“Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates them […] and where lies the great difference between horror and terror but in the uncertainty and obscurity, that accompany the first, respecting the dreaded evil?”
Ann Radcliffe wrote these words in her essay On The Supernatural In Poetry, published posthumously in 1826. She then goes on to clarify:
“Obscurity leaves something for the imagination to exaggerate; confusion, by blurring one image into another, leaves only a chaos in which the mind can find nothing to be magnificent, nothing to nourish its fears or doubts, or to act upon in any way.”
For Radcliffe, this blurring of horror means that it can never teach or improve the recipient of that horror, only “freeze and nearly annihilate them”. Horror becomes for her a denial of and turning away from the sublime. Terror, on the other hand, is the effect of staring clearly into the glare of the sublime, of suffering through an experience that “expands” us and fundamentally changes how we live.
In Mayhem & Death – a collection of fiction ranging from the shortest flash to a novella-length piece – Helen McClory has created a work of Radcliffean terror that glares at the reader with all the unflinching clarity of the world’s pain and absurdity and sorrow. No blurring here, no confused turning away. To read the stories held within and the greater story they come together to create is a transformative experience that expands the reader’s soul.
Mayhem & Death opens with “Souterrain”, the story of Frances, a mother in mourning for her daughter Madeleine, once “a storm cloud poured into the shape of a girl” but now, as a woman, presumed dead in a “silent base underwater thousands of miles away”. Clutching the one physical remnant of her daughter’s life – a ledger, hand-written by the younger Madeleine, itself also entitled Mayhem & Death – Frances travels from Glasgow, to the port of Mallaig then on to the Isle of Skye where rain doesn’t even have the decency to rain but instead smirrs into an all-pervading mist. She intends to bury her daughter’s book in the Klivaxter souterrain – an Iron Age burial site, “a low house, where the dead might be thought to dance”, situated in a remote part of the island – and so to bury the pain of losing her daughter. Yet she does not. Instead, she returns to Mallaig and a train which “did not move, then the platform moved, then the train with great labour began to depart”.
“Souterrain” is redolent with the terror of grief. The terror of a mother suffering through the loss of a daughter she never understood, barely knew. Even, Frances admits, sometimes hated. Yet, as Radcliffe tells us, terror “awakens the faculties to a high degree of life”. Frances embodies this awakening as, rather than blundering through her pilgrimage with tear-blurred eyes, she soaks up the details of her environment: the salt sea, the yellow gorse, the woollen jumpers of unsmiling hikers. Even as Frances is pierced by death, the spores of life seep inevitably into the wound. Frances does not discard her daughter’s death but absorbs it as she absorbs the life sodden into the earth of Skye.
The whole of the book, in fact, radiates this sense of suffered-through grief. The larger part of the book consists of stories from Madeleine’s own Mayhem & Death. This is a collection of dream-fragments and wish scintillae that rarely stretch across more than two pages but which also speak of a deep grief; grief for a life, rather than a death. Madeleine, by the stories she chooses to tell and the way in which she tells them, tells us about her life and how she lived it; a litany of charms “for raising your blood” and “for autumnal light”, memories of a film once seen, sacrifices and betrayals, animals and puppet towns and spikes that nestle in the hollows of throats.
However, of course, this is not a life. Madeleine is not a living person, she’s a character in a book. Yet, with great skill, McClory uses these glimpses to make Madeleine – a person we know is both dead and, having never existed, beyond dead – seem all too real. As she peeks in through these scattered shards of mirror, we can only think of how our own lives are pieced together from equally fragmented memories and half-truths.
This is why the book’s ending novella, “Powdered Milk”, is so utterly devastating. Here we find Madeleine – Maddie now, choosing her own name in her adult life – as she suffers through the final days of her deep-sea marine base home, trapped inside with a handful of others as a result of some hinted-at cataclysm (perhaps the meteor shower depicted on the book’s cover). Most of the crew, we are told, “have gone to the chapel”. What this euphemism really means is quickly explained by their methods of getting there: “smothered, battered, poisoned, starved.” Maddie, the base’s psychologist, is exactly how we expect her to be, how we know her to be from her own writings. Driven, angry, obsessive but all that wrapped around a core of deep, too deep, sensitivity.
I find “Powdered Milk” hard to talk about, if I’m honest. Parts of the story brought me to tears, parts made me put the book to one side and simply stare at the wall for a while. Yet I could do nothing but return. Again, it is a story full of grief. Grief for oneself. Grief for the tickling, whispering knowledge that you will one day, like Maddie, no longer be; perhaps, to all intents and purposes, never have been, little more to the universe than the fine, grey snow of marine particulates that fall unceasingly past the viewing ports of Maddie’s base, then on into the oceanic abyss. “One day it would be completely dark in here. But that is how it was,” Maddie thinks, “before us”.
Again, though, we have this sense of Radcliffean terror. Not the turning away of horror but staring – “tearless, filling the space with awful, pointless gaps” – at life’s passing and death’s approach. Maddie is driven through periods of bleak despair and near-frenzied mania, which we suffer through with her. The mechanisms of the base, and the biologies of the crew, start to falter yet Maddie persists even so, as we persist beyond her book-bound world.
Mayhem & Death is a deeply, unflinchingly human book that has lingered with me ever since I first read it. I say human rather than humane because it is accepting of human cruelty and spite as much as it is of our compassion. It’s possible to flick through and, at random, find passages of delicate poetry – “on each pew, a line of shoes, leather battered, stitching crude” – and eerie threat – “darkness drags itself down the country lanes like a wounded man”. The stories held in Madeleine’s Mayhem & Death are perfect for dipping into and out of, letting their lyricism wrap around you. “Powdered Milk” is, as demonstrated, a powerful piece of speculative philosophy. Yet it’s the layering of the whole work, and the multi-focal clarity that comes from that layering, that is the true success.
Mayhem & Death is a piece of writing, as Radcliffe tells us:
“[At] whose so potent bidding, the passions have been awakened from their sleep, and by whose magic a crowded theatre has been changed to a lonely shore, to a witch’s cave, to an enchanted island, to a murderer’s castle, to the ramparts of an usurper, to the battle, to the midnight carousal of the camp or tavern, to every various scene of the living world.”
Mayhem & Death by Helen McClory is published by 404 Ink.