“We were more exasperated than intrigued” – The Many by Wyl Menmuir
When Salt Publishing – a small indie press known historically for poetry and these days notable for its annual Best British Short Stories series – hit the Booker shortlist with Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse back in 2012, we were all a bit shocked (the cost of entering the Booker race being generally prohibitive for the smaller presses, meaning that it’s usually proper Big Five territory); this time, though, when Menmuir’s debut made the longlist, it was all, oh, yeah, Salt, they’ve got game. A short creepy book about loss and place? Sign us up! But, well. It’s atmospheric, sure, and the blurring of the lines between reality and (dark) fantasy is fascinating, but the whole package didn’t convince us quite so well as it did the Booker team (the longlisters, anyway; it didn’t make round two). Let’s have a look…
The plot is slight – remember, it’s more about the atmosphere and theme than the A to B of story – and concerns two men, Ethan and Timothy. (Warning: spoilers up next.) Ethan’s a fisherman, one of a community of fishermen in a small coastal village. But the waters are contaminated, the fish are dead or deformed, and the bay is blockaded by a line of containers ships blocking out the rest of the world. Despite this, the crews keep sailing and hauling up nets empty or clogged with malformed, diseased creatures. Then Timothy turns up: he buys the house that, it transpires, once belonged to Perran, a young fisherman beloved of his colleagues, whose body was washed up ten years ago and whose former home has been boarded shut ever since. Timothy, meanwhile, plans to renovate the house in advance of his wife’s arrival. Naturally, he’s not made especially welcome. And his questions about Perran, the house, and the polluted sea are met first with hostility and then with violence. But Timothy, too, is in mourning: he’s come to the village for a new start after a death tore his own life apart. Ethan and Timothy are drawn together, though neither man really understands why, until they’re both forced to acknowledge the histories that have shaped them.
So what we’ve got here is a moody, unsettling book that draws upon particular filmic and literary tropes, from the long-empty house (and hints of a haunting) to the weird and intimidating locals, and the sea as a (pretty obvious) metaphor for the unknown and the dangerous, to chill the reader. Think House of Leaves, The Wicker Man, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Dracula, Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’ and anything you care to name by Tom Fletcher. Danielewski, though, is an especially good comparison point insofar as both The Many and House of Leaves rely heavily on architecture, landscape, and extrapolation from a point of hinted-at horror to freak out their readers: with plot stripped back to a minimum (how long will these people/this person stay in this house?) what’s left is undiluted uncanny. And it is creepy, with the looming, barnacled ships and the fishermen’s inexplicable loyalty to their poisoned waters; it’s haunting. Once everything becomes (sort of) clear (like all decent horror stories, much of it is left desirably murky at the end), the book leaves you with a memorably unpleasant aftertaste. And that’s great.
So far, so good, then? Well, kind of. The way Menmuir uses horror as a genre to explore loss, grief and denial is undoubtedly clever: the book’s not so much a narrative as a drawn-out sampling of shock and misery, and though this doesn’t really become clear until the end, that’s okay – the retrospective recognition of the author’s intent, and the dread that lingers on afterwards, make up for the impatience the reader is likely to experience during the reading itself. But, but, but: as a piece of prose, it’s not as careful and precise as something as weighty as a Booker long-listing led us to expect. That’s not Menmuir’s fault, of course, but as Salt’s setting out its stall (especially after Moore’s success) as a purveyor of literary fiction, we did look for a greater attention to style. The integration of Timothy’s and Ethan’s flashbacks with the main text, for instance, are somewhat laboured: the use of italics here felt clumsy when the past tense might have been a simpler and more elegant way of delineating the timelines (and when the actual contents of the flashbacks did in fact achieve the same end anyway). Likewise, the transitions between present and past were a little blunt: Ethan remembers the olden days with his dad, then, bam, the italics kick in like a good old ripple fade. The other thing that grated was the prose itself, which wasn’t as honed as we felt it might have been, given Menmuir’s very apparent skill in evoking atmosphere and tension. Without coming over all James Wood here, lines like ‘Her eyes impart something to him, something that suggests she understands, and feeling wells up in him, so much so he feels like he might be overwhelmed by it’ are both overcooked in the sense that the writer’s trying so hard to make sure the reader really, really gets that this gaze is significant that he might as well have daubed on a little red flag in the margins, and undercooked in that a stronger editorial hand could have plucked out either ‘feeling’ or ‘feel’ in that sentence to give it more impact. If we were to really go to town, we’d suggest that the same theme and story could have been instantiated with a lot more oomph had this already short novel been shrunk further into a short novella or a long short story (see, for instance, the Nightjar Press series of horror stories): you’d lose nothing of the horror or the mystery, and nothing much of the plot, but the cryptic style Menmuir has plumped for would, we think, benefit from the greater concision. But short stories don’t have much traction in the market and definitely don’t get Booker nominations, so there’d clear pragmatic reasons to keep it long. All the same…
Any Cop?: It’s spooky and atmospheric, and we were impressed by the overall structure and manipulation of the reader, but during the actual reading, we were more exasperated than intrigued. But perhaps that’s because we’re literary pedants, and maybe you’re not. If you do find yourself exasperated, though, we heartily recommend instead House of Leaves, the various spooky anthologies by the Curious Tales collective or, again, the Nightjar series.
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- September 30, 2016 / 9:00 am