Friday, 24 March 2017

The Little Gift by Stephen Volk

I’ve attempted to avoid mentioning one of the central incidents in the story, but surrounding allusions will inevitably give a good deal of the game away. So to avoid disappointment and irritation I will hereby issue a SEMI-SPOILER alert.

Stephen Volk’s novella The Little Gift may be a relatively short work, but it contains volumes within its carefully constructed narrative. It comments upon the aridity of corporate clone culture, the subtle but everpresent divisions of class, the vital import of art and spiritual nourishment in an aggressively materialistic world, the coarsening effect of tabloid journalism and the philosophical distinction between instinctive and morally conscious action. As a story written by an author generally working within the horror genre (and I think that, with its exploration of the dark corners of the human psyche, this qualifies as a horror story) it is also strident in its rejection of the prurient allure of one of the modern avatars of the monstrous, the serial killer. A brutally realist monster for materialist times, stripped of all supernatural mystery and ripped from the lurid headlines of the real world. They are driven only by debased appetites, playing on fears of physical pain and torturous death rather than any threat to the soul, inviting the lurch of nausea in place of the vertigo felt in the presence of the uncanny.

Above all, however, The Little Gift is a terribly human story filled with an empathetic awareness of the frangibility of the emotional self, the fragility of bodies – bodies and souls. Its cruel ironies and correspondences (and I shall endeavour not to reveal the central irony, which is embodied in the title) act as harsh lessons, stunning blows leading to damaged self-awareness. It begins with our first person narrator in the midst of night terrors, the existential dread given form by sleeplessness. They obviously have a subconscious source beyond their ostensible cause, the little gifts of dead mice and birds left by the cat. Something fundamental is exposed in the vulnerable hours before dawn.

The little gift left by the pitiless pet at the start of the novella seems like some physical manifestation of these night fears. The mauled, near-dead bird is a token of feline fellow-feeling, a sharing of the kill with the pride, allowing the privilege of the final death-blow to lie with the chief provider. The link between human and animal is established at the outset and is reiterated throughout the story. The narrator sees the cat’s actions as instinctive, engineered by ‘millions of years of evolution’. His own actions, the impulsive affair he falls into, are seen in similarly materialistic terms, animalistic drives followed at a time when his sense of self has been reduced to a dulled nullity. He fantasises about sex in the toilet, the ultimate reduction of passion to basic physical need and fears that some pheremonal musk might betray him to his wife, as if she could sniff him out. The first kiss, the peremptory prelude, takes place in the gardens of the grand house in which the corporate away day is taking place, the failed competitors for the prize mate aimlessly shuffling around the topiary like statuesque figures in a demystified version of Last Year in Marienbad. Later, on a trip with his family, the narrator pulls in at a location called Heaven’s Gate which offers a prospect over Longleat Park and the animals living in the safari park there. It’s a different view of the animal kingdom akin to the anodyne paintings of lions settling down with the lambs in the summery fields of the Lord found on the covers of the Jehovah’s Witness circular Watchtower. If this offers a converse metaphor for family life, then it is a fantasy, a forcefully willed ideal which bears no relation to true nature. Even emotions and psychological problems are spoken of in materialistic terms, with talk of Neuro Linguistic Programming and the Kübler-Ross stages of grief. All along, the narrator is aware of ‘the little man inside me, my soul’.

The scattered detritus of torn-out feathers are described discovered by the narrator’s wife at the beginning of the story are described as ‘dark commas’ spread across the room, their radius indicative of a fluttering struggle, agonies prolonged by the playful predator. It’s a powerfully poetic image, the comma marking a pause before an ensuing clause, the crux upon which a sentence turns; an interlude in the continuity of a life. But their provenance as the dismembered remains of a dying creature is also suggestive of a full stop, an ending in a parallel sentence. The image of a dark, feathered comma is used as a demarcation of significant moments of change in the narrative. Laid horizontally between certain paragraphs, it underlines temporal shifts or decisive alterations of intention or perception; the drift of time and mind. These symbolic punctuation marks are part of the visual schema for the book created by Pedro Marques which add a significant element to the overall impact. The exquisite surrealist corpse of the cover illustration, the dismembered doll angel with its bird head and plucked wings, is a disturbing yet strangely beautiful image.

The comma in the life of the protagonist is the banal disruption of a mid-life crisis. Volk depicts this with all the confused immediacy and panicked lack of perspective a first-person narrative affords. The very specificity of the details with which the narrator sums up his life – the Range Rover Evoque, the ‘gorgeous’ Kawasaki and the half-timbered cottage in All Cannings in Devizes – along with the contemptuously mocking self-awareness accompanying their listing, point to the falsity of such materialist aspirations as indicators of success and happiness. Tellingly, his ‘beautiful’ wife and ‘two gorgeous, healthy children’ (gorgeous like a Kawasaki) are tagged onto the end of the list as an afterthought, unnamed additions to the tokens of boastful achievement. You can almost hear David Byrne’s semi-hysterical vocal asking ‘well, how did I get here?’

What’s in a name? Naming or the withholding of names is important in The Little Gift. The narrator remains unnamed throughout and thus maintains the anonymity of the nameless. Although we are privy to the intimacies of his inner life at a time of personal crisis we see little beyond the borders of his brief and vividly real liaison. He remains essentially ill-defined, the primacy of family to his sense of self asserted rather than depicted. He also denies the serial killer his name, refusing to add to his mythologisation, his transformation into a folk demon. I’m reminded here of the ending of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth in which the brutal fascist captain is told in the moments before his execution that his name as a father will be denied him, never mentioned to the son that the woman who is about to take his life is cradling. He will be erased from his family tree. The shared namelessness adds to the sense that killer and narrator are connected however, both remotely touching one another on the spectrum of blank disconnection. ‘He always seemed part of me, attached by some dark umbilical’, our protagonist admits at the end. ‘The little man inside me’, perhaps, his dark soul. Or the ineradicable infection passed on by debased acts (again, don’t mythologise them by using the word evil, as if there were some inverted transcendence or any kind of active anti-morality at play), the tainting of the soul through contact, propagated through the grubbily ink-stained vector of the tabloids.

Part of Volk’s purpose here is to regain the humanity of the victims, to force us to empathise with them in their darkest moment, to be with them in the terror of their final loneliness without for one moment using their experience for the most despicable kind of prurient onlooking. It is something which has to be done with the utmost sensitivity, because we are approaching real and enduring suffering here. Volk is no stranger to addressing the darkest areas of human experience however, notably in the series After Life, which was fearless in its confrontation of the most distressing of scenarios (and which featured an episode which once more demythologised the serial killer archetype, exposing the blankness at the core of such characters). He always retains a humanist outlook which makes us feel for his characters, never revelling in or unnecessarily dwelling upon physical pain. And it is the humanity of the killer’s victims which is of the essence here, the acts themselves revealed only indirectly through the flashgun snapshots of tabloid reports. It’s a similar approach to that taken by Phil Rickman in his Merrily Watkins novel The Lamp of the Wicked, which also deals with the poisonous legacy of the Gloucester murders. Merrily has the ultimate nightmare in which she dreams that of daughter Jane (a character with whom we have become intimate over previous novels) being bundled into the back of the builders van. It’s a humanisation of the victim at the most intimate level, and allows her to empathise all the more with those who lost the people they loved in such a terrible way and who have to endure such dark imaginings over and over again. Such a shared humanist perspective suggests an affinity between the work of Rickman and Volk; an affinity which was obviously picked up by whoever commissioned Volk to adapt Rickman’s second Merrily Watkins novel Midwinter of the Spirit.

His wife and children are initially unnamed too, merely referred to in terms of their family connection. It is only after he meets his lover that they take on names and become more clearly defined as individuals, just as he feels himself waking up into a sense of an authentic self once more. His rehumanisation humanises them. Their names feel like they have an allegorical ring to them: Trudy, the true one and his daughters Verity (more truth) and Amber (the precious, the catcher of warm, hearthglow light). His lover’s name blends hints of the exotic with counterbalancing mundanity, the romantic with the drab everyday. Ghislaine is a French name which could have come from an old troubadour romance, whilst the surname Hammond is rooted in the English heartland in which this anti-romance takes place. The element of Frenchness may also be a nod to the British films of the grey 50s in which any element of illicit love (a fairly broad definition back then) tended to involve French actresses such as Simone Signoret (see Room At the Top) or other continentals who were more prone to that sort of thing. She has a hidden middle name too, of Italian provenance this time. Lenzi, which temporarily transports her out of the landscapes of motorway service stations and conference centres into the genuinely romantic dream of villages in the Tuscan hills.

Volk is brilliant at building up anti-romantic detail, with the precise location of a rendezvous at a services on the M5 between junctions 11a and 12 exposing its crushingly dispiriting nature whilst enabling us to locate it on our maps and explore its ambience for ourselves should we so wish. But he also finds beauty in imperfection, in the vulnerability and tenderness of those struggling to find happiness or fulfilment in a disconnected, corporate world but refusing to give up on themselves or others. We are defined by our imperfections as much as anything, he suggests. And it is those imperfections, the departures from an airbrushed presentation of the self to the world which make Ghislaine so plausibly real, and which makes her so attractive to our narrator. They catch onto one another as they drift aimlessly by, spinning closely around in a temporary dance of mutual recognition.

There is also a subtly portrayed class barrier between them. Not a gulf, but the kind of fine gradation which still creates instinctive divisions in the stratified society of Britain. Ghislaine is from Birmingham, we are initially led to believe. This misapprehension (she is actually from Wolverhampton, we later discover) is indicative of the generalised stereotype into which people are instantly assigned at first encounter, the reduction of the individual to a set of crude assumptions. Birmingham is a place synonymous with dour, brutalist pragmatism and an absence of romance, of any spark of the visionary. For me, as the home of the bands Broadcast, Pram and their various associates, it’s a major locus of magic and strange enchantment, an indication that rich interior landscapes and constellations of the imagination can be discovered and flourish in any environment. It contrasts markedly with the Wiltshire idyll in which the narrator lives, however. Ghislaine’s relatives may have come from the Tuscan countryside, Lenzis filling the graveyards there, but it is a place that her family have long since left behind for the built-up, motorway-bound terrain of the midlands. Our narrator, meanwhile, is able to take advantage of a ‘gite with a swimming pool near Brignoles, a former olive press’ which belongs to a company director. It may very well say something about my position within the British class spectrum that I had to look up what a gite was. Ghislaine has the contrasting prospect of a hen night in Barcelona, travelling by Easyjet and staying at a place called the Hotel Derby. Again, Volk is spot on when it comes to providing the telling anti-romantic detail. He could no doubt write a fine romantic comedy full of such wry observation if he had the mind to. I strongly suspect he doesn’t. Ghislaine’s one taste of upper crust living comes during the away day weekend, which takes place at a stately home converted into a conference centre. It hardly counts.

In a way, the class divide makes the passionate interlude all the more urgent and affecting. They both see each other for who they really are, with all trappings of status stripped away. As is always the case, however, it is far easier for our narrator to retreat back into the protective compound of his wealth, the stability of family. He is required to make the decisive move, but his default setting is drift. He simply doesn’t have the killer instinct. That has to be provided by someone else. An actual killer, perhaps. There is something peculiarly, poignantly English about his struggle to express his desires, to even articulate his feelings to himself. A verbal dance of self-deprecation skips lightly away from direct statement and it is down to Ghislaine to direct the affair, to read the all-too obvious signs. This disconnection from desire and clogged up communication is embodied in the fact that he finds it easier to make contact via the remote, truncated means of text messages. Printed out in bold type, these are disturbingly echoed in the lurid tabloid headlines and flashes of pruriently detailed reportage which are also printed in bold. Both condense, coarsen and elide truth, weakening the empathy which comes from true human connection.

These equivalences and correspondences create a sense of interconnected patterns spanning all manner of divides. Ultimately, they link a ‘respectable’, hard-working family man with an indolent, despicable killer, an unreadable void whose humanity has, at some point, been wholly erased. Or was he merely, like the housecat whose impulses are indulged, merely doing what he was programmed to do by nature. Are we more than a collective mess of amalgamated instincts? What makes us different from animals? Are we moral beings or are we just kidding ourselves? Mention of ISIS headlines on the news taking over once the killer’s tale is done raise the stakes and places such questions on a global scale. We have been offered the possibility of a religious work of art by Matisse, inspired by the kindness of a Catholic nurse who subsequently became a nun, as some kind of redemptive embodiment of the spiritual nobility inherent in the human soul. The description of the glass, its vivid colours and living light (‘the intense blue of the Mediterranean and the Madonna’ – beautiful writing here) gives an almost catechistic pagan sense of the immediacy of being. The equivalences which are so much a part of this intricately structured novella once more provide ironic counterparts however. And it would take a particularly intense moment of Blakean visionary transport to experience a similar flooding of divine light in the Gloucester services off the M5. The final image could have taken place in those services (thus echoing filmic images of dissolving or bubbling liquids stared at by James Mason in Odd Man Out and Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver, both characters suffering crises of identity and hovering on the edge of death and violence). I’ve always been fascinated by the way in which sugar cubes absorb and draw up the tea or coffee into which they’re dipped until they’re entirely consumed by it and I’m clearly not alone. Here, such an effect acts as a complex and ambiguous piece of symbolism. The sugarcube soul, absorbing that to which it is exposed? A metaphor for the transient nature of all things, the vital importance of making the most of our short span? Of not allowing ourselves to drift into the dissipation of the unexamined life, slowly reduced to the sludge of base, instinctual existence? Or of the way in which the lonely, monadic self can find indivisible commonality with another if it is prepared to open itself up and communicate with complete honesty? Our narrator used to take two sugars. He ends up taking one, which he watches darkening with the stain of his black coffee. Perhaps he still has some distance to go.

These are profound issues, questions which address the fundamentals of who we are as individuals, as political and social beings; as humans in fact. No easy resolution is arrived at, no closure comfortably attained. In the insidious, dangerous manner in which expert storytellers operate, we are invited to think for ourselves, to think about ourselves. It is Stephen Volk’s Little Gift to us. I for one am thankful for it.

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