BOOK REVIEW: THIS HOUSE OF WOUNDS, by GEORGINA BRUCE

Wounds

 

THIS HOUSE OF WOUNDS by Georgina Bruce.

I’ve not been reviewing books recently; rather I’ve been enjoying the freedom to read whatever I like without making notes or analysing subtext or trying to think of things to say. But when I got a message from the consistently excellent Undertow Press asking if I would like a free copy of Georgina Bruce’s first collection I couldn’t resist.

The first thing you’ll notice about this book is the cover: it’s one of the most beautiful images I’ve ever seen, and printed on good quality, lightly textured card that almost feels alive. It’s a sensual delight and a joy to touch, to hold, to open. It’s a promising start and warms me to the book before I’ve read a word.

Upon starting the first story, I realise how perfect the cover is. THE LADY OF SITUATIONS begins with an act of shocking violence, as if the image has leaked into the prose with images of blood, flowers, internal organs. It becomes an expressionist portrait of abuse, misogyny and escape, told in beautiful dreamlike prose. It’s an arresting start.

The themes established in the opening tale are continued, expanded and embellished throughout. Ms. Bruce is not one for linear narrative or an easy distinction between reality, dreams, analogy, art, intoxication and self-deceit. In many ways the whole book is an exploration how we distance ourselves from reality, and from ourselves.

RED QUEENING channels themes from Lewis Carroll through the distorted lenses of Harlan Ellison, Ramsay Campbell, and Clive Barker. Again it’s a surreal nightmare with a glimpse of hope at the end. HER BONES THE TREES lulls us into a false sense of security with dialogue between characters and something like a narrative, but the very internal pov and extreme sensuality keep everything distant. It’s about sex and death and transformation, but you can only see tiny fragments of anything and have to create the story for yourself.

In a dystopian future in which the only industry still thriving is child prostitution, the young victims survive by chewing travel gum, which transports them to the virtual CAT WORLD.  Several of the stories feature abusive men exploiting powerless girls – misogyny is a recurring theme, including in THE BOOK OF DREEMS. More like a traditional horror revenge tale, in which an abusive husband goes too far and gets a comeuppance, except that our narrator is so broken that we have no idea whether anything that happens is real or her damaged psyche trying to make sense of a terrible reality.

SHADOW MEN is a dark folk tale in which men, awed and envious of the power of women, take out their frustration in acts of petty violence, and justify it to themselves in convoluted ways. It sounds like real life except for the ancient Queen of the Forest, and the men who give up their shadows for power over women.

KUEBIKO starts like a situation from the real world but don’t be fooled. It’s a guided tour of a woman’s life: her history, her regrets, fears and ultimately her despair. If it sounds depressing, perhaps it is, but it’s also gorgeous. It too mirrors the cover art – an eviscerated woman can be a beautiful thing. But is the woman suffering purely for our voyeuristic entertainment?

Several of the stories make me slightly ashamed to be male, but when Ms. Bruce moves into the second person when talking about the husband in DOGS I felt accused, as if I am every bad man that has ever been. A relationship goes terribly wrong and it seems she only ever loved his dog.

In WAKE UP, PHIL, the Coke vs Pepsi war has grown to Orwellian proportions, but the products are indistinguishable, and confusing them has terrible consequences. This might be the only story in the collection that I felt I fully understood, but that probably means I’m missing something.

Two consecutive tales CROW VOODOO and THE QUEEN OF KNIVES travel the same road in different directions: both deal with young women claiming their heritage; both demonstrate the beauty inherent in violence and both stretch the reader in different ways. The former in particular abandons the idea that we should take some parts of a story literally and other parts as analogy – a thing can be both.

In THE ART OF FLYING, a woman who has survived cancer and an abusive husband finds solace in her own doom, and LITTLE HEART confirms the theme of the book: that memory, dreams, art and reality are all stirred together in the melting pot of our minds, and what we call truth is an amalgam of those experiences.

