The New Abject: Tales of Modern Unease

285B04F2-0048-4321-8626-D53E17E9B89B
COMMA PRESS 2020

Edited by Sarah Eyre & Ra Page

Featuring Alan Beard, Bernardine Bishop, Ramsey Campbell, David Constantine, Margaret Drabble, Karen Featherstone, Saleem Haddad, Mark Haddon, Meave Haughey, Gaia Holmes, Matthew Holness, Adam Marek, Lucie McKnight Hardy, Mike Nelson, Christine Poulson, Sarah Schofield, Paul Theroux, Lara Williams, Gerard Woodward.

My previous review of a Comma Press book: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2017/11/25/you-should-come-with-me-m-john-harrison/

When I read this book, my thoughts will appear in the comment stream below…

29 thoughts on “The New Abject: Tales of Modern Unease

  1. I sense with my secondary instinct that this anthology, whether prophetically or from direct experience, contains stories of the co-vivid dream, the dream that we all dream these days, not individually, but covidually, collusively, collucidly.
    We shall see…

    Stool
    Bernardine Bishop

    “Hazel went home, her nightmare contained but not comforted.”

    The delightful story embodying the stoma. The lateral cross-channels of the bowels and intestines after a colostomy. Well, not really, but yes, in oneiric palimpsest. Perfect character studies of two women – worthy of William Trevor, and I intend that as an enormous compliment – one woman a retired do-gooder who helped folk and often kept their front door keys as part of her caring duties. And another woman. A business woman with the stoma. And the floater she found in her toilet bowl. A story that adeptly delivers the key to the serendipitous route through the devious byways of lateral or incidental humaneness or humanity , even when unintended or unmapped.

  2. One of this book’s editorial by-lines gave me the clue that the alternative ‘Turn of the Screw’ reference in the next story was of less importance than the Brontë one, perhaps. And there is a sewing machine dream in this story…and such a machine uses a needle where the cotton is threaded through its pointed end, I guess. Not a screw, neither a turning one.

    Teeth and Hair
    Christine Poulson

    “Or perhaps it was like Jane Eyre…”

    A disarmingly straightforward style of story-telling, with arguably too many things adding to its meaning. A button box, wigs on stands, a damaged wedding dress with pearl buttons, garden pond fronds, the eponymous teeth and hair strands, two sisters but which sister is haunting their potentially Pre-Raphaelite eleven year old daughter/ niece? A story told engagingly through the eyes of an older girl/ woman otherwise unconnected with the girl’s father or dead mother, but staying there to look after the girl while the father was away on business. A haunting by the locked sewing-room beyond itself, and the room’s contents … with a key that is held elsewhere and, as in STOOL above, is a key whose destiny is inadvertently to thread a circuitous path to stitch a happy ending…. or does it? Depends on whether you accept the Jane Eyre point. Many of us tend to have their incisively sharpest ends in their heads and minds. Pearls of wisdom as teeth. Ordinary folk tend to have their business ends elsewhere in the body. Or invisible.

  3. And so to the next story…
    “After a few years you realise that you no longer have your own keys…”

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    The same red tin box that was very familiar to me as a child in the early 1950s, my Mum and Dad compartmentalising herein the budgeting of their meagre wages. Now with life’s abrasions, if not stains.

    “It’s a red tin box with lots of compartments. It’s meant for builders to keep their nails and screws…”

    The Universal Stain Remover
    Gaia Holmes

    “They are stains that flattened me, crushed me, turned me into a slanting italic version of myself.”

    This is extremely powerful material seen through a professional house-sitter’s eyes, a woman with forgivable sado-masochistic OCD and equally non-OCD tendencies of self harming, self staining as well as perfectionism of deep cleaning, caused by a husband’s unspeakably coercive treatment towards her and his menstruation phobia. I cannot do justice by describing this tour de force. It simply needs to be read. It certainly works, and maps out your own stains so you are aware of the ones that need removing and those that need retaining in each of the houses and mansions of our soul’s tuning with Gaian universal harmonics …getting a handle on your proud natural processes and the foul plaguey ones alike. From mention of ‘Slugdeath’ in STOOL to those in stewed placenta…

    “…he’d shake so much salt on to my meals it was if he were trying to kill a plague of slugs.”

  4. The links continue serendipitously and movingly with the next story…

    “When she reached her destination she did not look back at the spot she’d been sitting in to confirm the stain but she knew it was there.”

