Julia Armfield’s short story collection salt slow opens with “Mantis”, a story about a teenage girl whose body is changing. But unlike her peers’, her body is changing in a more unexpected, more monstrous way.
As the girls around her grow “alien, deeper-voiced and softer-boned beneath the surface, foreign objects with their sudden hips and waists”, she begins shedding: her teeth, her hair, her skin. While preparing for a Saturday night party, she says her mother “fixes my face with lipstick and black liner, attaches artful strands of tape beneath my wig to keep my eyes upright. ‘There you are,’ she says, ‘red-carpet ready.'” For the other girls around her these changes – to their bodies, to the way they make-up their outward appearance – apparently facilitate a single “conquest”: to satiate their “frenetic…hunger”. For this mantis, there is still a hunger, “not for kissing but for something more in keeping with my genes.”
“Mantis” rather neatly sums up what you’re getting with salt slow, a book that Armfield would describe as “very much about women and bodies and the ways in which our bodies contain us and betray us. Not so much a collection of dystopian stories, but rather very realistic things looked at at a slight squint. That’s kind of the way I like to describe the way I write generally.”
While salt slow was on commission, Armfield won the 2018 White Review short story prize with “The Great Awake” a story that features in the collection and which you can read for yourself online. In it, the inhabitants of a city lose their “Sleep”, ghost-like creatures who free those they have left of the need to sleep at all. The story touches on many themes, particularly the very metropolitan sense that sleep is for the weak and that time should be used productively – to progress we need to work. Of “The Great Awake” Armfield says, “Some people have suggested it’s the least symptomatic of the general tone, but it doesn’t represent a particular departure for me. But that’s what some people say.”
Tonally, I don’t think this story is a great departure – it’s dark, the fantastic and bizarre bleeds into reality, and it examines a very contemporary issue. But it is, perhaps, a thematic departure. Because, for the most part, the stories in salt slow could be described using a term that is being used for a number of new literary works: feminist horror. As any readers of ghost stories or the gothic will know, feminist horror isn’t a new concept, but Armfield represents a new generation of writers who are using literary horror to write about women.
With the publication of salt slow, Armfield has entered into a group of writers who have debuted with short story collections of dark, modern-gothic writing (if not outright horror) with major publishers, alongside the likes of Daisy Johnson (Fen), Carmen Maria Machado (Her Body and Other Parties), and Kristen Roupenian (You Know You Want This). “I reread the first story of Fen every single time I’m trying to write, I just think it’s completely majestic,” says Armfield. There would have been a time when it seemed unlikely a major publisher would wish to pick up a short story collection, let alone one as tonally dark as these, but I think this speaks to just how relevant – and exquisite – these works are.
But how did Armfield find herself publishing a short story collection as her debut? At the age of 21 (“too early for anybody to be trying to successfully write a novel”), she was on one of the first Curtis Brown creative writing courses. “I was always getting incredibly bored and giving up at around the 10,000 word mark, I couldn’t maintain this level of focus. So short stories became, essentially, me throwing an enormous strop one day and deciding that I wanted to do anything that I could actually finish and, therefore, anything which I could claim some validation from purely by the process of having finished. That’s how I ended up writing the first story in salt slow, ‘Mantis’, which I wrote in a couple of days in an absolute rage, and it felt so good to finish something. Short stories allows you a way of looking at what might be considered the same world just from lots and lots different lenses. And for me, it kind of circumvents the the fear of boredom, which happens to me when I try to write novels, which is great because I’m trying to write a novel at the moment.”
As someone who has been quoted in an older Guardian interview as thinking The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is “beautiful and weird”, it would be hard to not talk about horror. What is Armfield’s relationship with horror?
“My relationship with horror is that if I was only able to watch one genre of movie for the rest of my life, I would watch horror movies. And I find them bizarrely comforting. I find them the perfect film medium and I find horror writing comparatively… not difficult to find because there is so much good horror writing, but horror writing is comparatively something that I haven’t come across as often. And I don’t know, I think that so much of the time when I’m trying to write horror, I’m not emulating horror writing that I’ve read, I’m emulating horror movies.”
salt slow ends with the story the collection takes its name from. A woman, in a relationship that echoes words of wisdom passed down from her mother, “Fall in love with someone who makes you ache,” finds herself lost at sea with her partner, drifting as they scavenge for food to satisfy the “vast silence of his hunger”, and to feed her and the baby she will give birth to she doesn’t know when. As they drift, they notice the increasing and monstrous size of the creatures they encounter, above and below them, and they sleep, trying to ignore the “groan of creatures below. Things down there, growing.” Later they encounter an almost-Lovecraftian creature of unimaginable size rising from the water, “Tentacles the colour and consistency of candlewax”, of comfort to her and of fear to him.
Armfield cites Lovecraft as an inspiration to her as a writer, “I love that balance he has of the completely straight-faced and the absolutely insane. There are so many unpleasant creatures and nastiness, but always kind of on the fringes of this very straight face. He’s so important to me as a horror writer.”
Reading Armfield’s superb debut collection, that influence is clear.
salt slow by Julia Armfield is published by Picador. Buy the book.