Review: Figurehead by Carly Holmes
These juicily dark and often troubling stories take us to creepy locales and into deeply strange situations. A young girl bides her time before she can reclaim the fingers her mother has stolen from her.
A wood reclaims a group of houses even as its inhabitants are still living there and soon there are slavering wolves to contend with. A circus barker indulges in a covert and passionate affair and is gifted a beard.
A girl’s mother turns out to be memorably made of twigs and branches with a ‘gleam of berry in her eye, a sloe-shine peep between the thorny tangle of her lashes.’ As the stuff of fiction goes it’s really out there. And then some.
There’s no shortage of wild imagination at play in these pages: it’s a collection best read when there’s a chill in the air, although it can add plenty of temperature drop all by itself. The very unsettling ‘Three for a Girl’ amplifies that simple nursery rhyme line into a complex tale which is both satisfyingly constructed and psychologically tense.
A sister visits her pregnant sister in an outsize country mansion called Magpie Hall which used to be a children’s home. Playing Pandora, the sister explores the house’s echoing and unfurnished chambers, opening doors that have been shut for years. Soon the sound of young laughter is mixing with the screams as the long-locked-up come out to play and seek some maternal comfort.
It’s a story taut with suspense and fair dripping with atmosphere, from the flagstones of the walled garden which are treacherous with frost to the rotting skeleton and warped roof of the disused coach house, even as it maps out the geography of the horror that awaits its latest inhabitants.
Vivid and sensuous
The writing in this varied collection of 26 stories is often strikingly vivid and often very sensuous, such as this description of a simple wooden floor:
The grain carries every shade between mocha and bistre depending on the time of day. When the afternoon sun warms the wood, believe me you’ll feel an urge to take off your clothes and lie stretched across it, legs splayed as wide as they can get. You’ll sink into it, deep down to the memory of its living roots, and you’ll dream of burrowing mice and earthworms.
Holmes is very good at conjuring up images of time and light so that ‘day was bright at the window, slicing itself into yellow wedges’ or an early dusk was ‘scratching at the edge of things.’ Nature, too, is very much present in these tales, wild in its energy and often unfettered.
In the rural gothic horror of ‘Beneath the Skin’ a woman feeds an animal in the garden with gobbets of meat before having sex with it, which ‘undoes your human self, makes a monster of you. It’s a mating without sentiment or intimacy, an exquisite thrusting.’
In ‘A Small Life’ a new recruit to a village rowing team senses something dangerous lurking on the riverbank and ends with the man offering it a human sacrifice, ‘drooping boneless as a half-stuffed scarecrow between my stretched arms.’
‘Ghost Story’ does what it says on the tin, as a young man hunts down such stories to both enthral and to thrill him. He hears an old woman’s tale before being led to the place of which it tells, a crumbled house set deep in the woods where there are spectral faces at the windows to complement the sense of dread which settles in the marrow of the thrill seeker’s bones.
All too late he realizes that there’s a frightening truth at the heart of the story, even as the young girl who has guided him to the place loses her life.
Shards of a nightmare
But there is one story which stays in the mind, nagging like left-over shards of a nightmare. ‘Sleep’ is a story about a mother called Rosy who finds it hard to cope with caring for her son Tom because of her own ill health, resorting to encouraging him to take sleeping tablets so that she can rest as he gets some much needed rested, often aided by copious drinking, the kind that ‘lowered the inhibitions without clouding the thinking.’
Gradually she drinks more and more and the thinking consequently does get cloudy, leading to the fateful day when she considers ‘casting her beautiful, damaged son into a sleep he’d never wake from. For his sake. For her sake.’ It has an ending to chill the very soul.
In another tale of mental ill-health called ‘They Tell Me,’ a woman with a diminished libido is consigned by her husband to an asylum where the treatments meted out to her soon resemble torture as much as medicine. Cold baths lead to tooth extractions and then increasingly invasive surgery as the staff seek to rid her of the so-called infections that have led to her condition.
Some of the stories are modern day fairy tales, with characters called Gretel knowingly wandering through, while others such as the eponymous story ‘Figurehead’ offer out-and-out fantasy in which the wooden figure on a ship’s prow is given voice to share with us her marine adventures just as ‘Little Matrons’ finds Russian dolls revealing their inner secrets.
There’s a confident sense of logic underpinning all of this, a believability to such extraordinary events and happenings which is all down to the author’s assured skill in harnessing a wild imagination to the dark drifts of story.
These tales of wild woods and wilder inhabitants settle into the reader’s mind in such a way that he becomes alert to the creaks of the room, the possibility of other presences, the edges of the known world being blurrier, anxiety-inducing, far less definite than before we started reading the first of these demon-strewn, spooky and spine-chilling stories.
I’d recommend reading them with an axe to hand, just in case.
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