    “Her ex-boyfriend still had a key to her flat, something she had forgotten about.”

    ( ) ( (
    Lara Williams

    “It reminded her of the large hole her father had dug in the back garden, for no discernible reason…”

    The parenthesis that becomes me?
    Indeed, someone close to me has had her life affected by endometriosis and some of the other facets so powerfully portrayed in this story…

    But this story is also a disturbing extrapolation beyond my experience, a removing of the parentheses of denial as symbolised by feathery eyelashes, an extrapolation laying bare life’s nightmare as extended by the objective-correlative of owning the less feathery (more fatherly?), spiny South American cactus! A story that is strongly sororal with the previous one. Both stories with their immaculate prose in extremis. Staining each other, but, for me, subtly promising a possible reversal by healing, an ironic reversal by dint of using literature as one’s bespoke reading therapy …..
    He knew she was there, after all? There is always a counterintuitive reason for digging holes, even for gratuitously plucking cacti while collecting eyebrows?

  5. From stains and spillages and inner endo-growths to the next story’s palimpsest leasowes and pastures over flood plains — and a serial or phantom pregnancy with a breaking of waters while already milking a baby … the waters of tears or of viewing tiers (inside the library) to mark the beginning of new life, new thoughts?

    “Will she never be free of violent sickness and breasts that leak and drip?”

    The Reservoir
    Meave Haughey

    “There were entirely imagined cities, he’d told her once, invented by cartographers to obscure what was really there.”

    A story that includes our co-vivid dreams of water…

    This is a telling, textured portrait, again sororal, of a woman observing her own palimpsest of body as self and a cartography of thoughts upon Jungian levels of collective consciousness.

    And a local post office with the prow of a ship as an objective-correlative for the hope we all need. That leased inner reser-voir of becoming clair-voyant…

  6. And from the previous remarkable house-sitter story above and her collection of foul cuttings &c., we now so incredibly reach the next story with….

    “You would both cut your nails, and put the parings in a glass bottle with your own urine, and hide them here,…”

    The Leftovers
    Margaret Drabble

    “They would look after the house and its contents and live more or less rent-free, in exchange for keeping an eye on things.”

    …these house sitters called THEM whom the lady employs, particularly the house sitter I feel is similar to or an amalgam of the protagonists in the previous three stories above, this being the house sitter and her ‘leftovers’ that had been in residence just before the lady returns to her own house to sit out our current pandemic…

    A most striking portrait of this very pandemic today and self-isolatory implications for this empathisable lady. The lady who sees the ‘comma’ butterfly, as well as the peacock and the orange tip. Remembering childhood ‘tit and bum’ games with one who grew into an epidemiologist who missed out by dint of death lies dead Swinburne moments prior to the pandemic that he would have no doubt cherished.
    And what of those disordered poetry books? Just as my own aged mind grows even more disordered, too…
    That buried bottle of time. The Jungian levels of disgust.

    “Is this a good story, or a very very bad one?”

    Neither.
    It is genuinely a very very good one. Not a leftover at all.

  7. “Everyone means everyone.”

    An Enfleshment of Desire
    Saleem Haddad

    “… I saw shared on Twitter, footage of tear gas canisters shot from close range by security forces embedded in the skulls of protesters.”

    Take that meaning syntax as you want, take that within you, body and soul, and see how it pans out at the end, whether it’s the link between Iraq and Lebanon’s Babel Thawra. Lebanon as Limbo, there and here. Violence as not only relief but orgasm, and, perhaps for the first time, I realised we must read literature to gain new experiences, find our next Proustian self. As this male protagonist does, torn between his husband in New York, and a new man here in Beirut. Torn between. Even torn by one alone. A vista of the Thawra from all angles, political, spiritual, sexual. So powerful the words have their own fist inside you.

    “But that night in his room I only feel my soul leaving my body and floating up to the ceiling,…”

    “Together on the streets we are discovering that betrayals and injustices cut a million different ways like reflections from a broken mirror.”

    “…and the internet glitches again, freezing his face, giving me time to explore all the sadness and shame and doubt lingering behind his eyes.”

    From malaise to desire, an orgy in unison, WhatsApp sex, Beirut bruises and sex bruises, paintings of pain and desire. Jung’s concept of the shadow. This story my new shadow that will outlast itself till literature’s next shafting towards death’s gestalt…

    Amid this book’s whole co-vivid dream. The New Abject as Object.

