:: Article

The Dropped Baby

By Richard Marshall.


Jackie Lewis, The Dropped Baby and Other Curious Tales, Vanguard Press 2015.

“There is in every madman a misunderstood genius whose idea shining in his head frightened people and for whom delirium was the only solution to the strangulation that life had prepared for him.”

Antonin Artaud

Quickly we determine that these characters are not possessed by themselves but are rather aberrations of defeated resemblance. When bodies are non-reciprocal masks then fear is inevitable and uncanny horror just a few steps behind. The characters Lewis gathers in her first collection of tales are like shadows of someone they almost knew, or people they used to be, or are becoming, a congregation of nightmares in the end, and recognizably risen up from the oral tradition of folk, fairy tales which is, as we know, wimmin’s territory. The tales in this arena are whatever outlasts the battle, survivor tales that hint at savagery, random desires and revenge, warnings that no matter how docile, how crushed, how downtrodden a character may seem to be, they are shimmering in a deranged version of eternity, watching the ripped sky defecating violence and immensity in hurled bolts of hatred and vengeance, modes of fantastical and diseased consolation that are versions of a cankered, deranged, moony, slithering, abnormal, hallucinatory, inhuman, begrudging, monstrous, spectral, erotic, horrific, engorged, skewed, insane, psychotic, raving, calamitous, delusion – a shimmering done in Flaubert’s register of the cracked kettle – ‘tapping crude rhythms for bears to dance to, whilst we long to make music that will melt the stars.’ All the horrors and monsters emerge out of that fatal contrast.

These are precisely ‘tales’ – not short stories – and like those of Roald Dahl’s ‘Tales of the Unexpected‘ they are brittle, nasty and limn out the grim, deranged psychosis of a struggling borderline middle class respectability. These are the inner lives of the Waitrose crowd whose grotesque social climb ends in terrifying annulment, neural distortions of delirium, maledicted putrification and diseased fragmentation. The tales are inhabited by a phalanx of contemporary Madame Bovaries and their slaughtering, slaughtered men, bored, repressed, fearful, snobby, petite bourgeois, living lives that are a constant teetering on the brink of elsewhere and driven insane by the thought of the possibility that there even is an elsewhere, and worse, that this elsewhere is something they can’t buy. And like Dahl’s, each tale shows them dropping into elsewhere’s abyss, a twist at the tail of each that is set up to chill as these insane women and men devour their unfed minds in a sequence of fatal, crooked finales.

What the endings give you are warnings about getting what you want and they work like jokes in a suicide note. Here you live happily ever after but that ‘ever after’ is an ugly, psychotic, insane hokem of evil magic way down inside a lost mind. Lewis reminds us that fairy tale endings, fairy tale lives, fairy tale hopes and dreams – like ice cream – are glacial and induce crippling headaches. The shape of the tale tells you what they are – the last lines are bad goblins summarizing what a few lines before has already become clear – as if Lewis wants to strangle the life out of them, choke them one last time. She knows that her characters have nothing but clichés to understand themselves, and so cannot illuminate themselves through any self awareness. The limitation of each character in each story is their inability to understand the emotion of love except from the dumb fix of a shop worn language that can’t ever register what lies outside – the blood soaked murderous gothic massiveness of these cycloramic melodramas writ small. What they fix on is the object of the emotion, and in desperately trying to understand what is happening, to declare themselves and become known, to grasp their own vast subterranean life, they are blind, mad and shipwrecked. These characters are all versions of Norman Bates and his mum, where communication is between the living and the dead but not in that order. These are characters who want nothing more than to live but are forever gravedigging, seeking their own bones in infinities of crude chimeras of passion. The voices attach themselves to costumes of desire – and these can be anything from respectable brown shoes, porcelain dolls and horses to shop mannequins – but they never grasp anything close to beating hearts and the subtle jingo of stupid happiness.

There are engulfing obsessive images of these disintegrating people whose lives are hygiene routines of vigilant assassins, serrated exterior environments, memorized gouged-out mannerisms taken from magazines and novels that zig-zag manically away from ecstasy and elation towards violence and a genocidal mental crash, brutal eruptions of hate, viciousness and envy turning seismic. But the tone takes the commonplace demeanour of the banal and the jute sack humdrum complaint creased by strange infamies of clichés:

‘… he more and more came back to nothing, except finding his wife down on her hands and knees; yet again, in front of the damn cabinets polishing and dusting her precious ever-growing collection of ornaments…’

But from the familiar image of the woman on her knees Lewis will take the image and take its brutal logic to a heinous conclusion. Similarly, Laura slides from the merely imagined into the unimaginable actual with a progression of interiority that presses disconnectedness flat as a flower:

