because frankly you sound like a lunatic, and even the very meanest teacher might think that gratuitous mockery of her students, in public and in full view of their classmates, is a bit much.

Anyway, Elena, let’s talk about some more things I love about you. I love your naked gloating over the knowledge that you totes have Stefan and Caroline totes doesn’t have Stefan and that means you win, like, for reals. (No, seriously, I do sort of love that. It’s not a very worthy emotion, but I can relate to it. It makes you seem real and human. I prefer you gloating over your hot boyfriend who prefers you to your mortal enemy, to you flouncing around the place skipping meals. Also, I do know you don’t come from California. There’s just something about you that compels me to break out my Inner Valley Girl.) I love that Stefan is doing everything he can to tell you that HE NEVER EATS FOOD AND YET STILL HE DOESN’T DIE, and yet the word “Vampire” remains about as far from your consciousness as the word “Feminist”, because you are besotted with the concept of being worthy of him.

And I love that you and your friends are on the committee for the creation of a Haunted House school fundraiser, and you actually have serious conversations about where you’re going to put the Bloody Corpse.

Happy Hallowe'en!

So, here you are, alone in the school, after hours and after dark. Specifically, you have locked yourselves in the school, because somehow you’ve decided that the chances of a random passing murderer trying to get in are far greater than the chances of there being a fire and you needing to get out, and you’re talking about the best way to present the illusion of someone you all know having been savagely hacked to death, for the purposes of raising money. And, as you and your friends try to find the non-existent sweet-spot which will allow your portrayal of said Bloody Corpse to be both realistic, and tasteful, the lights go out.

Sensible courses of action when all the lights go out
1. Wait a minute and see if they come back on
2. If they stay off, everyone evacuate the building and then call maintenance
3. If you have any suspicion that you are in danger, close the door to the room you’re in and use your cell-phone to call the police

Stupid courses of action when all the lights go out
1. Two of you go off to look for the maintenance man, leaving one of you behind, in the dark, by themselves, even though two people you know have been randomly attacked in the last week and everyone has a feeling that something’s wrong.
2. The one who’s left behind suddenly realises she’s being watched by a predatory-looking stranger.
3. But he’s good-looking, so that’s somehow okay.

Elena, I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to love you for not freaking out and completely losing your shit at this point. Unfortunately, I am very much of the opinion that sometimes, freaking out and completely losing your shit is entirely the best course of action. Also, I think we’ve discussed before that there is no inherent contradiction between a man being well-dressed and really good-looking, and a man being a sexual predator. So instead, I think I’m going to love you for completely missing the point of the next couple of minutes of your life:

“What am I doing? She thought in shock. I was about to let him kiss me. A total stranger, someone I met a few minutes ago.

But that wasn’t the worst thing. For those few minutes, something unbelievably had happened. For those few minutes, she had forgotten Stefan.”

Ohnoes! In the excitement of meeting a second man you fancy, you actually forgot about the existence of the first man you fancy, who you’ve been absolutely crazy about for at least…at least three weeks or so…and who you decided was the love of your life within about…oh, about forty seconds…of laying eyes on him.

Some might take this to mean that Stefan might not, actually, be all that and a bag of chips. But not you. In the teeth of the evidence, you’re sticking to your stubborn belief that we all get just one soulmate, and Stefan is yours.

Elena Gilbert, I really, truly think I love you. You’re stupid and self-absorbed and you worry about the strangest things at the strangest times. But you do at least entertain me along the way.

Stay fickle.

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It’s hard to predict which things my children are going to truly value. I’ve had the experience of watching my little ones play for hours with the box rather than the contents. I’ve provided gorgeous, plushy, irresistibly cute lovies for them to go to bed with, then watched them fall in love with a cross-eyed monster that looks like it was made out of dishrags and unwashed knickers. I once threw out a half-disembowelled stuffed apple with a face on, in what I thought was a mercy killing, only to discover I’d just got rid of a much-valued patient from the Toy Hospital.

As a result, I’m cautious about throwing away things that belong to the kids. But surely, surely, I must be on safe ground with this one.

We got this out of a mechanical-grabber toy-vending machine at the pub we sometimes go to for lunch at the weekend. What it was doing in there in the first place, I really can’t say. A purse with the name “Emily” on it seems a strangely specific choice for a machine where no other named item of any description is provided. Do girls called Emily have a greater-than-average propensity to buy things with their name on? This seems unlikely.

Similarly, I don’t really know how my son came to pick it out. I did try to get to the bottom of it, but he launched into one of those endless rambling non-explanations that lasts until the end of time and gives you every conceivable piece of information apart from the one thing you actually wanted to know, and after the first few minutes I decided life was too short and sent him off to the soft-play instead. Next, I tried asking my daughter, but the best she could manage was that “It was some sort of mistake”. (Um, thanks for that.)

However, the upshot of this is: we now own a small, crap purse with the name “Emily” printed all over it. Its design appears to have been specifically developed to make sure your children will lose things whenever they open it. The clip is not much use as a clip, but is excellent at manicuring your fingernails, as long as that your manicure goal was to have raggedy half-moon-shapes chopped out of the ends of each of your nails. Also, neither of my children are even called Emily.