THE ART LOVERS surprised me by having a sympathetic male protagonist, though he is exploited by other men, but it becomes a sinister and increasingly violent meditation on how little the sexes understand each other. There is a genuinely sympathetic male character in WHITE RABBIT, about an elderly widower losing his way as dementia robs him of himself. This is paired with THE SEAS OF THE MOON, about a woman losing herself to post-natal depression. Life’s beginnings and endings will both destroy us.

I loved this book. The best way to read it is just to roll with it: a story may have more than one narrative strand and there’s no point trying to separate what is actually happening from the warped internal world of our damaged protagonists, or from Ms. Bruce’s unique way of mixing story with ideas and metaphor, giving each equal weight.

You could read it in little snippets, like a collection of beautiful but disturbing little poems, and it’s best to leave space between each tale, try to digest it. I know I didn’t understand everything, but I enjoyed mulling over each piece, my thoughts and emotions crawling in circles and looking for points of resonance in my own life, questioning my beliefs and assumptions, sometimes finding ways to blame myself for all the evils of the world. It takes a special book to do that.

You can open the book at random, read a paragraph or two and find a perfectly composed little epigram, capturing an idea or an emotion in a handful of words. Reading it too quickly or not giving it your full attention means you’ll miss some snippets of extraordinary beauty.

It’s not always an easy read – it takes effort and concentration, but the rewards for your commitment are worth it. A truly astonishing achievement.

You can read the author’s blog here, visit the publisher’s website here, and buy the book on Amazon UK. Other book retailers do exist, or buy direct from the publisher.

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Everybody is odd; everybody is normal.

Earlier this week were mental health awareness day and national coming out day. I missed both, so here’s my catch up post.

 

MENTAL HEALTH:

Almost everyone has to deal with mental health issues every day, whether it’s ourselves, a family member or close friend.

For as long as I can remember I have suffered  the kind of low level anxiety that impacts on my life but isn’t serious enough to be clinical or warrant seeking medical help. I have a collection of minor neuroses that are really only annoying. I suspect most people have something similar to some degree.

In fact, I suspect most psychological disorders exist on a spectrum. Even the most apparently well-adjusted individuals will have triggers that make their heart race and put them on the verge of panic. We all have down days when we can’t be bothered with the world and just want to stay in and not talk to anyone.

I don’t mean to belittle anxiety or depression – quite the opposite.  I’m telling you that if you suffer seriously from any mental health problem, you’re not weird, just human, and a little further from the middle of the bell curve.

The best analogy might be physical ailments: sciatica perhaps, or fibromyalgia. Lots of people suffer pain of some sort, but it’s only a problem when it starts to interfere with our lives. Standing up slowly to avoid jolting a tender spine doesn’t stop us going out and getting on with life, but lying flat in bed because every movement is agony is different only in degree, not substance.

 

COMING OUT:

Now the coming out bit. I was closeted and married to a woman until five years ago when I came out aged forty nine.

The coming out process was stressful for a while, as I gradually told various people, never certain of what response to expect (Everybody, bar none, has been totally accepting and encouraging), but it has been brilliant for my mental health in the long run.

Being open about myself has made me realise how hard it was all those years, self editing everything I said or did. It’s exhausting. I’m much more calm these days. I’ve never felt better.

 

The honesty about my sexuality has had an unexpected side effect though: I’m more open now about my mental health issues.

My ocd, intrusive thoughts and social anxiety haven’t vanished, but not hiding it means I no longer need to be anxious about my anxiety.

 

I used to go to parties and work nights out and similar events, and pretend to enjoy myself. I felt that I had to so I wouldn’t be the weird antisocial guy. I’ve given that up. These days I just say no, and, if necessary, explain that attending would make me anxious and I’m no longer willing to put myself through that just to blend in. People understand, and even if they don’t they still accept it. It’s so easy I don’t understand why I didn’t do it years ago. That’s not right – I do understand. I was afraid if being ostracised, afraid of the stigma of having a psychological disorder. If I sometimes walk oddly or take irregular steps so that my left foot will be the first on a staircase, I no longer try to hide it or worry about people thinking I’m odd.