‘Undertones of disturbance began to ripple through Laura’s marriage to Thom, the viciousness with which she had tried to snatch back her daughter, the wine. Thom wouldn’t let this one go without a fight. And fight they did…’

Which ends in a possessed nocturnal hopelessness that nevertheless can’t distract us from the terrible calm destructiveness that lies in the debauched, hallucinatory surface zzz of its prose. And Lewis takes the proposition of Angela Carter’s ‘Passion of New Eve’ and works it into a deranged proposition – ‘time is a man, space is a woman’ in another tale:

‘From the first moment, he had seen her she had occupied his head, woken up with a sleeping heart and filled him with longing he had never felt before in his life. Slipping into the cold bed he closed his eyes slowly, bringing them deliberately to a slit through which he could just conjure up the image of his face; like his own private photograph and the last thing in his sights before drifting into a restless sleep.’

Yet there are also inklings of how even without memory images survive, and obsession survives too. If nothing else, these are gimlet tales of obsession, layered facades of how women endure through voids that are opened up by their men, consciousness forced out of synch with whatever holds them like pieces of junk between the jarred, fragmentary surfaces. Everyone seems to be functioning perfectly, but beneath the sheer momentariness of the erasing disturbances a dislocated reality of delirious hauntings is being enacted. What Lewis reveals is the abomination that unravels with forced recklessness.

‘They are almost at the end, a complete circle. The air is damp but fresh and sweet with the springtime promise of new life. They head back towards the car, hand in hand, ready to tackle whatever the next day brings. Somewhere in the bowels of the earth is the dark hopeless space he once occupied. It remains without an occupant these days – mostly – and she knows that space with slowly crumble and fill up until no trace can ever be found.’

In this there’s a deathly preoccupation poking through like a rib. A murderous precocity of wounded, deathly blight, where desire rots as a corpse fallen under malediction. Alongside the abominable she improvises swift aberrations of the involuntary, buried decisions that would have frightened these agents when children. Although these are sassy and enjoyable tales not always fully realized, they’re sad and sea-sireny at times as well as pulpy fun. They have black whirlpools and drowning screams done, despite the rampant malignity and the massy spite, in ochre and unaffected prose.

Lewis works the Baudelairean field where sympathy is always the result of a misunderstanding. Don’t be fooled by the cruelties inflicted by these men on their women, or vice versa, and don’t miss the deranged panic that slices away any hint of physical pleasure, of communication or harmony. These are the frantic liquid jerks of mediocrity, searing peripheries brought centre stage so we see ourselves in them, the unbridged gulfs widening in the tormented insane voices Lewis dares to listen in on. There’s an erasure snapping shut synapses, and personalities here match the redundancies of their hopes. Just as fame is a way of illustrating our idiocy by finding personalities that fit us like gloves, so here the peculiar horrors are tiny symposiums of our own derangements and deliria.

Modesty defaced to selfishness, and that horrible sense of crouching shy egoism that’s always waiting for something good to happen, a rupture of the constraints of politeness, civility, and the ignominy of social conventions, these are the ingredients of distressed lives too far away from the duty to cherish the beautiful and good and whose last minute effort to fulfill that sensational duty turns out very, very badly. Oh sure, there are some of these tales that don’t end up with mothers killing their babies, husbands not feeding their wives to bears, but even the less murderous ones hold the seeds of hell coming in. The strangeness comes from the fusion of the contemporary urban and suburban lives with all the modern traps – mortgaged infidelity amongst the aga-saga crowd and those wanting to be them – the yawps of boredom, insufficiency, decaying spirits, the curse of satiety and the terrors of deprivation that bind them to a collective cowardice deprived of exaltation, joy and purity. Everything is unbearable and the tales take Madame Bovary’s inclination to see the future as a dark corridor with a bolted door at the far end and imagines what happens when someone takes a bolt cutter and pushes on through to the other side.

Every degeneration is here – the vice of loneliness, the liberating glue of jealousy that binds you to a negative version of the same, the degradation that accumulates as you perfect yourself, and the diminishment too – there’s a particularly sinister tale of miniature figurines that wickedly glints this conclusion, the confusion of scenery for emotions, the substitution of wintry for scalding tedium as if inertia was a matter of temperature and a season, and especially the misidentification of money for love. The regularity and orderliness of these characters make them blind and incapable of any rapture that removes them from where they already stand. This is the where their horror lies, in the circumscribed goals and clichéd dreams of deliverance where marriage, mortgage, babies, dinner parties, the respectable round that circles them and traps them in withered, clenched existences promises a sort of settled comfort. These are the fetishised, shuttered and scandalous lives who have tombs of their hopes stillborn and grave in their skulls, the lives of those who have lived to be old enough to see that their hopes and dreams were puerile and depended on a courage they never had – naïve sensuality, fond cuddles, a happiness that went beyond the bright streak of boredom that like a fragment of ice, nails their corpses to hallucinatory motivations. Lewis lets none of them off the hook, and her twisted endings are apposite conclusions to what she sketches again and again – the mediocrity of any existence that disdains and hates without some scintilla of grace. Her tales carry us to the world where a very definite set of illusions are traded in for unhinged reality. The difficulty – and the fun a reader gets from reading them – is to detect which is which. Someone is deceived in any event.

