In Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood novelisation, there is a scene discussing a particular effect Roman Polanski was looking to achieve in Rosemary’s Baby. He filmed John Cassavettes as if the camera was peaking from behind a door and his wife Sharon Tate didn’t understand why until she was sitting next to him in the cinema and, at the precise moment where we glimpse John Cassavettes, everyone in the audience leaned to the side at the same time to try and see more than they could possibly hope to see. Effect achieved.
A lot of Uschi Gatward’s stories work in the same way. Take ‘The Clinic’, for example, the short story which opens English Magic. A couple are largely going about their business, looking after a baby. And yet, in asides (‘We got away with it’, ‘We can’t keep her with us for ever’) we glimpse that something is wrong. This couple need to get away before they are found out. They plan, pass red herrings out into the world to throw people off their track. “Maybe we’ll find some of the others?” The story isn’t – quote/unquote – explained, as such, but the mystery is compulsive.
Sometimes the world we know (a world in which the wrong person is arrested and imprisoned by Americans, for instance, as in ‘My Brother is Back’) collides with an unusual, Magnus Mills-like flatness (a flatness you arguably want to peer around the corners of). A person is returned home. He tries to find out where his relatives are. He is welcomed in by a stranger. Having restored a semblance of calm, he seems to arrive at a time in which it is ok to wait. Similarly, there is ‘Beltane’, which reads like Uschi Gatward’s take on an English version of Ari Aster’s Midsommer.
Even when a story is relatively prosaic (take ‘The Bird’ as a for example – a couple are disturbed by a bird that has fallen down behind their fire place), the nightmarish quality of the situation (listening to an animal die in a place you cannot get to) is hoisted aloft by the outlandish oddity of some of the other stories and there is an accumulation of uneasiness, even though the story resolves itself, to all intents and purposes, as well as it possibly can.
Gatward likes the seaside and a handful of the stories (‘On Margate Sands’, ‘The Creche’) take incidental, low key activities (a weekend away with a friend, a daytrip taken by a group of young mums and their children) and push nervously, nigglingly, worryingly, at the everyday – places that definitely once existed can’t now be found, children with oxygen masks celebrate birthdays in the rain.
Some of the stories stretch at the yoke of the short story form – ‘Oh Whistle And’, for example, which feels like an urgent cross between John Le Carre and George Saunders, or ‘Lammas’ which reads like The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist on fast forward.
The best stories, though – we’re looking at you ‘Samhain’, a witchy story which rumbles with a sort of faux naïve ill will – are those which nod to the title. Magic, but of a very English kind. This is magic steeped in old jam jars, seasoned with old twigs and herbs out of pots that have left their best by dates long behind. Yes, there is obscurity here, things that can’t be glimpsed no matter how much you crane your head to see in (‘What’s For You Won’t Go By You’) but, if you’re like me, and what you want from a debut collection of short stories is a whole heap of different story, a road signs with thirty possible directions for an author to travel off in in the future – then English Magic is very definitely it.
Any Cop?: An auspicious debut that promises much for the future.