Welcome to my new weekly blog post, where I’ll be reviewing short stories. There are thousands and thousands of them available – in magazines, podcasts, online anthologies, with hundreds more dropping every month. Every week, I’ll listen to and/or read one or two so you don’t have to. It won’t just be scifi either; I’m completely genre agnostic, and will go for any story that piques my interest.
This week: a haunting post-apocalyptic tale of insanity…
Can grammar scare you?
Serious question. I’m not talking about dimly-remembered tests from junior school, where your psycho teacher would name and shame the kids who didn’t get the difference between full stops and commas (wait, that didn’t happen to you? Me neither…) I’m talking about whether grammar could ever be used to inspire actual fear. It seems like a weird concept, but it actually exists in some of Australian aboriginal languages – although it’s crazy rare. It’s known as the evitative, and usually takes the form of a suffix that indicates a noun is to be avoided or feared.
Yeah, I know. Kind of reaching, isn’t it?
Basing a horror story off an ultra-rare grammar rule is the kind of pretentious arse-twaddling I normally try to avoid. Unless, of course, it appears on Pseudopod, one of the better horror story podcasts. If they give a stamp of approval, then it must be worth listening to. All the same, calling a horror story Evitative risks inviting confusion, rather than feelings of actually wanting to listen to it. Calling it Evitative means that listeners might, in fact, avoid it or fear it (Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)
So because I’m a sucker for punishment – and because the mission of this particular weekly blog is to actually dig into the thousands of short stories out there and try to make sense of them, no matter what they might be, or what obscure grammar rules they might invoke – I decided to give this story a go.
It’s part of a collection from writer B.C Edwards entitled The Aversive Clause, and it is…not what I expected. For starters, if there was any overt connection to actual grammatical rules in the story as a cause for horror, I didn’t get it. I don’t mean this as a bad thing. If there was a connection, it was a very subtle one, and it didn’t get in the way of a story that haunted me long after I stopped listening.
It’s after the end of the world, the waters of risen, and the hero – a pregnant woman – is living in a treetop hideaway with her caretaker, the mute JoJo, doing everything they can to protect themselves from men who want to kill and eat them. It reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake – not just in terms of post-apocalyptic content, but in terms of tone and language, as well. While the setup is simple, and the allusion to grammatical rules a lot less intimidating than you might think, the story being told is incredibly complex and multilayered. I almost don’t want to reveal too much. To do so would spoil the story that is more experienced than listened to: a tale that unravels like a ball of string, becoming more tangled and knotty and complicated, sucking you in with some truly brilliant writing.
I hadn’t come across B.C. Edwards before, but he’s one helluva storyteller. His writing is elegant, clear, and engaging, with each word precisely placed, and each sentence polished to a mirror shine. Although I get the sense that he’s a prose writer first and foremost, his words certainly lend themselves to audio form, and in doing this, he is helped along by some fantastic narration from Dani Daly. Her measured, calm voice is the perfect match for this particular story, and the soundbeds that run underneath her – chirping crickets, gently swishing water – really help put you in the middle of the story. Pseudopod have always had a deft hand with sound work, and they nail it here.
The real reason you should listen to the story is that it will stick with you. My first reaction to it was that it was too cold, a little too analytical to be truly great. But it haunted me, coming back to me at odd moments, an image or a line sneaking into my mind without me noticing. It was things like the opening, which is utterly captivating, or lines like “Between us and the mountains, there’s nothing but water: grey, and thick, reflecting the sun like grease might.” It’s heady stuff.
Even after listening to it, I’m still not entirely sure of the link between the story and the titular grammar rule, and while I get that it’s a conceit, it feels like the concept is a little too intellectual and academic to really draw in listeners. Which is a shame, because this is a truly magnificent story, and it deserves a better title.
Go listen to it, and thank me later.