By Rachael Llewellyn
Ann Laabs reviews Human Beings, a quietly dread-inducing collection of short stories by Rachael Llewellyn that will ‘break your heart while creeping your flesh’.
While Tolstoy’s famous introductory sentence in Anna Karenina has been proven true, rarely has it been illustrated as chillingly, horrifically, and in as quietly dread-inducing a fashion as Rachael Llewellyn’s short story collection Human Beings.
Unlike a non-genre ‘the way we live now’ family story, Llewellyn presents her stories through a Dutch angle of disquiet and unease, with thirteen stories recounted by unreliable narrators of the first, second, and third-person perspective. A film uses oblique Dutch angles to inspire fear, panic, a sense of the unseen, a sense of mental imbalance, and the feeling of threat; the reader of Human Beings finds themselves reading these studies of love, hate, sibling rivalry, and marital dissolution from a skewed, off-kilter perspective. While the stories remain, for the most part, restrained in their approach to the graphic details, this restraint makes the occasional detours into body horror and splatterpunk even more effective and shocking.
To use another film analogy, reading Human Beings plunges the reader into a literary house of funhouse mirrors; but it’s a particularly British funhouse, perhaps located next to Temptations Ltd (From Beyond the Grave, UK, Kevin Connor, 1974). Like visitors to that peculiar antique shop, I found myself drawn into these stories, every single one reflecting the worst, most hidden, parts of every character, a typeset picture of Dorian Gray.
If Llewellyn is a ‘new to you’ author, these stories carry the traces of illustrious practitioners of the macabre, seen through the lens of Llewellyn’s unique voice. Throughout this collection, I detected notes of Shirley Jackson’s cool, dry prose lulling me towards a quietly devastating finale, along with the subtle upending of reader’s expectations in the stories and novels of Margaret Yorke.
Individual stories, especially ‘An Interested Party’, mix the literary disorientation of Patrick McGrath, Robert Aikman, and Ian McEwan (particularly his ‘Ian Macabre’/Cement Garden phase) with the artful splatterpunk of Clive Barker, producing a queasy funhouse-ride sensation, veering from high to low art in the space of a few pages, or even a few lines. Other stories, like ‘Date Night’, recall the literary serial killers of Joyce Carol Oates (Monster) or Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho). The disorienting effects of ‘Sleeplessly Sleep Walking’ even suggested the hallucinatory reputation of a book I’ve tried, failed, and will try again to read – House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski.
The bodies of some of characters in Human Beings, particularly those at the receiving end of a sociopath’s attentions, recall the powerless victims in Tusk (US, Kevin Smith, 2014), Boxing Helena (US, Jennifer Lynch, 1993), and The Skin I Live In (Spain, Pedro Almodóvar, 2011); subject to the existential horror of loss of control over their bodies, minds, and very identity. The fates of characters in ‘Who Is Your Daddy, and What Does He Do?’ and ‘Monochrome Dancers’ still haunt me. At their most perceptive, these stories reminded me of damaged human monsters like Francisca in Eyes of my Mother (US, Nicolas Pesce, 2016), the endlessly unsatisfied Jerry Blake in The Stepfather (US, Joseph Ruben, 1987), and the very peculiar children in The Cement Garden (UK, Andrew Birkin, 1993).
Halfway through Human Beings, I felt compelled to tally up the points of view used in this collection. For what it matters (if anything), five stories are told in the third person, four in the second person, and another four from the most suspect perspective of all, the first-person narrator. It’s a complement to Llewellyn’s writing that no matter which point of view was used, I didn’t trust any of them.
However, it’s the family ties in Human Beings that cut the deepest. Out of thirteen stories, eight revolve around the twisted ties between siblings (blood or step variety) or spouses (or siblings, their respective spouses and in-laws). Depending on your definition of the word, sociopaths wind their merry way in five stories.
Whatever the family relationship or personality type, the themes developed here are so dark, no light can escape them, or allow a glimpse of hope to pierce the darkness. From abduction to abuse (physical and mental), and loss of bodily autonomy through unwilling body transformation, Human Beings explores the gamut of atrocities one human can inflict on another. Yet through the atrocities, Llewellyn creates sympathy for even the most repulsive character. In ‘There’s Something Wrong With Rosa’ and the previously mentioned ‘Who Is Your Daddy…’, the best stories leave characters trapped and tortured in an unending domestic hell they cannot escape, and the reader cannot forget.
My two main criticisms of Human Beings don’t involve the substance of the stories, but the proofreading and cover art. Being a repeat grammar offender myself, I’m loath to mention verb tenses and such, except reading a minor error takes me out of the story.
The second item may seem like a minor quibble, but as the cliché goes, every book is judged by its cover. After reading and reflecting on every story, and the overarching mood of the whole, the cover of Human Beings did not reflect the themes and tone of the stories within. The title font reminded me of Candyman, and the art doesn’t capture the book’s spare, unsettling tone. I picture a cover like that of Robert Aickman’s 1975 collection Cold Hand In Mine, the American paperback of The Bridesmaid (Barbara Vine, 1989) or a variation on the iconic Ionicus covers that created a sense of unease with their landscapes of twisted trees, clouds or shadows in empty rooms (The House of Dracula, Stories of Haunted Inns).
At their best, the stories in Human Beings are that rare kind of written horror; stories that break your heart while creeping your flesh. Readers diving deeper into the collection’s themes will see a macabre progress, a connecting thread, from the first story to the last.
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