The toxicity of the exaltation is in the disintegration of life, a decomposition of rank imaginations and timid regressive intellects, instincts that protest against the ascetic shackles, the unitarism, an overflow that here is psychotic and explosive. Ruin and creation against the stifling, closed, sterile social existence that reduces the world to a single god, single truth is emasculated here, and takes the form of a servile inveterate aversion rather than a juiced-up, liberating freeplay. These are crushed liberations, animated by a sense of catastrophe and moribund exhilaration. Against their civil Apollonian stillness Dionysian mysteries lacerate and maim, and the multiple wounds of their obsessions perforate and fray. But this isn’t a soul fire conflagration but more a rotten shit storm as Flaubert described:

‘We are dancing not on the edge of a volcano, but on the wooden seat of a latrine, and it seems to me more than a touch rotten. Soon society will go plummeting down and drown in nineteen centuries of shit. There’ll be quite a lot of shouting.’

Lewis knows her characters lack the means to express the exact measure of their desires, and so they aren’t even idolaters and settle for murder, imitate Norman Bates and don’t swat. Why not swat? Because we recall the end of Psycho and that voice creepily speaking inside Normn Bate’s head;

‘…If she wanted to, she could reach out and swat the fly.
But she didn’t swat it.
She didn’t swat it, and she hoped they were watching, because that proved what sort of a person she really was.
Why, she wouldn’t even harm a fly…”

The ‘Psycho’ reference is apt here. Lewis’s tales are abbreviated versions. Readers become spectators of each brief, ferocious spasm of violent transmission and absorb the impact across the ninety-odd pages as if tracing a pulped skin of desolation. Fury becomes an unleashed, unhinged perspective, a trauma extinguishing previous exhalation. The abject conditioned lives trigger intense reflexes of perverse desire, ferocious, convulsive firestorms that are simultaneously banal, obsessive, shattering and already vanished before the tale ends. Each tale works its frenzied obsessionals into a screwed plot that might flesh out to a film script or aberrant mutated dream sequence from which you’d guess-trace the transmitted monotony of this pathological, deranged century. But simultaneously you realize that this is the realm of the solitary normal, that these are retinal images that populate our shopping centres, streets and vaticans of business and exchange, singles or couples or even the deranged family units that engulf us, possessed by despair and enough money to pretend they’re whole. Encased lives of gleaming cars, high and low culture mosh, bienpensant media gloop, designer suits, designer pop, designer sport and digital soft and hardware academia endlessly permeating and proliferating branded ubiquity, plus profit-optimized mortgages, casino culture game players, they are the healthy monsters you pass on the street and work with day in and out who dream of bringing back the death penalty, torture, who thirst for pleasures cruel, perverse and endless but in the style of charity, libertinism and literature performed by actors famous for presenting our stupidity most accurately – a sure sign of boredom. These are the crowd who only consider suicide because they can’t reach your throat. It’s Ballard advising that we play the bourgeois straight-faced as the final act of rebellion, burning at the stake in a delirium dressed as respectable enterprise.

My favorite tale is ‘The Nuisance’. It begins:

‘It was something and nothing. It had started a few weeks before when Jen had happened to glance up and look out of the window, across to the multi-storey car park facing the building.

That’s when she first saw it; a small face, about three or four inches across and made of what looked like some sort of metal. It was barely discernable really but she saw it and she clearly saw that it was, or appeared to be, looking straight back at her.’

This is a story that eats its own delirium and obsessive, maniacal persecution. It is a tale possessed by anguish and suffocating lucidity. It presents a species of degeneration that irrigates the nerves and thrives on a twisted matrix of horror, derangement and mental agony that rots, swarms and unhinges. An occult untranslatable fatefulness, despair that fixes itself like the horrifying metal face, the tale enacts a morbid consciousness that exposes the secret of fascination with evil’s permanent law. It’s a horror tale that signals through the flames consuming us rather than anything dallying with form, style or any other sort of writerly rot. The tales are short, unliterary, sometimes off-beam and too fragile but despite the expected limitations of a first outing they’re very readable examples of an eerie culture written on the fatigue of our nerves.

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his book here to keep him biding!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, September 27th, 2015.