Bull Running For Girls – by Allyson Bird
My 24th real-time review
posted Tuesday, 30 June 2009
I’m starting another of my real-time reviews. This time it is of ‘Bull Running For Girls’ a collection of short fiction by Allyson Bird (Screaming Dreams 2008). [My previous reviews are linked from here: https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/df-lewis-real-time-reviews/ ]
The Caul Bearer
This story is sheer Innsmouthian magic, a tale of a fishing community – swept by brutal survival, old wives’ tales that somehow come true, closeness to darkness and to the Great Fish Soul, the loss to the sea and the complementary gain (spectral and real) back from the sea. The archetypal cycles of death and life, and womanly feelings that ride that very slow rollercoaster of cycles.
It means a lot to me this story as it sits in a similar basket of flither and fiction as my own Madge Stories – and amazingly, coincidentally, I started re-reading ‘David Copperfield’ the other day, for no particular reason, and at its start there is the same legend of the caul that this story starts with. All things, all manner of things, connect.
“They were so rotten you could peel out the spine of the fishermen as easily as with fish.” (30 June 09)
“It was now late June and summer was well under way.”
Another coincidence – today, as I write this, it is 30th June and where I live in England there is what we call a Heat Wave, a relatively rare event (but nothing compared to the Spanish Heat Wave described in this story!) – and I feel this has somehow added to my ‘experience’ of this story’s world. It tells effectively of a girl in Pamplona – and don’t expect a simple rite of passage – this is beyond that. It does not end with a neatness where the protagonist has her blood-coursing experience and then goes back to normal life with lessons learnt, feelings absorbed. No, like the fatal, fateful thrust of this story itself and as in ‘The Caul Bearer’, we reach more than just a simple sacrifice, it is a sacrificial submission to the story’s world itself. It is a subsuming. And the reader has to ask him- or herself: am I subsumed, too? Was this real? It was fantasy, surely. But the brute on-rush of the plot does not allow you to ask such questions. It teases and tugs at your disbelief as it flashes past you. Be it Bull or be it Caul, these legends can literally enter the blood.
(Perhaps, when it is cooler, I shall feel differently?) (30 June 09 – 2 hours later)
In the Hall of the Mountain King
From the heat wave in the previous story to Jack Frost in England of the Beatles era (I remember it well). This is a young girl sort of running with the ‘bulls’: the flashers and rapists of the Asylum next door to where she lives. This is Horror Story, plain and simple. A moral one, if taking the law into one’s own hands is moral. It probably had to be that way then. There’s now too much Health & Safety to allow these events to happen quite like they do in this story. The Wedding was so real. The atmosphere is spot on. The human impulses, too. I won’t give away the end.
There’s another legend, too, that spikes the graph of the fiction. The wooden cross of Christ. But reality of truth and reality of legend, does each exclude the possibility of the other?
In those days, I had an ex juke-box disc of Edvard Grieg’s ‘In the Hall of The Mountain King’ (they did ’45’-singles of classical music favourites in those days and this piece of music was split in half between the A side and B side of the disc) as well as owning singles of the Beatles singing “Please Please Me”, “I Want To Hold Your Hand”, “From Me To You” and “ She Loves You”. Days of innocence? Or days of dire sin? (30 June 09 – another 4 hours later)
“…her reality was rapidly running out of choices.”
An ostensibly personal (truth or fiction?) story that mingles fire with fire, tragedy with tragedy, through time and supernature, each a legend to the other (but which true legend, which true reality?) as the colours of absinthe mix and imitate those of the nicer warming side of fire. References to Wilde, Aickman, Dylan… And real people and ghosts that mix too, where one is often mistaken for the other – and the story is focussed on a protagonist: a woman writer whose sojourn in a French forest cottage that she co-owns is paralleled by an event in her past. Properties also mix and blaze. A purging of the past by the present? Circus people performing tricks of cruelty and kindness – a mysterious commune in the forest (that has highly personal comparisons for me with a story called ‘Welsh Pepper’).
