:: Article

Something New from the Dark

By Liam Harrison.

Review of Darker With the Lights On

David Hayden, Darker with the Lights On (Little Island Press, 2017 and Transit Books, 2018)

‘The Cares of a Family Man’ by Franz Kafka is a short tale about the strange and obscure Odradek. Resembling a broken object more than a creature, Odradek looks like “a flat star-shaped spool” with old bits of thread hanging off, and a crossbar sticking out its middle, allowing it to jolt itself along in apparently “nimble” movements. Kafka goes on, not exactly clarifying:

One is tempted to believe that the creature once had some sort of intelligible shape and is now only a broken-down remnant. Yet this does not seem to be the case; at least there is no sign of it; nowhere is there an unfinished or unbroken surface to suggest anything of the kind; the whole thing looks senseless enough, but in its own way perfectly finished. In any case, closer scrutiny is impossible, since Odradek is extraordinarily nimble and can never be laid hold of.

The twenty short stories in David Hayden’s Darker with the Lights On often feel like wanderings through many Odradekian avenues. The collection is comprised of fragments which appear perfectly finished – shapes and forms which suggest some matter-of-fact intelligibility, but remain elusive.

It opens with ‘Egress’, where a man steps off the ledge from the top floor of his anonymous corporate building. Months then years seem to pass while the man falls, and he shifts between not-quite-man and not-quite-bird, plunging towards the ground whilst caustically commenting on the lives of his co-workers. The language during this impossible fall is precise and cogent, contrasting with the protean content, and it achieves a kind of formal vertigo which mirrors the falling body:

I roll and smile to the sky. Birds with mighty, cloud-spanning wings gyre above, the sun flashes on their smooth bodies, and when I turn back I find I have dropped many floors and the ground is coming up fast. I close my eyes and count, running the numbers backwards. When I open them I find that I have dropped many floors and that the ground is coming up fast.

Many years have passed since I stepped off the ledge. All that I wanted to keep was saved.

Throughout the collection the images of fantastical transformations and shifting plains are reined in by the often terse prose, which brings the mythical back into the realm of commonplace anxieties. The stories are driven by this combination; the skin-crawling banalities of everyday existence wrapped up in the prescient form of folk tales and fables.

‘The Cares of a Family Man’ ends with the titular family man worrying about his own fleeting mortality in relation to the perplexing Odradek:

I ask myself, to no purpose, what is likely to happen to him? Can he possibly die? Anything that dies has had some kind of aim in life, some kind of activity, which has worn out; but that does not apply to Odradek. Am I to suppose, then, that he will always be rolling down the stairs, with ends of thread trailing after him, right before the feet of my children, and my children’s children? He does no harm to anyone that one can see; but the idea that he is likely to survive me I find almost painful.

Hayden’s tales are similarly filled with the fears of the privileged paterfamilias, who is not quite sure how much he has to lose – all that is stable and solid melts away into the uncertainties of the absurd. This gnawing pain marks each character like a hidden bruise which grows, like a mauve speck that consumes whole bodies by the end of a story. The disturbingly grotesque ‘Leckerdam of the Golden Hand’ closes with the line: “Now that my children can live outside my hate I know that I am dead.”

Hayden’s narratives can often appear opaque, as a story can meander along before veering off sharply. Amidst the thicket of vague fables, a distinct image can jump out and stick with you, puncturing the unfathomable aspects of the story. In ‘Memory House’, a tale which consists of a compendium of remembering and forgetting objects, the narrator suddenly spots a fox:

A young, well-fleshed dog fox is sitting on a stool in front of the dressing table, its brush trailing on the floor. In the mirror I see the fox’s jaw exposed, fizzing with yellow maggots, its eyes staring steadily, wisely into themselves.

The pervasive image of the fizzing maggots, viscerally persists with the reader even as the rest of the story fades away, or remains out of focus. The same sensation recurs in the story when a frozen lark explodes, “scattering its music all around the garden in numberless, glittering fragments”.

Darker with the Lights On is particularly concerned with memory and this is reflected in how the disturbing images manifest in the often alienating prose. These images drift through realms of possibility, as they relate to things which “happened or almost happened or didn’t happen”. The recollections blur with aspirations and the dreams slip into nightmares.

