The unremitting bleakness of Mark Haddon’s first book of short stories seems to have stumped even his publishers, who have decided, in the blurb, to make the rather shell-shocked protestation that “his imagination is even darker than we had thought”. Certainly, anyone who came to Haddon’s work through The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and its Olivier Award-winning stage adaptation will get a shock from this merciless collection, which opens with a story about the death of 64 people in a seaside accident and moves on briskly to other tales featuring starvation, dismemberment, evisceration, euthanasia, suicide, amputation, shooting, poisoning and incineration.
Sunk in its amplifying gloom, I found myself thinking of a passage in Haddon’s last (also fairly grim) novel, The Red House, in which an eight-year-old passes the time on a disastrous family holiday by planning his own work of literature. “It would be called A Hundred Horrible Ways to Die,” he muses, “and it would include torture and killing but not cancer.”
There is a good deal of sympathy in these economical pieces, but not much pity. The title story, first published in this paper, sets the tone. It is told in the present tense, and describes the collapse of a pier at a fictitious British seaside resort in 1970, balancing the unfolding horror of its events with a coolly detached, observational prose that creates a mood of eerie calm. “If you look through the black haystack of planks and beams,” Haddon writes, “you can see three figures thrashing in the dark water, a fourth floating face down and a fifth folded over a weed-covered beam. The rest are trapped underwater somewhere. Up on the pier a man hurls five lifebelts one after the other into the sea.” Later stories describe lives at various extremities of pain or grief, and with similar austerity. “Bunny” is about a 30-stone man feeding himself to death, “Breathe” about a woman tending her demented mother, “The Weir” about a divorcé who saves a mentally ill young woman from drowning. All of them share a distantly compassionate, vaguely medical tone, as though the author is relating news you may not wish to hear: it’s perhaps no surprise that doctors pop up with such frequency in Haddon’s work.
Several stories pay indirect homage to mythic or literary forerunners. “The Island” offers a refracted paraphrase of the story of Ariadne on Naxos, picking up shortly after Theseus’s ship sails off into the distance. In Haddon’s version, where none of the characters is named, the Minotaur is a deformed teenager, the king a brutal murderer and Ariadne a helpless teenager incapable of surviving in the wild. In the myth, she is discovered on Naxos by Dionysus, who marries her: here, the god of wine and ecstasy is a towering monster, covered in excrement, who rapes the helpless girl and then lets his Bacchantes rip her to pieces. It is told unflinchingly, though I could never quite work out whether Haddon’s flustered prose (“He is the only man she’s ever loved, and he has dumped her like ballast . . . She is off the heart’s map and her compass is spinning”) was in imitation of a lovestruck girl’s thoughts, or a rare crack in his usually undemonstrative and practical style.
“Wodwo”, one of the longer stories, provides another twist on an existing tale, in this case the 14th-century romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Here, too, Haddon remains silent about the inspiration, though an epigraph from Gawain lurks in forbidding Middle English at the beginning of the book. It opens on Christmas Eve at the Northamptonshire home of a retired neurosurgeon, where a session of posh family bickering is interrupted by the apparition of a gigantic stranger who demands to be blasted in the chest with a sawn-off shotgun. The subsequent humbling of its central character, who is no longer “gode Gawan” but Gavin, a blusteringly awful TV presenter, is a tale of slow decline, homelessness and eventual redemption that loses none of its weird and ghostly sheen from being dragged into a later age.
Other stories play quietly with the reader’s assumptions about their elected genres. “The Boys Who Left Home to Learn Fear” uses a setting out of H P Lovecraft or Edgar Rice Burroughs to tell its own, strangely truncated tale of loss and abandonment, as explorers in the jungle find cryptic warnings scrawled by a bottomless cave near the corpses of their predecessors. In “The Woodpecker and the Wolf”, a colonist on a remote planet contends with a string of grisly hazards – botched appendectomies, suicide by her colleagues, the abandonment of relief efforts, an unexpected pregnancy – before being rescued. As she returns with her child to a spookily idyllic Earth, however, the suspicion grows that things are not quite as comforting as we would like to believe: “There is,” Haddon writes, “something wrong with all this but she cannot put her finger on what it might be.”
That sentence might apply equally well to every story in this impressive but forbiddingly lightless collection. There’s no doubt about Haddon’s skill, but I haven’t read a glummer book in years.
This article appears in the 18 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster