[Tychy is nothing if not a writer and reviewer of short stories: this website to date features about eighty short stories, of varying ambitions and success; and numerous reviews of either individual stories or complete volumes by authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, E.F. Benson, and Laird Barron. “Short Story Review,” a series devoted exclusively to volumes of short stories, consolidates this website’s longstanding and ongoing critical appreciation of short fiction.]
Lucy Wood is an up-and-coming author without a website or a Wikipedia entry. Her debut collection of short fiction, Diving Belles was published earlier in the year. A champion and connoisseur of Cornish folklore, Wood takes a sprig from this heather for each of her tales. She would be rich by now if she had written some of them for younger readers, particularly “Notes from the House Spirits” and “Wisht,” but in the latter story the kids are shooed away by a reference to a “fucking bat.” Wood has confided in Youtube that she intends to explore the “darker” side of the old tales and retell them for adults rather than kids. Yet these tales are ultimately “dark” in the sense that they are obscure. Diving Belles illuminates only the failure of folklore to keep shining through into our world.
The final story, “Some Drolls Are Like That and Some Are Like This,” warns that Wood is herself like That. A droll-teller, incidentally, was an itinerant Cornish storyteller. If Ossian had been Cornish, he would have been a droll-teller. Wood seems not to have learned her craft on the road, but through a Creative Writing degree at Exeter University. One doubts that it is possible to pick up any wisdom on today’s sterile campuses, let alone Cornwall’s folk memory, so what do we have instead? Mostly, in Wood’s case, a shrewd, imaginative fiction, perhaps like that of A.S. Byatt but a bit less snotty. At its best, Diving Belles recalls the wily storytelling of Roald Dahl.
Wood’s “Countless Stones” offers a bald retelling of Byatt’s “A Stone Woman” (2003), as if droll-tellers are today producing fodder for book clubs. “Countless Stones” is the same story but everything is different. Byatt cribbed from Icelandic folklore, whilst Wood borrows from the more suitably-local Cornwall. Byatt’s story was breathtakingly lyrical; Wood’s is homely and practical. When we are told that Wood’s heroine Rita eats her toast “cold and dry,” we know that she is, so to speak, a hard woman.
Wood is a young writer and one naturally takes enjoyment in the exuberance of her prose. Her mind is rather like a new kitten which is scrambling everywhere at once, observing the world from all sorts of unlikely angles. A shipwreck is likened to “an unlit bonfire”; trees in the wind “sound as though they are rifling through their own leaves for something lost”; sleep is “flimsy, broken, as if someone was throwing stones into water”; a landscape “repeated itself, like somebody who was old or lonely”; whilst a crescent moon looks like “someone has left the fridge door open.”
Like a good housewife, Wood, or at least her prose, is most resourceful around the home. Her forte is the physical and emotional layouts of her characters’ homes. She is aware of how flatmates will always receive post addressed to their flat’s former occupants for years; of how there are “lonely quiet moments… like cobwebs nestling in every corner of the house”; that there are knots and strange shapes “lurking” within wooden furniture; that we may find a woman in a new apartment “opening the wrong drawers, sliding her hand up and down smooth walls to find a light switch”; and that guests will drop unwanted party food down the back of the sofa, where it may remain for years. Even if they have never experienced such things, the reader will be constantly exclaiming, “how true!” The childhood home in “Of Mothers and Little People” may sound like every childhood home:
You haven’t been here for months, or maybe over a year, and many things catch your eye: the lovely smooth dents inside the washing machine that you used to run your palms over; the lopsided clock you made at school; vases with nothing but water inside. Why does your mother always have empty vases around?
“Of Lights in Other People’s Houses” would fit Diving Belles much better as a title. Yet the protagonist of this story, Maddy, will suffer a breakdown after receiving her childhood home wrapped up in boxes. Maddy’s parents have shipwrecked their home, attracting the spectre of an old wrecker, but Maddy finds herself adrift somewhere between ship and wrecker. Her “things” will be consumed by sand and salt water, just as the Grandma in “Beachcoming” becomes the last port for the world’s missing and discarded property. Time is the ultimate wrecker.
