I’m a huge fan of the short story. There’s something immensely satisfying about being able to settle with a book, knowing the story will be wrapped up within an hour or so. Of course, there is an art to it – the introduction, development and conclusion of a plot and ideas in a minuscule space – and I tip my hat to those who try, including Erik Hofstaffer in Isidora’s Pawn, a novelette spilling over with grand themes such as unrequited love and deceit.
We are introduced to our brooding protagonist, Orrin, on a flight to Spain, and we’re almost immediately given a precis of his backstory: his mother, a devoted bodybuilder, experienced a difficult birth and blamed him from day zero for zapping nutrients from her precious body. Thankfully he is sitting next to Skye, a nervous flyer but clearly sensitive, for she picks up on his mood and strikes up a conversation. By the end of her second sentence, Orrin is head over heels in lust and, apparently, the feeling’s mutual.
He’s leaving the UK because he’s been offered a cleaning job by an – surprise, surprise – attractive librarian he befriended on Instagram. Gullible, no? Already we are getting the measure of Orrin, Hofstatter having laid down much of the hard work of character development in a few swift brushstrokes. After a brief chat with Skye, during which they swap hungry eyes, she confesses she is worried for his safety. After all, he’s trusted a social media account which could realistically be anyone or anything; he should be careful. Without any trace of irony, she hands over her phone number to Orrin, a stranger, as the plane begins to descend.
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In Spain it’s El Colacho festival time and the streets are filled with men smelling of “burnt meat and sweat” (again, Hofstatter draws his scenes quickly and vividly). Orrin negotiates the bustle with the enigmatic Dores, his Insta pal, and, as a mass exorcism of infants takes place in the street, she demands he must work that evening in the library. His complaints about having only just arrived are made less sore by the fact Dores is just as attractive as Orrin wished for. The library turns out to be a horror fan’s dream – “a decaying fortress plastered with misery and dust” on the outside but with a gloriously Gothic interior. Through a comical exchange with Dores, we are given a hint of something to come – something in keeping with the ornate, creepy surroundings, and, through an info-dump of dialogue, we learn of its origins. And, of course, he sleeps with Dores. This man must be a walking pheromone!
Later, he sets to work and soon spots something, shall we say, unusual in a restricted area of the building. This time, a different kind of desire leads him into trouble. What power is the eponymous, mysterious Isidora – an occupant of the library who seems able to read his soul – able to exert?
It’s an interesting plot which draws on familiar gothic tropes and, in this instance, the familiarity is great, because the characters within the tales are grotesque enough. The personality of Orrin, who has a mother complex and therefore colours his relationships with women, dominates the storyline. He reacts to women on a base, sexual level, noting little more than their looks and their chemical reactions to him. That he can exert his allure almost immediately is, I guess, a narrative device to save time; otherwise, we’re looking at a prequel or sequel here – an exploration into his phenomenally supernatural amount of sexual prowess. His behaviour, and the graphic scenes of a sexual nature, also serve a plot purpose: anyone who likes horror, in all of its shapes and forms, knows the sex involved in the form is rarely straightforward or without consequences. Orrin’s experiences in the library put me in mind of an x-rated Hammer film crossed with Shelley-style imagery in the true gothic tradition and a warped kind of erotica.
The story wins no prizes in the likeable protagonist category, but who says fiction should stick to the “rules”? I was holding out for more depth to Orrin, and there are a few moments of higher ground. Despite many contradictions (one moment Jade is his soulmate, for example, and the next a see-you-next-Tuesday), he does reveal a more fragile side, through his recurring nightmare about his birth, and a failed engagement with Jade, the true love of his life – which perhaps explains his misogynistic tendencies. He also shows a sensitive insight into the connection between art and suffering.
The prose is rich, befitting the setting, and though some of the similes tinge on the purple, it was these figures of speech that I began looking forward to. There are too many crackers to mention here, but one of my favourites, if somewhat baffling, was, “She released him like a sedated dwarf”, followed closely by, “The weight of her enormous tongue was like wrestling a basilisk”.
With any book, once the author has dotted the final “I” and crossed the final “T”, it is over to the reader to take from it what they will. For this reader, Isidora’s Pawn is Hofstatter’s tribute to the gothic tradition, peppered with a shed-load of similes to spot. The complicated themes are there, but you must remember this is a novelette: time and space is short. In parts, the themes develop in the blink of an eye, and the action oscillates quickly between high-stakes horror and steamy encounters to almost philosophical discourse about the nature of loss, pain and possession. While I can’t help but think Isidora’s Pawn would benefit from having more space to unfurl, it does its job – a rapid gallop with sharp shocks along the way.
Isidora’s Pawn by Erik Hofstatter is published by Demain Publishing.
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