404 ink


Short Story of the Month:

‘A Voice Spoke To Me At Night’

by Helen McClory

‘Loneliness is a terrible thing, wherever you are. I think it’s a stronger force than love, because it’s a kind of love for everyone that is never returned.’

In the spirit of honesty, let’s lay some truths on the table: ‘loneliness’ is cool. Sort of.. That compulsion which pulls one away from the madding crowd, and yet draws the breath of sadness. Even a mild and ephemeral depression carries a quixotic sense of adventure.

When I was a lad, a piquant exoticism decorated the auras of those preferring The Cure, to say S Club 7. (That’s probably not the best pairing to illustrate with, but still…)

In this vein, a dedication to a book of short fiction reading ‘For the lonely’, is for some (me) invitation enough. Like a bee to nectar ( / a fly to shit). And in this same spirit I began reading Mayhem & Death, by the Scottish writer Helen McClory (404 Ink, March 2018) – a smorgasbord of stories concerning lore and hinterlands, both geographic and of the mind. A meditation on loneliness, or perhaps ennui, that nevertheless oozes…cool. So how do ennui and loneliness differ, and where do they overlap? That’s another essay, but for this one, let’s record that Mayhem & Death bathes in this twilight. 

As an arrangement, the collection is unorthodox – crammed full of flash fiction, a couple of regular-length short stories, before ending with the first part of a novella. One can’t imagine a traditional publishing house running with such a project, so kudos to the independent 404 Ink for giving it the green-light. 

The opener is a perfect mood-setter – the story of a woman, once a mother, revisiting the life and death of her daughter. Both natural-born outsiders, isolation hangs like a pall without explicit reference – only implicitly, with McClory giving us a taste of her descriptive prowess: ‘…Madeleine was like that, like a storm cloud poured into the shape of a girl, able to make a whole room feel … the tortured static of her moods.’ And the flash fiction runs with the tone set – death and the ghosts of the dead, but with a further step taken – into the unseen. McClory presents fantasy in such an everyday way, that these worlds seem less like the product of imagination / more like an alternate-reality – one which our myopic vision and faith only in our senses, prevents us from seeing. Put another way, it’s our failing that we are blind to what we inflict on the loved-ones of animals we kill – be that for meat, hide or pleasure. That we don’t see the angels of death, coming to collect what we owe them – our final breath.

And buried within the collection is A Voice Spoke To Me At Night, one of the few regular-length stories, within a work dominated by flash. 

From the first sentence, the protagonist is drawn in feather-light touches. The portrait is intimate, despite revealing nothing concrete – the character’s name, her age, where she lives,… And yet we are pulled into her world, with its small and innocuous dimensions. Here is a young woman whose life holds no rush of blood; indeed, it barely registers a pulse. And despite the absence of even a single Ugly Sister, her lonely state is compelling: takes the shape of a modern-day Cinderella. As she slopes from bedroom to kitchen to 9-5 to bedroom, we understand completely who this girl is, her physical, emotional and material circumstance. And the complete absence of any plan, a vision for her life beyond the day to come – it all makes perfect sense, despite McClory serving up no backstory. Importantly, none of this is ‘heavy’, either for the girl herself, or the reader: the author imposes no emotional tax. It simply is what it is.

And then… Then we are blindsided by a fantastical turn, lifting the story clean off firm ground. Our wan and simple girl finds a twin, a kindred spirit. Not a friend of a friend or someone at work or a twinkle-eyed stranger on the train home, but a man living in…her wardrobe mirror. And the meshing of these two worlds – spanning time and place, age, gender, language, Biblical plague and post-modern immunity – it’s all perfectly done. The portal between these atomised souls is sustained by one thing – their shared loneliness. 

Love, lust, hate, envy,… the ‘big’ emotions grant the writer some licence: they can ‘go large’, get a little bombastic, even. Because that, Ladies & Gents, is entertainment. But ennui and loneliness…just a story of girl, serving up ketchup-on-toast for one. How does that fly? Well, just read A Voice Spoke To Me At Night, and it’ll all become clear.

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Reviewed and recommended by Tamim Sadikali

Mayhem & Death (404 Inkby Helen McClory was release in October 2017. Buy now.



Tamim Sadikali is the author of Dear Infidel (Hansib, 2014), and has recently completed a short story collection. Twitter: @TamimSadikali.