In “Notes from the House Spirits,” Wood’s storytelling is perhaps distilled into a pure voice. Wood finds the perfect way of telling her stories, and the result is a story comprised entirely of the history and spirit (s) of an old house. It is as if the actors have left and the scenery has commenced a soliloquy.
Yet many of Wood’s characters – the witches consigned to a laboriously regulated nursing home, the grandmother on the beach, the droll-teller himself – are both homeless and only precariously at home in folklore. These are folk tales with an unexpectedly contemporary flavour. Wood’s fond and often preoccupied observations of domestic interiors announce an author from a homeless generation; a generation whose parents had big comfortable houses which will be handed down and probably handed down again, hand-me-down homes which will grow ever more decrepit. Somewhat incongruously, Maddy will be drowned with her future house, whilst her less conservative parents have escaped from the wreckage.
The characters in Wood’s tales are no longer peasants now, but a weary post-industrial folk who work mostly in service industries. We find her characters in a greasy spoon, a bakery, a hardware store, a dentist’s reception, an ice cream factory, a nursing home and a hairdresser, whilst some of them have randomly drifted into management. If Wood’s folk tales seem aimless and demoralised, it is because her dramatis personae are no longer rooted in the world.
If the blank, numb Iris could ever really love, then the story “Diving Belles” would be unbearable. As it stands, her adventure, with its searching ship The Matriarch, offers a domestic, feminist retelling of Moby Dick. The husband is nameless, like the wives of the sailors on the Pequod, and when he is finally spotted, Iris is conscious only of his blank watery body – its surface and colours – rather than of his self.
Wood should have resisted the one-liner about there being “plenty more fish in the sea,” because the husband really seems to be a humanoid fish. The moment when he fades away altogether is superbly achieved, but we are prevented from understanding what has been lost. This is a story in which we dive into the depths of the sea but everything remains on the surface.
For a being as supposedly tangible as a fish, the husband is actually a sort of materialist ghost. He has died and he appears again, in a mysterious soundless haunting. But he is not a supernatural being and he must presumably follow unspecified material laws. Diving Belles has exorcised many of the ghosts and spectres from folklore, not by vanquishing them with the name of Christ or explaining them in the name of science, but by undermining their wonder, polluting them with material properties and humdrum human characteristics.
Gog from “The Giant’s Boneyard” is another materialist ghost, slyly slipping his phantom limb under his beloved’s body to cuddle her against her knowledge. The bland unmenacing ghost from “Lights in Other People’s Houses” turns out to be surprisingly materialistic, grumbling when a rock is “not worth anything.” The Grandma in “Beachcombing” is also an amphibious concoction, half ghost and half human. Exiled from the land of the living, she nevertheless remains as “strong as a horse” and more substantial than the invisible watery “buccas” [beach spirits] that fail to impress her grandson, Oscar; but she is as marooned as the whale that washes up on the beach or the cow that tumbles on to it from a landward direction, both of which Oscar finds altogether more captivating. Grandma believes that the buccas have claimed her loved ones, but this folk belief has itself left her washed up on the shores of time.
Buccas no longer belong in this world. Neither do the wisht hounds that float upon the breeze, nor the useless “wishing tree” that is forced to compete with an unlikely and somewhat tasteless magazine tip that skinny-dipping may influence cancer. Whilst the ghosts in Diving Belles are underwhelming, the humans are themselves ghostly and mysterious.
The fishy husband in “Diving Belles” is a mere shade of the catfish Maria from “Blue Moon, who has immensely more spirit. Tessa’s mind freezes as she stands in the shadow of the wishing tree, perhaps indicating that modern people are merely alienated from the folk rather than that it no longer works. In other words, she is the ghost whilst the magical tree remains at home in the world. Tessa is similarly indifferent to the only cited “ghost” in this story, which is material in the sense that it is made of Lego. The only mention of a mermaid in “Diving Belles” refers to the “decapitated mermaid” which provides the figurehead for Demelza’s boat. It would make a fine figurehead for Wood’s own vessel.
