Brian Howell’s latest collection of short stories, The Man Who Loved Kuras and Other Stories (Salt, 2022), is wonderfully weird. What can be done in a short story, which is much harder to sustain over the length of an entire novel, is to explore feelings and situations that are off-kilter, at odds with the norm. These are narratives that push the boundaries of acceptance and conjure feelings of uneasiness, sometimes even repulsion, but that also challenge views on how people choose, or are forced, to live.
Lucie McKnight Hardy writes: ‘Sensations brought about by the manifestation of the Uncanny – dread, unease, that inescapable sensation that something is not quite right – have been said to derive from that which is familiar (homely) becoming unfamiliar (unhomely)’ (Writing the Uncanny, pp.9-10). Some of Howell’s stories start out innocent enough, like the opening of ‘Green to Blue’ or ‘The Shore’ wherein a young girl asks the main character which book he is reading. Whereas others drop more quickly into a world that is not quite as it should be. The opening line of the titular story – ‘As Ishii started out on one of his daily walks past the local daycare centre, the screams of the children sounded out’ – could’ve been a man merely taking a stroll, but for a singular word: screams. This word can, of course, be read in various ways, but to me it was immediately unsettling.
Howell makes great use of silence and space between the characters to heighten their sense of disjointedness which in turn enhances the sense of unease in the reader. One example is from ‘The Folding Man’: ‘[Pippa] seemed not to be looking so much at her mother as into a pocket of space between them’ until a ‘chasm opened up, a resentment that cannot be filled with cheery conversation, it seemed.’ Another is a one-sided conversation in ‘The Shore’ between an American man and a young Asian girl.
In his essay ‘What My Gland Wants,’ Adam Marek states that ‘the short story reader has the ability to suspend their disbelief to a far greater degree’ (Short Circuit, p.147). This is true in many of the stories within Howell’s collection, not least ‘The Folding Man’ wherein the main character’s skin is peeled back to reveal his organs and ‘wonderfully, no blood spilled anywhere.’
Some argue that short fiction doesn’t need any description; it is only a distraction and readers are able to imagine characters for themselves. Tobias Hill, on the other hand, likens physical character description to ‘having the salt beside you when you are cooking. You don’t need a lot of it … But it is necessary to have just enough’ (Short Circuit, p.108). This singular description of Mandy in ‘Family Tree’ is not only concise, but also serves as foreshadowing for what will later unfold: ‘She seemed concerned over little else but the doll she dragged along in the dirt. I thought how much it resembled her, with its Belisha-beacon orange hair, its staring, unseeing eyes, its fixed, reprimanding expression.’
Bearing in mind these elements, I feel The Man Who Loved Kuras and Other Stories, although not for everyone, is not only wonderfully weird, but also weirdly wonderful.
Post a Comment