Sunday, May 22, 2011

Reed, What Wolves Know (2011)

Kit Reed, What Wolves Know. PS Publishing, 2011. Pp. 230. ISBN 978-1-84863-134-2. £19.99.

Reviewed by Sarah Ann Watts

This collection of stories by Kit Reed from PS Publishing contains 13 stories and also an essay: ‘What she thought she was doing: The fictions of Kit Reed’ by Joseph Reed. This gives an overview of her work and a bibliography of her titles. Coming new to Reed’s work as I did, I think it was for the best that the essay concluded the collection, allowing the reader to discover the stories first and form their own impressions. The essay provides context, further information and a guide to future reading.

For me the stand out quality to these stories was the unexpected. The reader is at once disconcerted and intrigued. Stories may begin in a familiar context and then somewhere along the way they shift and twist into the unknown. They are alternate fiction but rooted in reality. Moreover it is a reality stripped bare of illusion. The setting may be suburban but this is no shades of pastel/white picket fence idyll. Reed is merciless in exposing what lies beneath convention, stripping away the lies that cloak ‘every day’ hidden lives. Her characters live in the glare of strip lighting—no soft focus and rose tinted lampshades here. She shows us homes where families exist in mutual hostility and suspicion, where a mother is afraid to leave her room at night in case she meets her adolescent child in the hallway and violence simmers like a slow cooker preparing a wholesome family dinner.

As a reader I had an uneasy relationship with these stories; there is no doubt they get under the skin and linger in the mind. The writing is fabulous—the author subverts expectations and shapes images with the precision of a surgeon wielding a scalpel. Reed does not let the reader off the hook. The stories unravel with the inevitability of classical tragedy; here are characters that long for release and take the only, the inevitable way out. This is a fallen world; there are no deus ex machina ‘happy’ endings, no cavalry to save the day.

Equally there are no masks for ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’ to hide behind. These stories have a human face. Reed’s characters make choices that have consequences. They pull their own strings. This I think prevents the mood of the stories from becoming overwhelmingly bleak. Not all end badly but all curtains are final; characters do not get up and take a bow.

I was thrilled by the intensity and raw emotional honesty of the writing. Reading these stories is an experience that takes the reader to places they may not want to go to confront images they may not want to see—but they recognise as true.

‘Monkey Do’ is a tale of a writer and a monkey called Spud. A not very successful writer, who likes to use an animal as living inspiration to his flagging muse, fails to get rid of his ‘pet’ and then seeks to entertain him with a software package for writers called Storygrinder. It is almost too sharp to be funny and while we laugh we wince as well—in recognition.

‘What Wolves Know’ explores the concept of family and betrayal and what it means to be human. It strips away a thin veneer of civilisation and is an indictment of ‘family values’. The abandoned child finds refuge among the wolves and a kinder mother—yet has to accept his human identity when his wolf family grow old and die while he is still young. Then he goes ‘home’ to a less certain and more savage world. I would buy this collection to read that story alone.

In ‘Camp Nowhere’ Reed explores the horror of the ‘family holiday’. Charlie is a ‘poor little rich kid’. Here Reed might be said to explore the idea of the child as status symbol or ultimate possession, a satellite to his parents’ successful professional lives. Significantly, when his parents make it big and buy a luxury house he is banished to the pool house. The family holiday—‘platinum togetherness’—becomes a stage for the parents to play out a two-week fantasy of family life, and sacrifice their child on the altar of their own egos.

I especially enjoyed ‘Special’, which explores the effect of an idol moving into a small community, showing what lies beneath the facade of ‘polite society’. It made me think of the pastel landscape in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands. Ashley Famous may not have the supernatural abilities of the maenad, Maryann Forrester in True Blood but she uses her fame as a lure to enthral and extract homage.

‘Aunt Lizzie’ is a horror story that works on multiple levels and also illustrates the complexity of Reed’s vision—that we can feel pity and horror for several characters within one story and not be certain who to root for the most. This is especially to the fore in the searing ‘Denny’ where three characters share the narration so that at the end we feel emotionally entangled with all of them. ‘Baby Brother’ explores perhaps the ultimate effects of sibling rivalry and guilt—the concept of victor and victim, while ‘The Blight Family Singers’ is a satire on the ‘happy family’ as depicted in The Sound of Music.

This is definitely a collection to linger over as each story exerts a strong pull on the imagination. Reading becomes an immersive experience, shifting between different worlds—like stirring the surface of a pool to see what rises to the surface. Are the monsters real or are we looking at ourselves?

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