But where is the true perception? When the little girl Bethany first appears in this story (page 41) she is seen outside the perception of the story’s main ‘narrative’ protagonist. So only the story’s ‘real author’ and the reader sees Bethany at that point, i.e. not from the viewpoint of the rest of a story. This is either purposefully meaningful or a purposeless mistake. Probably a mix of the two. Like life itself. And death.
“…if you had a horrifying death, did the spirits on the other side have to treat you for shock when you crossed over?” (1 July 09)
Shadow upon Shadow
I know the word I’m looking for: ‘staccato’. The fast-moving device of tugging and teasing at the reader’s disbelief is often staccato – hence the ending of this story, with points of view changing, even strobing in short paragraphs – tying in with the mix of ghosts and real people intermingling (sometimes changing places?) that haunt these stories to a greater or lesser degree. The strobing of truth and fiction. Ghost and non-ghost. Sanity and madness. Here, we have a family woman protagonist who lives on the edge of evil, being tantalised (teased and tugged) mentally and physically (sexually) by that evil. This ‘staccato’ is to my own taste, but to every reader?
[Regarding the leitmotif of legend, Aleister Crowley has reached a legend status, no doubt, and I wonder if he lives on through the characters in fiction somehow made real? Although ‘staccato’ can be effectively neat it can also sometimes be considered clumsy, and clumsiness and neatness do not otherwise go hand in hand, an inescapable fact which serves to let creepy-crowleys crawl out through the ‘un-neat’ gaps that are here left tantalisingly within the text’s ‘reading-flow’.]
“They lay beside fires in blue-brown clearings that smelt of sacrifice, of animal blood and bone…” (1 July 09 – 4 hours later)
The Bone Grinder
This is a Horror Story with bone-gore and supernatural frisson alike. I’d call it a fable akin to work by Charles Birkin (and I mean that as a compliment) … and Swift’s ‘Modest Proposal’. Effective portrayal of uncaring Agencies, the exploitation of women, bereavement, the seediness of some hotels, the way life can be diminished to bone grits as another sort of seediness…. but if planted in the ground?…. who knows where hope may next arise? Equally, whether you are a hero or a villain, your bone grits are still bone grits. Flither still flither. I wonder if the Elephant Man had a caul at birth… another beast to run with or bait. Against bulls or swine, I sense this woman has fights still to fight, and Bill’s fate is just the beginning…
“People, for all their evil acts, could be seen and what you could see perhaps you could do something about.” (2 July 09)
The Conical Witch
What a great title! Also, I haven’t mentioned the quotes the author makes at the head of each story so far. Oblique or tangential to each story, these are strangely telling quotes. This story has one from Edith Wharton, a writer happily I happen to be into at the moment.
The story itself is of a girl whose new Russian step-mother she suspects of being a witch – but who does the girl go to for help? Another witch, one called Mrs Grimshaw who happens already to be a neighbourly friend. A hex ensues – but like the Russian Dolls in the story – there is a surprise of ambivalence within and a thoughtful, caring end that promises to neutralise the skin-flaying theretofore. Some very nice touches in this story, including an activity from my own childhood: i.e. pinching and tweaking a bedsheet into a township of crude roads and houses.
We cross back into themes of bereavement for a parent as well as for a baby … a feeling disfigured by a need to pinch and tweak it into the arm’s length narration by a narrator of a Horror Story – or so I infer. There is also mention of animal sacrifice in this story and all the stories so far seem to be slowly ratcheting into a space in my mind, a recognisable, graspable physical / emotional space that cross-hatches longing with disfigurement … as one runs with the monsters. They are fiction first and foremost, but a fiction with a throbbing underbelly of felt truth to which one needs to sacrifice oneself. Fiction as voodoo. Yet this particular story presents a hope for neutralisation (or exorcism?) by putting two witches beside each other (or one inside the other? cancelling each other out?) and thus creating a quiet end-moment of reconciliation. By reading on after this story, I shall no doubt see if we are to be pitted straight back into that story-ratcheting ‘space’ again. Sometimes clumsy or staccato, sometimes smoothly legended … feeling its way, almost unsure of itself, while comprising good honest Horror stories for their own sake…Or so it seems simply by recourse to the raw text alone.
