Pieces of Midnight – by Gary McMahon
I’m starting below another of my gradual real-time reviews. This time it is of the collection of stories entitled ‘Pieces of Midnight’ by Gary McMahon (Ash-Tree Press 2010). I shall attempt to draw out all the fiction’s leitmotifs and mould them into a gestalt.
CAVEAT: Spoilers are not intended but there may be inadvertent ones. You may wish (i) to take that risk and read my review before or during your own reading of the stories, or (ii) to wait until you have finished reading them. In either case, I hope it gives a useful or interesting perspective.
All my real-time reviews are linked from here: https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/df-lewis-real-time-reviews/
“…the muse she claimed to be – “
I often depend on sweet serendipity or dark synchronicity to find my way through the books I choose to RTR – and, having just discovered elsewhere Matt Cardin’s very recent articles on the Demon Muse, I find (upon receiving this book today) a prime example of that creative conundrum being played out in fiction by means of this story.
A story that figuratively chills, arouses and freeze-frames … in that order. The story’s protagonist, a business man who feels threatened by the Goth world just beyond the window of his comfort zone reminds me of whenever I approach a modern Horror story from the supposed safety of my own aging consciousness of earlier cultures and behaviours. And I, too, become thrilled to be distilled by chills…well, until the fiction stops. (18 Mar 2010)
“Bentley smiled, but there was no humour in it, nor did the the expression reach anywhere near his eyes.”
Incredibly, that quote’s sense of detachment is representative of this effectively chilling but slightly absurd vignette of knockers, with MRJamesian reportage. And, equally hard to believe as an intended inference re-casting the theme from the previous story, here as something even more detached: Mortality as the ultimate Muse?
“…the reality of his own mortality haunted him like a spiteful wraith.” (19 Mar 10)
Further note: knocking as an impingement upon one’s comfort zone (again cf. Black Glass). (an hour later)
All The Lonely Places
“…this detachment wasn’t natural.”
A simple style but a complex undercurrent surefoootedly conjuring up a downtrod campsite where a man (with a history to exorcise) together with his wife and son finish up at the road’s end. Full of love hanging on the brink of fulfilment or destruction. That past is yet another Muse or Cursor of his present path towards visionary catharsis.
Meanwhile, I can fully sense the whole horror ambiance of this seedy ‘holiday camp’. You see, I was one of the old couple in the games room.
“A discarded copy of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness sat, limp and incongruous, next to a torn Beano comic…” (19 Mar 10 – another 5 hours later)
“Traffic cones stood guard around a mound of rubble beneath a huge perfectly circular hole in the ceiling.”
A consensus story, I call this type of narration. A build-up by footnotery and reportage cleverly leading to a creepy ‘felt’ belief in the sentience of architecture and other happenings. (Cf: the eventually sentient glass in ‘Black Glass’). A weird story about a weird story via a filter of fiction-religious truth.
I recall ‘teddy-boys’ had vanished before the onset of the Sixties in the UK, so they are perhaps anachronistic in this story.
Surely it’s not a coincidence – this and the previous two stories in the book have small creatures of a goblinish half-seen nature. I sense these are the keepers of what I am learning by accretion to be the Detached Muse that over-arches the book so far.
“…too many nights spent alone in the company of my own furtive phantoms.” (20 Mar 10)
My Grandfather’s Ghosts
“He told me carefully constructed, elaborately plotted, and utterly outrageous fictions that I still remember with fondness.”
An ostensibly personal anecdote of memory, where the Muse comes to its full fruition: here a benign Muse in human shape, perhaps proving that life and its harsh reality harbours its good things as well as bad. A touching, believable essay in fondness – and ghosts as emblems of history or mythology now ushered here as attachments rather than detachments.
This story would seem to be a satisfying culmination of the first part of this book. But I can’t yet know whether the book is in such parts (or pieces) before reading the remaining stories. One thing is for sure: I am not reading the book’s introduction or story notes until I’ve read and reviewed all the stories themselves. Fiction, after all, is more important than truth. (20 Mar 10 – two hours later)
The Sand King
“…small creatures scuttling across the walls, hiding from the light.”