I want to throw this away. I really, really do. But when I opened it to check there wasn’t anything useful inside, I found this crammed inside it –

And now I daren’t do it, just in case this pig’s name is Emily and the purse is its house and I am going to be the worst mummy in Creation for callously evicting her.

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For my wonderful grandmother, Audrey Fyson, whose funeral took place this morning and where this piece was read.

I remember a Christmas evening when you read aloud to us all from Jerome K Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat”. You were a marvellous reader. You were expressive and funny and you had a dry, deadpan delivery that perfectly suited Jerome’s prose. You read us the hamper-packing scene (“if it was broken then it was broken…”) and then the chapter where Harris gets lost in the Hampton Court maze. It’s the first time I can remember laughing until I cried. Whenever I read “Three Men in a Boat”, I think of you, and smile.

I remember the huge pleasure of giving you good news about my achievements, however small. You greeted them all with both pride and confidence – as if you never had any doubt that I would get there, and were pleased to have lived long enough to be proved right. You were always thrilled, never surprised. For nearly forty years I’ve been warmed and cherished by your utter, unshakeable trust in me. Thank you for believing in me so entirely.

I remember your immovable (and entirely wrong) conviction that I didn’t like trifle. This began when I was about three, I think, and turned up my nose at a sherry-laced spoonful. From then on, as far as you were concerned, I Didn’t Like Trifle – in any context. I have Not Liked Trifle at all times and in all seasons. I have Not Liked Trifle at meals where trifle was available, and I have Not Liked Trifle at meals where no trifle was to be seen. I once Didn’t Like Trifle in the middle of a conversation about international travel, when you suddenly enquired about food on aeroplanes. “And do they have puddings?” you asked. “Yes,” I replied. “But of course, you don’t like trifle,” you mused to yourself. At your ninetieth birthday, there was trifle at the buffet, and I had a dilemma. Would it be too much to let you see me, at last, eating trifle? I watched you watching me licking cream off my spoon. I saw you look astounded, before deciding I was eating trifle for some selfless, manners-based reason of my own. Perhaps a waiter had forced it on me. This is about the only thing I ever remember you being wrong about. Trifle, along with many other trifles, always makes me think of you.

I remember the day the planes crashed into the Twin Towers. I was in London, two days away from a business trip to New York. As the news spread through the office, we all stopped what we were doing, and called someone we loved. I called you. I almost didn’t. There was never any chance I’d have been hurt – at worst, I might have been trapped by the airspace shut-down. I even thought it might scare you more to think that I might have been involved, however peripherally. But still there was this unshakeable command – “Call Lala”. You picked up within half a ring; I can still hear the sound of your voice. Just one word – “Yes?” – every part of you braced to hear the worst. You’d known I was due to be in New York some time that week, nothing more. I believed at the time you’d willed me to call – reaching for the invisible thread connecting family members and giving it a firm tug. I still believe this. I also believe that’s why I woke up in the early hours of the morning of your death and said, out loud, “Goodbye.”

I remember riding with you one afternoon in Bestwood. It was an authentically golden day – bright sunshine, perfect temperature – a day so lovely it couldn’t even be marred by the fact that I fell off, in a dramatic and graceless fashion, near the bottom of Karen’s Field. Two nice people with a black Labrador caught Molly the pony for me, while I lay on my back like a stranded beetle and tried to breathe. Afterwards, you begged me “not to tell the riding stables”. I think you felt responsible, as if my falling off was a reflection on your caregiving skills. (I was twenty-eight at the time.) For the record, the falling-off was entirely my fault, for being a crappy rider. But of course I didn’t tell the stables. I didn’t mind falling off either. Who wouldn’t accept bruises across their entire lower back for the pleasure of naughtily conspiring with their grandmother? You’ll be pleased to know that your great-grandchildren are much better riders, and would have coped perfectly with Molly’s strange transitional gait between Canter and Trot.

I remember you being sent by your GP to see a heart specialist. His letter of referral began, “This remarkable lady…” You told us this story in disbelief, and looked baffled when we chorused, “But you are remarkable!”, and looked dismissive when we outlined your remarkableness. You never thought there was anything special about being in your late eighties and regularly riding a large, moody hunter who put his ears back and glowered whenever anyone came near him (but who somehow instantly knew you were in charge). You were remarkable, though you never believed it, and we were proud. We still are.

I remember the last words you said to me when Ian and I saw you in hospital. You said, “The next time you go riding, think of me”. I mean to keep that promise. It’s been a long time since I rode, and I was never all that good to start with, and there’s now simply no question that both my children are better at it than me, but I’ll do it. I’ll sit straight and keep my heels down and try not to fall off. And I’ll think of you. I’ll think of you reading, laughing, riding, cooking, talking, listening, holding babies, playing with cats, living every moment of your long life as well as anyone could.

We’ll miss you very much.

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