A shiver down the spine

Jen Campbell:
The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night
Two Roads 2018 (2017)

A dozen short stories do not a novel make — this last was what the author’s agent was originally expecting, but at least she didn’t shout when informed otherwise. Yet for all that these are diverse pieces – some, one suspects, semi-autobiographical, others sweet, yet more being fractured fairytales or freeform musings – they share themes and points of view which, in a weird way, could connect them into one long rambling narrative.

In fact the epigraph quotes Frankenstein’s Creature declaring, in the hopes of his creator furnishing him with a mate, that “It is true, we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attached to one another.” This suggests that there are indeed connections between these tales, however curious and eccentric they may appear if we are expecting conventional narratives; but it also hints at a personal apologia. A self-declared queer writer with physical deformities, Jen Campbell brings a distinct perspective into her writing while managing to render her stories universal, a task that she somehow manages effortlessly. Or so it appears.

I shall avoid listing and discussing all twelve tales as being an arid exercise; instead I want to draw out from a select few the aspects that appealed to me most in the expectation that you may find my remarks useful.

Quite the most accessible of the stories, ‘Jacob’ is purportedly a fan letter from a young boy to a TV weather presenter named, rather aptly, Miss Winter. In it he appears to ramble around the houses, discussing his sister’s wish to be known by another name, describing a school visit to an art gallery, musing on the behaviour of his art teacher and emphasising the importance of asking questions. Campbell has caught the voice of Jacob rather well while managing to produce a thought-provoking miniature, with images of melancholy people closeted in boxes or floating, adrift in a deluge.

‘Aunt Libby’s Coffin Hotel’ is another tale told in the voice of a youngster, one who goes by the assumed name of Ankaa. Those desperate to communicate with departed loved ones or who seek answers about mortality are encouraged to spend the night in caskets in the aforementioned Coffin Hotel on an island. Aunt Libby is a well-meaning charlatan but casting her niece as the Angel of Death means that the fine line between the world of the living and the realm of the dead is in danger of being crossed. ‘Animals’ — which opens the collection — is an even more surreal story about attaining and incorporating hearts. It references the anecdote of Mary Shelley retaining the heart of Percy Bysshe Shelley after his death but treats it as just one incident in an increasingly macabre series of incidents.

You’ll have spotted some of the common motifs that distinguish themselves in this otherwise diverse selection. Another facet that attracts the reader’s attention is the number of short but always pertinent diversions to curiosities of myth, legend, folklore and fairytale. Even in ‘Pebbles’ (in which one senses those semi-autobiographical touches) there are interpolated facts and figures such as the following which both entertain and intrigue:

The shortest war in history was between the United Kingdom and Zanzibar in 1896.
It lasted thirty-eight minutes.

Not all pieces worked as successfully as others, for me at least. ‘Plum Pie. Zombie Green. Yellow Bee. Purple Monster’ was a clever idea which didn’t speak to me personally; ‘In the Dark’ — which appeared to be referenced obliquely in a later tale — presented as a well told standalone ghost story, but one without an obvious point to it. But perhaps that was the point.

Certainly the details linger in the memory like a bright after-image briefly caught on the retina after finding yourself back in the dark. Apocalyptic titles such as ‘Margaret and Mary and the End of the World’ and the tale that gives its name to the collection help suggest that these intensely personal tales have a collective relevance. They definitely left me with a delicious shiver down the spine.

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