Kirsty Logan's Things We Say in the Dark: surreal twists on modern fears

The Scottish writer’s short-story collection is made up of eccentric accounts of the supernatural, the dystopian and the outright horror-filled.

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If ever there was a collection to disprove the idea that the short story is the literary form for an age of dwindling attention spans, this is it. Kirsty Logan’s new collection, Things We Say in the Dark, asks a lot of its readers. Its eccentric accounts of the supernatural, the dystopian and the outright horror-filled require an agile reader willing to dive deep into numerous, unthinkably strange worlds for just a few pages at a time, hardly coming up for air in between.

Unusually, Logan’s is a collection that rewards sequential reading. Set in between each story are italicised segments of another narrative, told by an author who is in Iceland to write horror stories, and who, in turn, becomes haunted herself. “I don’t know what I was trying to say, but whatever it was, I tried my best to say it,” she writes, in what feels like a trite insight into her writing process – before it is revealed that this voice, too, is a strand of Logan’s fictional horror. “My wife is not my first reader any more… She hasn’t heard anything I’ve said for a long time.”

Logan’s style of horror fiction has its roots in the eeriest of folk stories. Born to Scottish parents (though in England) and now living and working in Glasgow, she has paid particular attention to the Celtic kind: her 2015 story collection A Portable Shelter is directly inspired by Scottish folk tales, while her novel The Gloaming, published last year, is a queer fairytale about mermaids living off the coast of an unnamed Scottish island.

Things We Say in the Dark isn’t so weighed down with kelpies and selkies. Like Daisy Johnson and Julia Armfield, Logan observes modern anxieties and commonplace troubles and twists them into surreal new shapes. Each of the book’s three sections begins with a list of “Fears”, where she takes the typical concerns of a modern woman – health, housing, sex, babies – and wrings out of them the weirdest possible outcomes. May, having listened to her friends’ criticisms of her small flat, chooses instead to live inside a doll’s house which she perches on her shoulders, covering only her head. Evangeline, advised that looking at dogs will make her unborn baby “vicious”, replaces all the pictures in her house “with images of insects on vellum. Insects, thought Evangeline, have the power to transform. Larvae to beetles, maggots to flies, caterpillars to butterflies.”

These fears seep quietly into the collection’s other stories. Most intriguing are those that overturn traditional linear narrative. “We Can Make Something Grow Between the Mushrooms and the Snow” is divided into six sections, each named for an unusual property that Richard and Carolyn are considering buying: one has been “created from a much sought-after glacier”, another is a house “set on a bed of mushrooms”. It’s a tale that exposes both the ridiculousness of the housing market and the unspoken exhaustion of early motherhood.

In “Half Sick of Shadows”, sections (each named for a theme park ride) switch between narrative prose and dialogue laid out in bullet-points. A couple traipse around a theme park, looking at the “Dungeons of Doom”, the “Jousting Knights Dodgems” and the “Towers of Fun” and wondering which is the best place to leave their young daughter – for good. Soon enough, they’ve abandoned her, and forgotten it ever happened.

Why on earth do they have a ragdoll in their car? … He rolls down the window and throws the doll out. There seem to be a lot of other toys in the car park, for some reason. People are such litterbugs. He turns up the radio and together they drive away, unencumbered, free as a flag in the breeze.

It’s a marvellously unnerving final scene.

At times, Logan’s keenness to try out new structures can be tiring; her titles are drawn-out and her narratives switch repeatedly between conflicting voices. But when the final few lines of a story really bite, her sharp wit is unmistakable. The stand-out “Girls are Always Hungry When all the Men are Bite-Size” tells of a mother and daughter who hold seances in their house. An inquisitive man appears repeatedly in an attempt to expose the women’s fraud, his curiosity turning into sexual intrusiveness and, ultimately, a twisted act of assault. The daughter – our narrator – knows how to respond: “I swallow him in one go. He doesn’t even touch the sides of my throat… I turn and leave, only partly full.”

In Logan’s quick-witted feminist realm, manipulative men will always get their comeuppance. 

Things We Say in the Dark
Kirsty Logan
Harvill Secker, 240pp, £12.99

Ellen Peirson-Hagger is the New Statesman's culture assistant.

This article appears in the 09 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The fantasy of global Britain