By Leon Craig
by Natalie Wall
Parallel Hells is a debut short story collection from Leon Craig which uses sensuous gothic horror and folklore to explore queerness, identity, love, and power in strange and intriguing ways. The collection is aptly named, as these threads run through all of the thirteen stories which take the reader from a coastal holiday resort in Mexico, to the mythical and medieval Scandinavia, abandoned mansions, and contemporary London. The stories and characters run parallel to each other, but these themes are repeatedly reworked in surprising ways throughout the collection to give each narrative its little slice of hell.
Each story deals, in some way, with what it means to move through the world at an angle to the perceived norm. But again, this is consistently reimagined, and the narratives never get predictable, largely due to Craig’s wide-ranging source material and the richness of folklore and mythology used to tell tales of outsiders, transformation and reconfiguration. Particularly engaging is the attention to the body and relationships as the site of these transformations and reconfigurations, as this vividly expresses the ability for the body to provide us with the utmost pleasure, affirmation, and joy – as well as fear, alienation, and horror.
Craig takes figures and tropes familiar to the horror genre – the vampire, the undead bride, the haunted book in a dusty library, demons, possession, haunted houses – but skilfully integrates them with the sensibilities and concerns of readers today. Demons carouse in the decadent London party scene, metaphysical books provide a leg-up in the cut-throat but precarious world of Oxford academia, trauma meets a black mass, and gender identity and transphobia are explored through folk magic. This seamless mingling of the traditional and the modern can sometimes mean that readers are left uncertain at the beginning of stories, wondering what and where characters are, and it can sometimes be a challenge to see Craig’s vision. However, all this is also a characteristic of the superbly dreamlike state of some stories and the brevity of the short-story genre, so does not make for a huge criticism.
It’s difficult to write a gothic short-story collection without garnering comparisons to Angela Carter, but Craig manages to recall the decadence of Carter whilst ensuring their stories never feel like re-treading old ground. If Carter was writing for the interests and sensibilities of second-wave feminism, providing agency to the female characters of popular fairytales, then Craig is doing a similar thing for the present age – reworking known figures and tales through the lens of queer identity and desire.
Craig manages to create a staggering array of different atmospheres, settings, and tones in the thirteen stories, drawing on myriad tales, cultures and tropes in quick succession, but never losing the specificity of each tale. A particular highlight for me was ‘Hags’, a tale of an ancient (possibly demonic) entity currently in human form, enjoying the London party scene and navigating how to continue to feed on humans whilst also befriending them; and forming relationships destined to fail as they inevitably outlive any friends. It was a brilliant take on friendship and connection, found family, shame, and secrecy, all themes familiar to queer stories but twisted into a surprisingly tender demonic little package. ‘Raw Pork and Opium’ was another stand-out due to its experimental form. It tells two stories side by side (quite literally, as there are two columns of text on the page) and both stories are different experiences of the same environment. I chose to jump back and forth between the two stories, paragraph by paragraph, but you could read either story in full first then go back and read the other. Offering the reader multiple ways to experience the story tied in well with the content of the tale, so for me was an example of formal experimentation done absolutely right.
Overall, the longer of the stories worked the best, allowing Craig to get into their stride and flesh out characters to their fullest potential, without losing the tension and the mystery of the unseen crucial to a great gothic tale. The very short stories sometimes left the reader slightly too much in the dark, with only a few scraps of certainty left to try and piece together what happened before the end. But, on the whole, the collection had a well-judged pace and it is difficult to pick out a favourite story amongst so many full of such intriguing characters.
A strong debut collection from an author to keep an eye on!
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