Jen Campbell’s debut collection of short stories, The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night, picks up on what is beginning to feel like quite a familiar theme in fiction, albeit one that’s brilliant if done right: either full on folktale retellings or folktale imagery and metaphor woven into a modern setting. The blurb emphasises this aspect of the collection, promising ‘spirits in jam-jars, mini-apocalypses, animal hearts… a coffin hotel’, but, in the end, it was the stories that stuck closest to the real world that felt most compelling.
Campbell’s collection is full of fascinating ideas, but some of her stories are simply too short to allow them to take off. ‘Plum Pie. Zombie Green. Yellow Bee. Purple Monster’ starts to play with the idea of young girls who grow flowers and vines from their skin and who are exploited for these growths, and almost pulls off an emotionally resonant last line, but there just isn’t enough space for this to all come together. ‘Human Satellites’ is more of a string of musings, and most frustratingly of all, ‘Little Deaths’ introduces the tantalising spirits-in-jam-jars concept, with great lines such as ‘Ghosts in jars light up the street on Saturday mornings, swinging from tarpaulin, ready to be sold as medicine and prayers’, but again, ends before it can really get going. The brevity of many of these pieces means they can never achieve the depth of other short speculative fictions such as Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove or Kirsty Logan’s The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales (with which The Beginning of the World…) shares more than a few satisfying similarities.
In other, longer, stories, Campbell often relies on mini-retellings of folk tales, or on one occasion, myths, in the middle of her own narrative, which also didn’t work for me. Despite its popularity, I think using folktale in modern fiction is a tremendously difficult thing to pull off, and tends to work best when a writer abandons the source material and tells a story of her own that draws from the resonance of these older fictions – although closer retellings are possible if the writer is really brilliant (see the collected works of Robin McKinley, especially Deerskin and Rose Daughter). In ‘Animals’, a gory story about borrowed hearts, the fragments of story interspersed with facts and a quick rehearsal of ‘The Wild Swans’ made the whole thing feel choppy and laboured. Similarly, the story of Pandora’s Box popping up in the otherwise nicely eerie ‘Aunt Libby’s Coffin Hotel’ didn’t add anything for me.
And yet, there are a couple of stories here that are really good, and for me, they were always the ones with no explicit speculative element, even though I love speculative fiction. ‘Margaret and Mary and the End of the World’ meditates beautifully on the Annunciation – the moment, captured by so many painters, when Mary learns she is pregnant with Jesus – while exploring the feelings of a fourteen-year-old girl who had to give her own baby up for adoption. ‘Pebbles’ does a great deal in a very short space as it follows a young lesbian meditating on the various sources of hatred in the world. And my absolute favourite, ‘Bright White Hearts’, tries something similar to ‘Animals’ by interpersing story and fact, but pulls it off far better. It’s narrated by a woman working at an aquarium who’s fallen in love with the resident mermaid, Melissa, who performs in a sequinned tail and ‘cheap bubblegum bra’, and who is also fascinated by the sea creatures that surround her. ‘Crocodile icefish live in the depths of Antarctica. Swimming stars with transparent blood. They have no haemoglobin or myoglobin so, beneath their jelly skin, you can see them pulsing. Musical fish, beating, with bright, white hearts.’ ‘Bright White Hearts’ also thinks about scars, ‘freaks’ and deformity as it challenges what is ‘normal’. It’s these wonderful pieces that make me keen to see what Campbell does next.
I received a free copy of this collection from the publisher for review.