“Every night tell the doll your worries and it will worry for you.” (2 July 09 – 3 hours later)
In The Wake of The Dead
In the event, not exactly pitted back into that ratcheting space of disfigured sacrifices but to a delightfully told legend involving ghosts and children and curses and retribution and wreckers and pirates and the children growing up into adults (told sometimes from staccato points of view) – with echoes of the sea’s giving and taking as in ‘The Caul Bearer’. RL Stevenson (not RL Stine) and WB Yeats seem to enter the story’s consciousness, by way of direct quote or reference, aptly so, in considered yet inchoate hindsight. A general style of story not usually to my taste, but one I found myself really enjoying. I enjoyed Enid Blyton as a child; in fact she got me into reading. This story carries her spirit on for me as an adult.
The story started with account of a cholera plague that luckily peters out with no further narrated purpose within the plot. But somehow it was important to record it here…today. Tugged and tweaked into new thoughts by this variegated collection of Horror stories. (3 July 09)
The Sly Boy Bar and Eatery
Whether or not the previous story represented a wreckers’ bonfire to confuse ship-borne reviewers like me on to rocks, we have not returned here to the intense, more serious spaces of most of the other stories so far. We have, in any event, returned to the previous story’s shipwrecks (and a restaurant with some sickly ‘doll-within-doll’ fish dishes and wild waitresses), and having started with what I considered to be some wooden dialogue-to-show-rather-than-tell, I discovered that the clunky mechanics were necessarily part and parcel of a hugely enjoyable hilarious farce of legendary sea-creatures and sea-characters, ending with women-creatures (as they did, for example, with Bill in the crematorium earlier in the book) neutralising the evil that men do…
Tugged and teased to dive through the uncharted waters of this inferred crazy author’s imagination. Evidently defying me to mould a gestalt for the book. More bonfires along its coast. (3 July 09 – 3 hours later)
The Celestial Dragon
“Lian looked up to the mountain from her high rise apartment in Sheung Wan. Her room was directly above the hole which was four apartments wide and eight deep. It had been left in the middle of the block for the spirit dragon of the mountain to get to the sea.”
Here we have a more serious fable with inbuilt legends, a tale of a young girl trying to solve the mystery of her father’s gruesome suicide and of her sister’s disappearance by hiring a Pinkerton Detective. We have a cinematic ‘film noir’ apparatus of plot with (often typical of this book so far) dimmer-switch controlled protagonists vying to become the plot’s main protagonist or to become the plot’s main point of view. It is the reader who is running not with bulls but with these vying segments of a story’s plot (or, taking the book as a whole, running with all the plots and their various mutual interactions).
There are some marvellous moments in this particular story (as in all the stories so far), for example the Proustian egg custard and the wonderful spirit-of-place built up by the Macau atmosphere. In the old days, with cinema going, I remember there were continuous programmes, whereby you went in and watched the programme from one point till you got round to that same point again at which time you left the cinema, even if that point was in the middle of a film. I took this for granted and it did not seem to diminish my enjoyment. This story reminds me of that feeling. (3 July 09 – a further 3 hours later)
A story for me? Well, it is true to say that I am becoming even more in tune with these stories as they progress. Studying them seems to unlock them as a whole, with or without an eventual gestalt. I have not read any reviews of this book before writing this my own real-time review that you are now reading as I write it — or as I once wrote it if you are here in the future. This one is a particularly gory story centring on the ethos of the vampire legend in both fiction (here fiction as films) and true life. Family life, celebrity lifestyle, role-playing that becomes real (and vice versa). And what I wrote above about continuous programmes in cinemas (behaving in that way described particularly in the Fifties and early Sixties) is even more appropriate to this fast-not-touching-the-sides-of-your-disbelief story which tugs you through all manner of mayhem and protagonism like a rabbit-through-and-then-out-of-a-hat. It is raw story-making and I think it is marvellous provocative stuff. But I wonder whether I have been shipwrecked and drowned or shipwrecked and rescued? Only reading the rest of the book will perhaps tell me. This book is certainly providing (for me) one of my most interesting experiments in real-time reviewing…
“It’s amazing what runs through your mind when you have just seen a rabbit lose its head.” (3 July 09 – another 2 hours later)
Wings of Night