In “Of Mothers and Little People,” the supernatural offers an unexpected rational explanation for a human mystery. One may think it sufficient that the mother is mysteriously at peace. When her daughter is made aware of the faerie visitant, it is “like catching Santa outside the grotto reading FHM.” Instead of a belief in faeries being validated, the wisdom of mothers has been refuted. The daughter needs a material or at least a technical explanation to understand her own mother, but at the end of the story the mother will disappear into the woods, just as the fish-husband from “Diving Belles” had faded away into the sea.
Most of Wood’s characters are comprised of a mass of details and quirks which gradually merge into vague spectral figures. Maddy from “Lights…” is introduced with a trick in which she tries to pull an egg out of her boyfriend’s ear. Her boyfriend in turn grows cress or sweet peas in yoghurt pots. Wood’s characters are often defined only by such minutiae, rather as a poltergeist leaves inconsequential little indents upon the world.
Most of Wood’s narrators and protagonists are women. There may be considerable surprise when the narrator of “Magpies” refers to “his wife” and we are forced to the conclusion that he is a man. We may acknowledge that the narrator of “The Giant’s Boneyard” is a child with a similar protest. Men or women, children or adults, their voices and thoughts are the same; the same passionless curiosity, the same blank defeat. “Magpies” is a sweet, brief tale about a man who has been stolen by a magpie. Yet his life is so empty that neither he nor anybody else has lost out from the magpie’s audacity. Both the child and father in “Wisht” are nameless peasants, whose identities would be otherwise lost in history, except that this is also a failed folk tale and they will not be swept away by the wisht hounds whose wailing is reduced to background music.
Rita, the heroine of “Countless Stones” is literally transforming from a human being into a huge unfeeling rock. The general mystery of her metamorphosis corresponds with the particular mystery of why she and her ex Danny are no longer together. Danny is house hunting, whilst the sparrow which provides an impromptu symbol of Rita is scrabbling to escape from the most probable candidate. We are left wondering why Rita’s real home is not Danny’s new house rather than a spot facing the sea in a folklore in which she patently does not belong.
Insubstantial characters may be a cost of juvenile writing, but they are also part and parcel of Wood’s aesthetic. The second person narration in “Of Mothers…” and the first person plural in “Notes from…” are gambits which pay off, producing naturally flowing narratives at the expense of fragmenting and destabilising the traditional Is and Hes/Shes of folk storytelling.
Most of these stories concern friendship: the friendships between a mother and her daughter, a girl and her ex, a beloved and his unrequited lover; a grandmother and her grandson. Yet these friendships are really vacuums of communication and understanding. Danny and Rita never discuss the fact that the latter is turning into stone; Sunshine and Gog never refer to the fact that the latter is a giant; Oscar and his Grandma never comment upon the wisdom of the latter hanging out in a cave; Tessa and June keep tight about the fact that the latter is going to die. There may be a single line or allusion to confirm that the other is quietly aware of the discrepancy, but in each story the surface of a folk tale contrasts with the absence of emotional depth, and the ghostly has more substance than the human.
If the tourists who are captured by the droll-teller always look as if, “they felt they had to do things and see things but were just waiting for them to be over,” the obvious comparison is with the alienation of today’s readers. We are no longer enjoying these tales around the fireside – we are most probably consuming them on an E-book. The droll-teller will retell a murder story which he has picked up from a soap opera, but this is the stuff of droll-telling. It is not apparent that this craft has ever really declined. How can one narrate “images and memories” that lie forever “out of reach”? You cannot narrate the taste of oranges. Mortified by his failing powers, the droll-teller finds that it was, “as if he had spilled water over a map and the lines had blurred and shifted into each other,” just as Maddy’s “things” are flooded, Iris’ husband is taken by the sea, and the end of all of these stories is that mythical town under the waves.
The story ends with a bell ringing, perhaps funereally. Is it tolling for thee, droll-teller? But he can find the heart from somewhere to insist that he “was beginning again; somehow, despite everything, he was beginning again.”