    “…I try to explain what has happened, but it is like trying to describe a vivid dream. My words are unable to recreate the power of the moment, they tumble from me hollow and vague.”

  8. Bind
    Matthew Holness

    “…remnant of a single sunflower, starved of light, its bowed stem choked with green, twisted weed.
    Instinctively, I reached out to remove the binding from its neck, quite forgetting that it was only a painting,…”

    Sense of smell lost or gained? Blind or blinding, no, more the binding of dysosmia of a purely disarming co-vivid dream, where dysosmia is wrongly spelt or spilt “dysmosia” as a bottle of pesticide’s binding with the real word dysmusia as a blinding of the music-wordstreaming memory by a Proustian self and that self’s own daughter Natalie. I had impetigo as a child. A sense of guilt projected upon a dupligänger. All cloyed by a tour of what should have been a beautiful flower exhibition (ideal for one’s small daughter to see) to which you have invited yourself, a tour amid its rooms and walls and doors, 686E1780-C8EC-416F-9A8C-53DDF53DF183 these walls and doors being paintings themselves, where parts of the exhibition’s faded brochure are painstakingly copied out at the entrance to each room to obviate the onset of dyslexia. Clumps of dead grass, notwithstanding.
    Many dysmorphic, horror-bound evocations of prose, for example…
    “I crept about blindly, searching in vain for any trace of light, then turned back round. The room of Natalie’s flowers now resembled a book illustration, its pale green walls and frieze completely lifeless. I reached my hand out toward it, wanting to go back there, to retrieve just one small handful of my daughter’s flowers to keep in my pocket, but the room back there was now a picture only; a static scene daubed upon the enclosing wall.”

  9. Previous story’s daughter seems to subtly segue with the small girl in the next…

    There is at least one co-vivid dream in the next retro-remarkable story, a dream that is not necessarily its vision of maggots at your six year old daughter’s hairline, but another section in it with the explicit words “post-Covid.”

    Rejoice
    Sarah Schofield

    “April has abandoned her colouring – carefully cut pieces of Rice Krispie box are scattered across the table.”

    From rhotacism to lithopedion, this is an otherwise simply expressed, if complexly meant and thoughtfully provocative, story of today’s NHS having desperately coped with the nub of Coronavirus, and the demonstrations on behalf of the NHS, a telling fable depicted via a woman NHS worker whose husband, another NHS worker, had died because of lack of PPE. Factored into or from a tale of childishly improvised games that the woman’s six year old daughter April plays with her Granddad, and April’s strangest possible role-playing with a handbag and ships in the bath…
    I note that Margaret Thatcher, a stone in her heart, actually died upon an eponymous April.

    My previous review of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2020/11/02/best-british-short-stories-2020/#comment-20269

  10. “We are surrounded by futures of abject death from all quarters and in all handshakes and kisses that we engage in. To smile is to die.”
    —Jonathan Wood (THE FACE THAT IS NOT THERE)
    My bold.

  11. FB826324-F622-435E-BA48-59200997EFC1
    The next story mentions ‘hyggebana’, a feng shui for flowers…
    Cf the Matthew Holness story above!

    It’s a Dinosauromorph, Dumdum
    Adam Marek

    “The car indicated that it was turning off the M20 and began to slow.”

    A turn-off for our times into the deep coast of Kent…

    An ‘obsequious’ self-drive car called Chewie, I gather, as a couple travel to visit a college friend of the husband’s, with some trepidation on the wife’s part, complete with MR (Magic Reality) Glasses, cf my own Magic Reality in 2010 here, and, “If you’re an eighteenth-century aristocrat”, cf the Depthcharge glasses in my chance simultaneous review of XX here! When they dare take off their glasses at the friend’s house and see a child in his family for real, I felt seagull-sick!
    No chain stores, just small businesses.
    Mushroom paintings.
    A music generating AI.
    Ornaments allowed to be broken by MR dinosaurs as a means towards believability.
    Hake decked with capers.
    ‘Equidistant!’ I shout, out of context.
    Seriously, a most inspiring broken-off-the-wall story for our co-vivid times!

    “The codeword for if I decide I don’t want to stay overnight is equidistant.”