We are theatrically thrust back – with special effectiveness in comparison to the multi-protagonistic and deliberately farcical intermission – into the intense space of this book. A space not now even ratcheting. An organic story, even more organic by contrast with some of the other stories’ inorganicity – the sole protagonist here being a female Theatre Usher who opens doors for actors with precise timing when they go on stage. A seriously promiscuous woman, doomed to ‘wear’ this essentially literary story like a pure genre Horror story, if you see what I mean – and you will know, when you read it. A victim with her own victims. A role-playing exercise in modern life that turns back on her and upon her male victims with no role but reality. As in the Big Brother TV Show,. reality and unreality are inextricably entwined. Acting and not-acting. This is a very powerful story. And without fear of repetition, even more powerful by its setting in this book of some of the previous stories that are almost like support or bit actors (but each with a rounded life of their own when off-stage or considered separately). Bit actors like she is sometimes, when not being an Usher front of House. All mixed with Name Culture creatures in and out the doors of one’s life … like Vanessa Redgrave who somehow also plays a bit part in this story…
“It was enough for them, as they silently slipped in and out of her in turn, like the slugs they were.” (4 July 09)
“I don’t think anyone dies in their sleep peacefully. They may look like it, but that’s not the way it is.”
It says on the back of the book that it is “a selection of adventure-horror stories”. This observation strictly is extraneous to the stories themeslves, but I find this to be a fascinating new genre title that seems to be advertised here. I think I see what it means. Adventures can take many forms, from Blyton to Poe. This story is Thomas Hardy with mobile phones. As this story itself states – a murderer does not always look like a murderer. And a message from a story is not always the correct message. The Author’s Note at the end of the story, although no doubt touching and meaningful, is perhaps one such message, perhaps not. The story itself tells of a female sleuth whose medium of a sister helps her by means of a mobile phone as a go-between with the spirit world to solve the disappearance of children in the old-fashioned countryside where moles are nailed up outside of a strange farm. But it is more than that. The medium is the message? And the murders just hooks to hang the messages on? Taken simply however, this is an effective Horror story for its own sake. One with Horror tropes and traditions, as well as some original concepts of death and spirit. All the time, I feel the inferred author is running with the messages, many of them dangerous and too-close-to-the-bone, but who is just another narrative go-between among many go-betweens aspiring to carry the story’s own spirit towards you, the reader.
“‘How can a spirit child die?’ / ‘I don’t know, but spirit can cease to be and that death is every bit as valid as a death in this world.’” (4 July 09 – 4 hours later)
The Silk Road
From Salford to the Silk Road, this is a musically evocative adventure or journey from bi-polarity and depression towards exorcism of these maladies by writing fiction or by travelling that very fiction for real – partially concerning a dried out mummy that obliquely reminded me of the Russian Doll’s contents in ‘The Conical Witch’, the word ‘conical’ also being used in this story. As well as being a fiction in itself within the now re-ratcheting space of this part of the book, the story also resonates with concerns of fiction / real life that are thrown up (for me) by the literary theory known as ‘The Intentional Fallacy’. This story enlightens those concerns, as does this whole book itself so far, i.e. enlightening them paradoxically by making them more problematic … thus, potentially, more productive. Meanwhile, this story will stay in my mind simply for what it is – a story that is about dimmer-switch controlled identities again, one that however manages to maintain its female protagonist as the main protagonist against the (innocent?) onslaught of other characters from within the story to become new protagonists or points of view.
“Some mad people lived their fiction. Were most writers merely rehearsing for the madness and loneliness of later life?” (4 July 09 – another 2 hours later)
In a Pig’s Ear
“Every morning an eagle would devour his liver…”
An amazing fable where one has the strong sense that the author or narrator (whom I earlier called crazy, a madness now justifiably in line with the quote above from the previous story seeming to be subsuming the author/narrator here) – a ‘mad scientist’ SF tale that fights itself so as to be a serious genetic treatment of a journey towards the Angel Legend. But it is infiltrated with nonsense like ‘The Three Little Piggies’ etc. and Horror Absurdities concerning Pig’s wings and more… This story is frightening simply because it is frightening to imagine anyone being able (or wanting!) to write it. To imagine the battles that must have transpired to write it.