 

EVERYBOY is odd. EVERYBODY is normal. Being lgbt or having mental health issues no longer carry the stigma they once did, except in certain groups and individuals who haven’t quite caught up with the 21st century.

Horror Limericks

The horror genre lends itself to the setup-punchline structure of the limerick, so I wrote a few.

 

A young looking fellow from Leith
Had very sharp, shiny white teeth
You might get a fright
If you met him at night
And never again will you breathe.
A ragged wee laddie called Fed
Grew lesions that started to spread
His brain liquified
And poor Freddie died
So dead Fred’s head’s spread on Fred’s bed.
The ancient Old One called Cthulhu
Had slept for an eon or two
He woke up last year
Filled men’s hearts with fear
And caused quite a hullabaloo.
A sweet little girl from Dunoon
Grew fur and teeth every full moon
She woke up at dawn
Her family gone
Though bits of them round her were strewn.
A thin, starving flesh-eating ghoul
Picked up his wee brother from school
Then he started nibbling
His unfortunate sibling
Until he was happily full.

Erotica Publication

In something of a departure from my usual horror fare I have published a nice romantic gay erotica story with an American online publisher. Please have a look at it here.

www.excessica.com/books/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=10&products_id=1382&zenid=eedfe230e0d8ba0a3789fd3922efbe73

OR

www.amazon.co.uk/Away-Fairies-S-Horn-ebook/dp/B079BPMB4M/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1517937466&sr=1-1&keywords=away+with+the+fairies

If you buy it and like it please leave a review.

What’s Wrong With Masculinity

I know the meme seems silly and perhaps trite, but it’s true. (It’s also the first meme I created myself and I’m quite proud of it.) Let me explain.

In Western society especially, it’s generally seen as desirable to be masculine. The trouble is, nobody has a good definition of what masculinity means. Much of what we associate with it is not at all useful – some of it is destructive , but mostly it’s irrelevant. Some tasks require a lot of physical strength, but with modern engineering and tools a healthy woman can do those jobs just as well.

We care less and less about it as time goes on. It’s now acceptable for men to be camp, or gay, or show emotion, or to have jobs or hobbies traditionally associated with women: nursing, teaching, knitting, crafts. Mostly, nobody cares, and most people feel more comfortable with men who don’t fit the stereotype.

Yet, the media and popular culture perpetuates a myth of masculinity: big strong men who show no fear, who do the right things and solve problems directly, often violently. These mythical men never suffer from mental illness, are rigidly cisgender and heterosexual, and usually get the girl at the end by forcing a kiss until she melts in his muscular arms.

We all know this is rubbish and that real men, like people of any gender, negotiate a complex set of social and practical problems every day. We also know that kissing anybody without consent is liable to land you in court on a sexual assault charge

But what if a man’s masculinity is threatened, or in doubt? Perhaps he lacks agency in his work or relationships; maybe he is physically frail or suffers from poor body image or a small penis (I wasn’t joking). He could be repressing some sexuality or gender expression issue.

At this point he might look to Hollywood role models, becoming sullen, confrontational, defensive, violent. He might take up a traditionally masculine activity, like football or heavy drinking. Perhaps he’ll buy a big gun, or a powerful car that he’ll drive too fast, or become controlling and abusive in his personal life.

Let’s face it – if you’re happy in your skin you don’t need all that shit.

To sum up, the more I see you trying to prove your masculinity, the more certain I am that it’s flawed, and that you have a really tiny dick.

Publications.

Much to my surprise I have won the James White Award for science fiction writing in Scotland, so look out for my story The Morrigan in a future issue of Interzone.

http://www.jameswhiteaward.com/archives/3800

I have nice gay-themed sonnet The Goblin in this month’s British Fantasy Award Journal too, but only members get to read that. Give me a shout if you want to read it.