Written by: James Keen
“Who took one of Mommy’s fingers during the night?”- ‘The Boot’s Tale’. Patrick McGrath.
This was Patrick McGrath’s first collection of stories, published in the late 1980’s and it’s a thematic catalog of stories that shows a writer jostling with ideas and concepts that would dominate his later works such as ‘Spider’ (filmed in 2002 by director David Cronenberg, no less), ‘Dr Haggard’s Disease’ and ‘Asylum’. McGrath’s literary concerns expressed here are refreshingly off-beat and, by and large, are subtly charming in their execution. These are tales that flirt with themes of creeping insanity, bodily mutation, repressed homosexuality and hopelessly compulsive human behaviour.
Kicking off the collection is ‘The Angel’, a slow-burning narrative offered up by a narrator who may have an elderly neighbour who is not entirely what he seems. Through conversations with Harry Talboys who the narrator is initially convinced is simply a teller of tall tales, – “nothing but the gin-fired fantasies of a maudlin old queen”, he slowly discovers that Talboys drunken discussions of Christianity with the narrator may have its roots in something more tangible than a obsessive alcohol-infused whimsical fantasy. The oddly touching ‘The Lost Explorer’ and the morbid inevitability of an ill-fated marriage at the turn of nineteenth century India of ‘The Black Hand Of The Raj’ follow, broadening the thematic range of this collection to include that of sin, futility and existential anxiety. Other high points here include the titular ‘Blood and Water’, ‘Marmilion’ and ‘Ambrose Syme’.
McGrath’s use of language is superb and his use of the Gothic literary tradition to give expression to his ideas is invariably intriguing and entertaining. Where ‘Blood and Water….’ falters is when McGrath resorts to obvious narrative construction. Case in point is ‘The Arnold Crombeck Story’ a story that while it is admittedly diverting, it’s the most plainly transparent of all the tales presented here and quickly becomes little more than a showcase for McGrath’s choice use of diction and smoothly competent storytelling abilities. ‘The Hand of the Wanker’ can best summed up by a character’s comment from the tale itself, “This is extremely fucking weird”, and ‘Lush Triumphant’ is arguably an exercise in economic character sketching, a story that is little more than a meandering exploration of obsessive artistic pursuit and correlative spiritual atrophy. In that sense some of these stories indulge in an absurdist literary tradition, tales delighting in the more irrational aspects of storytelling to achieve an atmosphere of dislocation and narrative ambiguity.
Overall, a fairly rewarding array of stories here, with ‘character’ perspectives that are wildly imaginative – there’s even a narrative told from the point of view of a young fly and another involving – curiously enough- a piece of footwear with a world weary constitution. McGrath’s subtexts are subtly interwoven and one of the delights to be gleaned from reading this author’s work is tugging at the narrative threads and discovering the rich weave of metaphor and analogy McGrath has incorporated into his fiction. Surreal, witty and often downright bizarre, this is a literary tonic for those perhaps seeking less gaudily wrought literary horror thrills.
Order Blood and Water (sounds quenching) right here.