Just one observation tangential to this story – surfing on waves (from which pursuit all else flows in this story) seems an effective re-ratcheting of the Running-With-Bulls metaphor. All things, all manner of things, connect. (And there’s a character named Neme).
I’d better rest from this rite-of-review till at least tomorrow. Madness can be catching. I’m even wondering if this very review is intrinsically subject to ‘Intentional Fallacy’ considerations? Dolls within dolls, ad infinitum, ad absurdum. Till tomorrow (or as soon as possible afterwards)…. (4 July 09 – another hour later)
A Poison Tree
I hope I did not give the impression above that I didn’t like ‘In a Pig’s Ear’. I loved it. I thought it was both original and memorable. We’re all going to have pig’s tails soon, in any event. I did think, with the current story, starting with an extract from one of my favourite poems by William Blake, that this was a portal back to the intense spaces. But I find it to be a satirical Whitehall Theatre Farce of mediums, doppelgangers and retribution, cast in a Romance story style of two women fighting over a man (who here happens to be dead!). One really is surfing on strange beaches when reading this book. An illuminating companion piece with ‘Medium Strange’ in the sense of representing the two iconic masks either side of a Proscenium Arch: Tragedy and Comedy. And there is also talk of Legends beginning with the letter H.
A story that, in this book’s setting, I enjoyed, but a story, if out of this setting, I suspect I would not have enjoyed so much. A question of taste.
“In death’s dominion there are no rules of engagement.” (5 July 09)
Blood in Madness Ran
That madness again. Here, for me, all comes together, in a glorious Vancean fantasy masterpiece of Legends of the sea and of history and of mythology, underpinned as it is by many of the previous stories (including ‘The Caul Bearer’, ‘The Sly Boy Bar and Eatery’, ‘In a Pig’s Ear’ &c.) and by Gulliver’s Travels… This should win awards. Enough said. Worth the admission price alone. [Without going back in time, it is impossible for me to tell whether this story-in-itself would seem quite so great without the previous parts of this book permeating its bull-runs or surfing-tides, with the book’s earlier tutoring of me to easily absorb mixed protagonists and changing narrative points-of-view, its fast moving jumped-started conclusions of disbelief-neutralisation, its Legends mixed like absinthe … and more.]
“Small sly faces with eyes the colour of green ice laughed back at her as she offered her breast to each in turn.” (5 July 09 – two hours later)
“I was Kay in the Snow Queen’s fortress. I was St George before that dreadful dragon. I was Moses taking on the great wrath of Egypt. I was before my grandmother and no good would come of this...”
This has all the Gothic trappings – a horror story of dynasty and curse and foundling fate. It also carries the taint of the Spear side of families against the more heroic (heroine-ic?) Distaff side. Cf. earlier themes of the evil-that-men-do. Another creepy-Crowley reference. And Orson Welles??
“…stared up into the dark, vast chimney, that if reversed would have found it way down to hell itself.”
This story has the quick-fire ratcheting of a very intense space, where protagonisms are cherry-picked. A sacrificial bird is mentioned, a yearning to fathom the mysteries of inheritance via bereavement, nightmares-within-nightmares of a Radcliffean heroine. Does it all hold together? Taken on its own, I would have wondered. But tutored as I am now in Birdist fiction devices, I’d say it does. This book is a test for my belief in ‘The Intentional Fallacy’. A stern test indeed, as the inferred author overshadows this book like a giant bird. The heroine of this story says:
“My steps were unheard as I ascended the stairs like Theseus in the labyrinth of the Minotaur; I was Heracles after the Nemean lion, Odysseus against the Cyclops. I was all these and more rolled into one and there was no one more heroic than I.” (5 July 09 – another three hours later)
Silence is Golden
This ‘undignified’ story gave me the tremeloes. This is a crazy Black Comedy of much wit and gory imagination that sadly, for me, falls off its surfboard in its latter half. It ratchets, even so, in the seriously intense spaces rather than in the more farcical movements of this book’s constructively dissonant symphony. It is a story that is driven by bad taste in the chintzy decorations etc and in the Horror corpse disfigurement ethos etc. It tells of a man whose dead wife has to reside in an open coffin in his front room so that the terms of her will can be fulfilled. She rises, not as a mindless zombie, but as a thinking retributive force, and he misguidedly chomps at her bits to staunch her flow of motion. More information would be too much information. It reminds me of the work of Daniel Pearlman. And of Monica O’Rourke. Nice compliments. I’ve not read much Lansdale.