    My previous reviews of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/tag/adam-marek/

  12. From the earlier house-sitting and the flower feng shui of Holness and Marek, towards the next story’s

    “…a company called Osmosis Interiors. The sign, said the company, would make a striking focal point of a cherished, loved one’s name, transforming the feel of your home.”

    misisedwuds
    Karen Featherstone

    “…silverfish; mercury commas, writhing deeper into the bare threads of the weaves.”

    The story of Eve and her budding architect husband Fergal and his gestalt-guzzling family traditions. Was there another budding architect earlier in this book? The co-vividly variegated poetic prose and aspirations of such holism, broken by a caesurae in alexandrines of veined bodily plumbing. The child whose osmosis name is Harriet and Fergal’s old Nanny, Miss Edwards. Who slapped whom? Who guessed whose age at the funfair, whose child in the guesser’s pram? Whose horse or dog are seen through Marek’s MR glasses? What Gestalt of themes emerges in the tying-up of the end paragraph and why? Sometimes intellectually brutal with its own hide and seek game, this story has some incredibly strong writing, in tune with much of this book so far. Like osmosis and feng shui it strives to come together in our minds.

    “, habitually seeing, not a part but, against her will, the whole.”

  13. The Honey Gatherers
    Gerard Woodward

    “At the right moment, just at the point of greatest release, he liked to spit into her mouth.”

    Aviagrary versus aviagrary, beyond our apiaries of evolution, this is the PERFECT co-vivid dream as harvested from hives of honey. Symbolised by the increasingly survivalist war of beekeepers whereby even private marital sexual practices become “the agent of some all-reaching ever-self-replicating disease,…” with sting matching sting.
    A violence that also causes drunken pub brawls in milkshake parlours!

    “The air of the parlour itself seemed to have become thick with connection and meaning,…”

  14. From the previous story’s honey and bees to the next one’s adobo and pigs…

    Adobo
    Paul Theroux

    “Feral pigs, people called them; but I thought of them as friendly familiar shadows, keeping me company.”

    I sit on my own mind’s lanai or porch along with someone called Lappin, a name with one letter more than a rabbit, and enjoy this text’s welded marinade or adobo of the fleshy creatures within it, whether, in their turn, pregnant or not. Harry Lappin, at a loose end when retiring as a welder ‘buys’ a Filipino wife, but more for companionship than sex. A story that is itself constituted from “meat and bones, the sort of density that retained the look of the carcass it was made from, a still recognisable remnant of the live thing it had been,” also a fascinating character study of Harry and his gun-savvy wife — and his otherwise friendly pigs she stirs into death and then into not merely feral but ferocious life. Like the woman who was once pregnant with her! And the viral soup cooking around us? With soy sauce and vinegar, if not honey.

  15. A previous story’s beekeeping apiaries to the classification of apes in the next —

    “A world where infection circumnavigated the earth at the advancing speed of growing populations and their movements.”

    On Monkeys Without Tails
    Mike Nelson

    “, a silent anagram waiting to be unearthed.”

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    My avant-gardeness loves this story simply because it is a finely textured and ordered Englishness of prose, but one that addresses and relishes the avant garde, but is not avant garde itself at all. It deals with the future’s view of the historic rapprochement of the analogue and the digital, the placement of one’s brain in an artefact like an old desk purchased by an artist for his studio, an artist of things now become a turner of words, a desk with the palimpsest of two related owners, one concerned with plague protection the other with human evolution from apes. The desk as a baton of optimism to transcend a loss of faith in the tangible. To obviate the colonisation of the complex by the simple. A work that seems to be preternaturally in mutual synergy with the massive XX book that I happen to have been already, for some weeks, real-time reviewing here. A momentous comparison blasphemously trapped by my mind-photo of both.

  16. From the violent milkshake parlours in the previous Woodward work to the next story’s….

    “It being above the cafe, where Mark sometimes bought him not-very-frothy milkshakes,…”

    The Room Peels
    Alan Beard

    “‘Door to the street sticks,’ he was informed and shown the shoulder and key twist technique needed.”

