Lucie McKnight Hardy – she of the deliciously dark debut, Water Shall Refuse Them – is back with a debut collection of short stories and if her novel floated your proverbial boat, then you’re in for a treat.
As with Water Shall Refuse Them, a handful of these stories concern characters slightly out of their proverbial comfort zones, occupying holiday homes that face on to burnt out houses that maybe just maybe are haunted (‘Cortona’), troubled families settling in foreign climes (‘Jutland’) and troubled families taking holidays in places where lava bubbles ever so slightly below the surface (‘The Devil of Timanfaya’).
The biggest story here, by far, is the eponymous tale that opens the book. It’s a period affair (in that it’s set ever so slightly before abortion became legal in the UK, when ladies who had (ahem) ‘suffered a misfortune’ needed to take a wee trip into the country in order to (ahem) ‘deal with their condition’. As you’d no doubt expect at the creepy hands of McKnight Hardy, things are not quite what you’d expect – our narrator refers to the nearby lake which “is beautiful, but there’s always something lurking under the surface, in the dark.” In some respects, ‘Dead Relatives’ presents you with the full Lucie McKnight Hardy experience in miniature: there is a creepy folk horror element (creepy tree that needs feeding, creepy stuffed children), there is a human horror element (babies meeting unhappy ends) and then there is a sort of seething anger as illustrated by the swear words our young narrator is wont to chuck out.
At times, particularly when Hardy is dipping a toe into a class conscious world (as she does in ‘Dead Relatives’ and again in ‘The Pickling Jar’) you sense Hardy’s glee at inciting our revulsion (as seen in, say, ‘The Pickling Jar’ where a lady’s husband dies and it turns out that the community has a little pickling contest that contains, shall we say, a little more than just essence of the person who has passed – it isn’t the bereavement that causes the consternation, or indeed the – you know – actual cannibalism, but rather the score you get on the blackboard which stretches back through time and lists all of the scores of the previous entrants).
Sometimes the stories seem beguilingly simple and sweet. Why, the story might say to you (as ‘Parroting’ does), this is just a simple and sweet story of a young boy’s friendship with an older woman who just so happens to have a parrot. Look, see, there is nothing to worry about here, is there? It’s just a parrot eating fondant fancies and Jaffa cakes. This story is only four or five pages long, what harm could there possibly be? And then you get to the last couple of lines and – an image guaranteed to give you bad dreams. Sometimes, as in ‘Cavities’, you’re led, nervously, by the anticipation of body horror (she’s had a tooth out, her tongue is exploring the hole) only to be blindsided by schoolyard humiliation and infanticide (Hardy seems to be quite fond of dispatching babies).
It’s hard to pick a favourite story (although ‘Wretched’, the story that runs towards the end, comes pretty damn close) and, if truth be told, you really don’t want to have all of the book’s surprises given away in a review. Just know that from our perspective, what we want from a short story collection is one that roams freely about the globe whilst lobbing the odd thrilling (or disgusting) surprise our way. Dead Relatives does that in spades.
Any Cop?: If you’re a fan of the folk horror perpetrated by the likes of Andrew Michael Hurley and Aliya Whiteley, we’d say make an absolute beeline for this.