It’s a tale of a misjudged woman whose self-exhumation is well-intended. Women are not all Frankenstein monsters, after all. Except perhaps any who give you the glad eye. And who is Milo? And through which circles of legendary Hell does the reader-surfer need to limbo-dance?
“…her pretty brown eyes seemed to look east and then west, but not at the same time.” (5 July 09 – another 2 hours later)
The two ‘i’s at the end of the title remind me of the two witches in ‘The Conical Witch’, as then relates to a volcano shape…
I think here is the first time that reincarnation impinged on my consciousness when reading Bird. Previously, Death and Resurrection in this book were more literal, i.e. more physical than the religious / theosophical baton-passing of Reincarnation. Evidently, the main protagonist here was once a female gladiator in earlier times.
The ‘sacrifice’ in ‘The Caul Bearer’ reached a level of ‘subsuming’ in ‘Bull Running’ – and here we have the ultimate subsuming by all the legends of Pompeii, including an Alternate World volcanic subsuming of modern tourists and school trips to the area…
Mosaic of a dog – Moses taking on a new wrath…
All these factors subsumed into an effective fable whereby the customary italic format of the Author’s Notes at the end of some stories is here also subsumed and becomes the fable’s Moral. Not all this book’s story head-quotes and Author’s (end) Notes are thus subsumed, but remain healthily outside the stories for me.
Staccato can never thankfully be smooth.
“This was the first time Achillia had fought a woman, as she was used to fighting male dwarves, who were easy to finish off…” (5 July 09 – another 90 minutes later)
I think I have already covered the recurring leitmotifs that have become sacrifices to a greater gestalt, one that stands before me now … so no need to repeat them at the conclusion of this (for me at least) fascinating tussle to review a fascinating book.
It says in an earlier story that there is no such thing as a peaceful death in one’s sleep – and here we are again faced with why that is so. In what turns out to be (as a result of the reader’s rite of passage up to this point) a perfect ending to a thankfully and constructively imperfect book, this wonderful SF fable entitled ‘Deathside’ describes the need for a form of inverse midwife who, during a plague perhaps similar to one that may soon face us all, helps those who are dying to transit through death without being subsumed by the dangerous things that threaten them during that process. Death may be the ultimate bull-run, indeed. But when the midwife herself is the last left to die, who helps her transit? The author of this book was that very midwife, abandoned there at its end, with only one more note to write. This impels me to shed a form of sympathetic tear in support, having now read that final note. Thanks so much for ‘Bull Running for Girls’. A reading experience that will never be forgotten. (5 July 09 – another 3 hours later)
Hot off the press. This book won Best Collection at BFS Convention tonight. Congrats, Allyson! I’m so pleased. Please see link immediately above.
4. Weirdmonger left… Wednesday, 23 September 2009 10:59 am :: http://vaultofevil.proboards.com/index.c
In answer to Mark Samuels (BFS member) and Johnny Mains (non-BFS Member) – who have gone out of their way to express their conviction that this book is an unworthy winner of the BFS Award for best collection – I would say that that is a moot point. I hope I have shown above that, although BULL RUNNING is imperfect (as I point out in various places in the review), the aftertaste and its resonating emotion outweigh the imperfections, given a proper study of the book. That is not to say that the other contenders for the prize (which, other than the King, I have also done real-time reviews for in the past) are not worthy winners, too. It’s just that it’s feasible that ALL of them are worthy winners and it was the voting that decided in the end, as it should.
7. Weirdmonger left… Sunday, 4 October 2009 8:58 am :: http://weirdmonger.blog-city.com/ellen_d