Hayden’s estranging prose style is not easy work. If you read too much into the symbolism you may get lost down the philosopher’s rabbit-hole; on the other hand, if you ignore the subtleties of each tale, the bittersweet alterity may pass you by. These are stories to be digested slowly – they play on your nerves, sit on your tongue, churn in your gut.

The tales are most sinister when they are closest to home; in the darkness of the domestic space which lingers in the corners of living rooms, in the spectres of violence (often realised) in intimate and abusive relationships, in the demons of our innermost thoughts which recur in everyday banalities. ‘The Auctioneer’ depicts a jilted husband, who claims he is seeking an audience with his ex-wife. He negotiates a series of bureaucratic obstacles before eventually meeting her:

I am ready to hear everything but then I realise that all along Ellen has been screaming. One word. Screaming. Tearing out the word. One Word.

Stop.

There is the constant impression that amidst the playful and twisted violence, someone is performing a Munchian scream in the background, however inaudibly. The best stories are when the tides of bile rise slowly, when reality slips away seamlessly. ‘Last Call for the Hated’ tonally resonates with the slow and sinister aesthetic build of Jordan Peele’s film Get Out, albeit with much more explicit levels of abuse. The incessant persecution of Michael in ‘Last Call’ doesn’t appear to be based on any distinctive racial or religious grounds (as far as the reader is aware); Michael and his family are hated because they are the hated. Michael is an archetype for victims of prejudice, suffering through daily torments – he is ignored whilst ordering at the chipper, a perfectly normal old man spits on his shoes, his car is vandalised, all before shit, petrol and lit matches are posted through his letterbox, along with a note stating: “You. You are hated.”

A common refrain across these narratives is that of the domestic space being repeatedly defiled. The darkness outside of the home is not as twisted as the darkness within, where the lights are on. Interlopers often emerge, reminding us with violence and disdain of this domestic, familial darkness. In ‘Remains of the Dead World’, a Ted Hughesian crow flutters in to remind the characters (and the readers) of their place:

‘Whose story is this?’ asks the crow.
‘Everybody’s?’ says Dada.
‘No. This is my story. You just have to live in it.’

The characters, setting and consciousness across these tales are all in a state of flux, as the boundaries between interiors and exteriors are broken down. “Nothing ever is still” – the crow reminds us. However, not everything is quite as dreary and dense as it sounds. There are lighter moments, such as the fast-talking Sorry the Squirrel who teaches kids the teasing secret that “sometimes there are two stories being told at the same time” in ‘How to Read a Picture Book’. ‘Reading’ similarly riddles the reader with the proposition that when you die you “revive in the world of the last book you were reading before your demise”. This literary afterlife could even be one of revised, happy endings:

You might end up in the book and all will be well… all the outcomes will be the best possible ones. Raskolnikov doesn’t kill his landlady, Werther marries his beloved, settles down and becomes a jolly burgher; Casaubon finishes his book and it’s great and everyone loves it, and he lightens up and sees the funny side of things.

It is not always easy to see the funny side of things, and the dark material may be too much for some readers to stomach. Similarly, the language which is full of odd adjectives (“into the bright stain staggers a raw strip of dog”), which deliciously disorientate the reader, can teeter on the edge of being obtuse for the sake of it.

But readers up for the challenge will discover that Hayden’s collection is an outstanding and memorable ode to the beauty of literary mutation – true to the Odradekian tradition, these stories are both highly intricate and, often, unintelligible. The characters seem to have escaped from the cylindrical prison of Beckett’s The Lost Ones, or snuck out from behind one of the various doors in Kafka’s Before the Law. But the voice that shines through the darkness is Hayden’s own, picking up on those forgotten unnoticed moments of everyday malignance and twisting them into something original:

What comes out of the dark when you think of it? It might be something new, that was there at the time, when that time was, but you never noticed it.

 

Liam Harrison

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Liam Harrison works in book distribution in Dublin. He has previously written for Poetry Ireland Review, The Dublin Review of Books and The Irish Times. He recently curated a digital exhibition on the life and work of Tom Murphy for Trinity College Dublin Library.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, March 29th, 2018.