There is no relief in truth or in fiction. This traditional MRJamesian scenario of a MRJamesian artist is a substantial story echoing a husband-and-wife relationship upon the uncertain pent-up crests of love and destruction from ‘All The Lonely Places’ – here upon a North Sea coastal trip seemingly close to where I live in mind as well as in actuality. It’s as if there is no escape from nightmare’s reprise “…as if I were trapped in a vacuum or wedged between two plates of glass…”
Each part is a version of a previous part, as if there can be no death without its repetitive threatening to return again and again. Go whistle for comfort. A story that acted like “…something was groping inside me, picking through my emotions”. (20 Mar 10 – another 2 hours later)
…straight in my reading face. The goblinish figures are now real modern-day hoodies invading the comfort zone of page and eye – all possessed by the Cursor that activates the previous stories in this book making them even more believable affronts to my equanimity, a buzzing Cursor that resides tangibly in all our hands as we wander the dark bleak-Christmassy city & try to wring story-text in and out of it in the hope none of it is real. Until it turns into an attachment of virus or video…but with a detachment that makes us unsure exactly where it’s coming from and where it’s going to. (20 Mar 10 – another 3 hours later)
Before She Leaves
“Feeling the dull forces of my barely restrained emotions; emotions I did not feel as if I owned, but only had out on loan. Rented, like a DVD or a wedding suit.”
This story – steeped in a Lanean bleak-city sexual encounter – is the ultimate detachment, where the narrator admits to us that he tells lies. Through any lies, we sense a real event and a real misbegotten attempt to solve it. There is more truth in lies than in truth itself, perhaps. And more truth in brutalist architecture, an expression I’d never heard of before reading this book, but was coincidentally mentioned on TV last night in a documentary about the Home Office. A building’s ‘defective scaffolding’ is a literal part of this story as well as a figurative part of the writing of it. (21 Mar 10)
My Autumn Hands
“…my own name withered in the crisp air…”
A first impression tells me that this exquisite nocturne of detachment-by-inverse-Midas-touch is a genuine dark classic, one that should win awards. Reminds me, too, of the Goth girl just beyond the earlier ‘black glass’, as two comfort zones threaten to touch each other… (21 Mar 10 – two hours later)
A Shade of Yellow
“…others had left entire pieces of themselves over there in the hot desert…”
An unbearably sad story of an Iraq War veteran returned to UK, in seeming disgrace and haunted.
Religion is the strongest cursor or muse of all, perhaps, and we are not talking Christianity here. We are taught here effectively to see beyond the obvious. Despite the tragedy, I personally (and perhaps perversely) saw the outcome as a triumph. The crowning of the King in Yellow himself. Other readers may have entirely a different reaction, I suspect. A story that must be read.
And, on a lighter note, like a detached Trojan Hitchcock, I found myself in the book again, here in a supermarket: “…some stocky pensioner struggling gamely with a bargain-sized sack of basmati rice.” (21 Mar 10 – another 3 hours later)
“…hiding behind a face that was not her own.”
Another Iraq War victim, this time a soldier who never returned home, being the protagonist-boy’s father, and we learn of the after effects of this loss upon the boy and his Mum and Granny. A Christmas story where Granny — suffering yet one further notch of detachment (this time it is senile dementia and how many more notches can be ratcheted up so painfully by this book, one wonders?) — is allowed to visit home just for Christmas. A missing Christmas tree angel. Later, a scene as vivid as the Biblical Annunciation with all its implications cross-wired here by different circumstances, different characters. That scene will stay with me for a very long time, I’m sure. (21 Mar 10 – another 3 hours later)
“My son, my beloved heir, was crying silently out to me across the miles that separated us, blood calling to blood.”
A substantial weird tale (almost Lovecraftian: e.g. “blasphemous figures”) featuring a barely known Scottish Isle and its legend, plus a deeply-felt father-son relationship, one that features (I have found) in much McMahon literature, here contrived by email and other reportage to take its linear story along. Very well-described scenes and emotions, with original ideas of horror, thus out-weighing the contrivances.
The theme of a ‘broken back’ mythology is made more powerful by the earlier context of Brutalist architecture (and falling from ‘defective scaffolding’ etc) and I can now see this story’s striking theme of snapped spines etc as even more striking by its literal ‘bodily’ contribution to the book’s otherwise figurative gestalt of ‘detachment’ (and vice versa).
“I felt that even God, if He existed, had struck this inhospitable terrain from His memory.”(22 Mar 10)
Meg o’Green Weeds
“A shooting star passed slowly overhead, cutting a streak through the pitch-black heavens. Oliver watched its progress, and felt utterly alone once it stuttered out like a faulty bulb.”
Other than moments like that and some genuine effective horror prose of the old school towards the end, this story does not work for me. It has the myth of far-way places of the previous story but the contrivances here, for me, are not out-weighed by genuine originality. It is explicitly about a writer who is suddenly finding success but feels guilty about a past marital infidelity. A disconnect, rather than a detachment. The Muse went missing – like the star in the sky. (22 Mar 10 – two hours later)
“The world seemed to slow down in its revolutions around the sun, gravity turned to sludge.”