    A bedsit — over the cafe where he bought his son milkshakes – a bedsit that locks down itself as well as Mark. The few visitors bowed their heads amid its eaves even when this was unnecessary, just as he bowed his own head when walking the streets under scaffolding. His life accrues a broken marriage and a son who becomes gradually more estranged, and a girl friend into drugs and S&M who becomes an ex girl friend. Eventually resorting himself to whatever the bedsit did to him in an increasing derelict area of town. A counterintuitive theme and variations for our time where the street door gets stickier and stickier to open, to the tune of Woodward’s earlier shared spit between lovers and, here, the snot that Mark kept on his girl friend’s tissue after she left. A darkly evocative story with a relentlessness whereby any hope, even if once experienced, can never seem to survive the present moment’s onward entropy. But I asked myself — is there a wishful hope in hope stalking itself, even if endlessly from the eaves of its mind backwards?

    My previous review of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2018/02/18/best-british-short-stories-2011/#comment-11830
    My previous reviews of this story’s end dedicatee: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/1479-2/

  17. O Death
    Mark Haddon

    You have a lot of blood vessels in your scalp, apparently.

    A series of italics as Carol’s own co-vivid dream. A gift from literature for my own personal Christmas Day today. The shock of finding something in the freezer other than the cook-from-frozen turkey crown!
    A stream of consciousness disguised as a work of linear fiction, evocatively dealing with her father’s dementia and decline, her brother’s carelessness of care, her mother’s naive stoicism, her own memories of childhood and today’s call to family duty amid her own decline.
    The Christ child now in her car. Amid operatic paeans to wild coincidence and other such oblique correlations continuing to turn up even as I write this. A different dementia, for example, in the declining Midwinter days of my own Midsommar.

  18. And amid other dystopiae, this dystopia is potentially classic like 1984, a prophecy as déjà vu….

    Wretched
    Lucie McKnight Hardy

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    “…and watched her getting thinner and thinner.”

    Watched the wretched…

    “…like a vaccine: by dripping minuscule amounts of poison into the public’s consciousness via the billboards, society was being immunised against the realisation of what the government was doing.”

    Cooked protein, blood oozing, as in The Blast of Hunters, but here facemasks as those ‘Treated’ in contradistinction to the Wretched and their investment in banks, food banks, including the ultimate Wretched Wren, the narrator’s Cassie with not the left-wing, but the left-wave tattoo. A battle against the Wet edged Wet etched Wretched by the Government, even hiring the narrator to trap them in a lens, an official job to avoid him going back to prison. An enormous sculpture as the human gestalt. Yellowing broccoli and all, exchanged like drugs. A fossilised indifference wrenched from this text. QR codes et al. Moving and emotional. Delving in deadlines as dead links amid the wormholes of the waiting rose of the web.

    My previous reviews of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/tag/lucie-mcknight-hardy/

  19. Something I have learnt from the blue sky thinking involved in gestalt real time review, its empirical synchronicities and shards of serendipity…..

    Out of the Blue
    David Constantine

    “And the self in the mirror answered, This is worse.”

    Or better. A very nifty story that I can imagine being told on the wireless and then being given some sort of award. A revelation in hindsight out of the blue with all its following repercussions, things black and white reconciled. Red spotted, too. Which reminds me Angela was a cleaner by profession but she did not think about leaving all those messy footprints. Constructively ironic.
    Seriously, an enjoyable story about reflected faithfulness to oneself as well as to others, each Proustian self as a jagged shaft of lightning, but if I tell you more about it, that would utterly spoil it.

    “Nothing is ever meant to be.”

    My previous reviews of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/tag/david-constantine/

  20. The house sitters combine as the final gestalt…

    My previous reviews of the next author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/tag/ramsey-campbell/ and https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2010/08/17/ghosts-and-grisly-things-by-ramsey-campbell/

    Extending the Family
    Ramsey Campbell

    “‘Maybe you should keep your imagination for your books.’
    ‘This has nothing to do with my imagination.’”

    A retired Supply teacher caught in a skein of Aldiss’ Report on Probability A and Royle’s Dummies as neighbours in opposed or matching houses, wrapped up by Beckett or iritic Joyce. William Trevor, too. Essentially Ramsey Campbell. A “dislocated lock” in a dislocated lockdown of cannabis and piss. And social workers, babies, flashings, senility, competing blinks. Squatters as well as sitters.
    My own “unhinged door stumbles inwards”, too.

    “Trent is surrounded by shelves of books he has been meaning to find time to read at last, but now he feels unequal to any that might make demands on him.”

    ***

    This is one of those anthologies that you will remember, with some stirring surprise, to be a great find in hindsight. One that will even outlast — via whatever osmosis senility supplies — your future memory of it.
    The New Abject, the New Noumenon of Now.

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