McMahon takes no hostages for happy endings. Back on true form here, that gravity quote is obliquely emblematic of the sadness in which this story is steeped – and the road accidents thus ‘created’. Flowers as emblems of themselves, soon to decay, grow their own faces of sadness, not road-kill so much as ghost-fodder. I simply loved this story.
When symbol and symbolised disconnect, that is when religions and myths, in tune with the seismic disruption prefigured upon Brokenback Island, implode with an emotional gravity that sucks you down, down… (22 Mar 10 – another 2 hours later)
Paint it Black
“We all sensed that this was the end of something, the moment after which everything would be broken…”
Here the ultimate Muse – the author inferred – paints everything black, black, black. As he often does. But never as here. A truly affecting story that stretches one’s ability to follow the blackness into areas scatological and eschatological that one should not enter for fear of utter despair.
I thought it was only old people who gradually lost their friends of a similar age … but, now, here, always, it starts far earlier than that.
There are some truly original visionary moments in this story and I cannot do justice to the story’s twists and turns or blinding blacknesses. The father-son synergy and husband-wife guilt trips and working-place ethics, temptations and torments, even those “motorised phantoms on a ghost road“, are ratcheted up an even further notch, if that can be credited.
Too diffuse to be classic gems like ‘My Autumn Hands’ and ‘Road Flowers’ but incisive enough to make many readers hope, I guess, that the paper behind the print turns the same colour as the print.
“When people die the world releases their weight…” (22 Mar 10 – another 3 hours later)
A Rustle of Paper
It is difficult to know what to say about the plot of this neat story without spoiling it completely. It is possibly the only surreal Ionesco Dickian type of exercise in the book so far, i.e. combining gritty realism (e.g. a husband’s way of coping with his wife’s terminal illness) with something very absurd / literary and dream-like and relatively low-key in a black humour sort of way but also cast as essentially real as the gritty realism. This thus varies from the supernaturally horrific or visionary ‘dying falls’ of most of the previous stories, stories that are utterly in-your-face as well as in-your-soul. This rustle of paper is an interlude, a premature coda, immediately prior to what looks like a substantial story (the longest as well as last in the book), a story that hopefully I shall read tomorrow before making final arrangements to go to Brighton for the WHC. (22 Mar 10 – another 4 hours later)
Cf: ‘Being and Nothingness sat, limp and incongruous, next to a torn Beano’ …?Also I was slightly wrong just now. The second story (The Knocking) is indeed an absurdic sister story of the penultimate one (Rustle of Paper) – in more ways than one. A neat symmetry. There seems to be a an over-arching Music power working here (God or the author or the publisher or me?) (another 3 hours later)
“…the posters on the wall were all torn from comics like The Beano and The Dandy…”
It seems we must credit G-O-D…or blame Him.
I had The Beano regularly during my childhood in the Fifties and a tin bath and a lavatory at the end of the garden and no phone for my Mum to ring me when staying late at friends’ houses. Not to get into a Monty Python sketch about whose childhood was grittier – but the Seventies have no comparison with the Fifties…. 🙂
This story is a wonderful ghost story with at least oblique relevance to the Bulger incident in the UK.
For the first time ever in my reading-fiction life, I think, I actually had sufficient suspension of disbelief to begin believing, without reservation, in the ghosts depicted – and that’s no mean feat.
At first, I had qualms about the protagonist launching into a narrative about a past incident in his childhood to his wife while their young daughter lay dying after infiltration into their suburban ‘comfort zone’ by a bullet. But I imagined a cinematic effect of his story of the past (which is indeed the bulk of ‘Safety Dance’) dissolve-framing into his words and swelling into real life before us. So, you can imagine, I had a wry smile when later this story-within-a-story said: “This was no film or television show; this was reality, and it was terrifying.” It was as if the inferred author was reading my mind better than I was reading his!
The Muse of this story is the Past. The Cursor, too. The Past as a hybrid of folklore and truth and, as contextualised by the book as a whole, becoming extremely powerful. All the stories, indeed, and the book itself do work in the blackest possible synergy.
Here, the ending of ‘Safety Dance’ — a story that contains stunning visionary moments that should haunt you well into your own past — seems to want to strip off the black paint at least for a nonce, with an ostensibly happy outcome. But, regarding the author, one must return to the beginning of ‘Safety Dance’ where it is said that “He tried on a smile but it didn’t quite fit“.
As for me, well, I hear the rustle of paper. (23 Mar 10)