Maybe I’m susceptible to some lurking horrors more than others, but Malcolm Devlin’s first short story collection, You Will Grow Into Them, gave me the creeps before I even opened the front cover. Is the gritty, textured skin so prominently foregrounded being pulled off — or is it put on, the way one would a glove? Why is the other skin so inhumanly shiny?
Suitably impressed by the dark tenor of this subversive aesthetic — the book’s “handshake” becomes a tender skin-graft, if you allow the metaphor — I was unprepared for the subtle humour that permeates these stories. In Devlin’s tales, a generous spirit busily hums under the threnody for a dying world.
Given the broad remit of weird fiction, the ten stories collected in You Will Grow Into Them exemplify diversity. They range from the short and scary to the more unsettling or darkly fantastical. I advise reading them in the order they are published, simply because — for me, anyway — it worked nicely. Some may be familiar to Interzone readers, or from elsewhere, but many are fresh to this collection.
A word about Unsung Stories, the publisher of You Will Grow Into Them. Under the “What We Do” section of their website, they list a simple mandate: “Weird stories, beautifully told.” Judging from their website, they have a small staff and a brisk catalogue of thirteen titles. You Will Grow Into Them is their most recent publication. New publishers of the weird are always a welcome sight.
One of Devlin’s primary occupations here is a general vision of organic decrepitude and the strange regrowth of new kinds of life. The volume’s fascination with despoliation and fungal blossomings yields a rich discourse on the mushrooming afterlife that springs up after the worst that can happen actually happens. Uncanny and deeply weird, these new lives are ambivalent at best. In this regard, it finds an unlikely fellow-traveler of these weird, resilient trails in Anna Tsing’s academic study The Mushroom at the End of the World.
As “Two Brothers” suggests, for instance, decay is possibly only the hidden face of how people are “made” in a time of increasingly technocratic modernity. The story condemns authoritarian patriarchy by way of examining the bodies and emotional states that are cast out or disallowed for its better functioning. By multiplying human bodies, “Two Brothers” edges carefully toward a vision that sees how human frailty disappears at the mark of a triumphant inhuman carapace. What is weird in this tale is not the father’s behaviour; it is fact that something skeletal and human still lives in the trees and the mud, no matter its distance from recognizable society.
Many references take up an English world. This goes far beyond the invocation of Saki’s decaying aristocracy in “Two Brothers”. In fact, if a person were interested, they could draw connections from across the canon of weird fiction. “The Last Meal He Ate Before She Killed Him” reads as a Wellsian dystopic take on a John Collier story. “Passion Play” is a deliciously religious story of failure in the vein of M.R. James. “The Bridge” miniaturizes the spiky delusion of Synecdoche, New York with an eye to Robert Aickman’s creeping mysteries, while “The End of Hope Street” extends the unplaceable dread of Julio Cortazar’s “House Taken Over” over time. Even the fictional history proposed by “Songs Like They Used to Play” settles itself in the apparently mundane world that is a bed and breakfast in contemporary York.
Of the many stories here in which human forms decompose and reform (or are transformed), the body’s new life is highly ambiguous. Unlike the visceral shudder of watching masculinity disintegrate in “Two Brothers”, “Her First Harvest” treats its subject with ephemeral delicacy. Here, the weird grounds itself in a generous posthuman ecology where “Everything that used to be alive now makes this a richer world.” Theorists of degrowth and readers of deterioration, rejoice! Elsewhere, the oddly-claustrophobic “We All Need Somewhere to Hide” similarly finds the changeability of forms to be a liberating and not entirely devastating possibility. Not incidentally, like “Two Brothers”, “Her First Harvest” is a “coming of age” narrative that demonstrates an awareness of gendered identities and of the forces at work in shaping them. This same awareness illuminates many of Devlin’s other stories.
There are peaks and valleys, naturally, and some stories yield an occasional rough edge. “Dogsbody”, for instance, is an interesting concept but largely without the conceptual richness apparent elsewhere. That said, its concerns about economic deskilling in an increasingly abstract world of financial speculation do feel quite timely. In this wolfish world, the modern economy’s gloomy “deskilling” effects are accompanied by an unexplained plague of strange transformations.
Presenting a somewhat contrary situation, “Her First Harvest” revels in a suggestive world-building imagination but does not travel very far, contenting itself with a dance of posthuman possibilities. This story cultivates a freshly imagined post-apocalyptic ecology through the stately arrangements of a pre-Darcy Elizabeth Bennett who has just been left in the dirt a little too long — not a sentence that I’d have anticipated writing before picking up this book. These are enjoyable stories, but they are not the best this collection has to offer.
In contrast to the narrative directness of many of the other stories, “Breadcrumbs” and “Passion Play” distinguish themselves through complex reflections on characters who themselves tell stories and whose activities license a sophisticated play of represented action and aesthetic richness. In “Passion Play”, the collection’s first story, the unnamed narrator retraces the steps of her friend Cathy as she thinks herself backward, into the past, even as her footsteps carry her forward. A religious element is added to this temporal juxtaposition as this progress becomes an unholy or uncanny version of the Stations of the Cross, with the difference here that reflections are organized around the disappearance of a young girl and the strange, Jamesian ghost story of the “cross-hatch man”, a figure marked by his specific elision from religious iconography. The mysteriousness of this tale is bolstered and not undercut by the simultaneous admission of a domestic situation that may or may not explain Cathy’s disappearance.
While the dense Catholic skin and mysterious climax of “Passion Play” indulge in weird fiction’s common reference points, the remarkable “Breadcrumbs” stands independently of any such comparison, although it gnaws away at fairytale commonalities with glee. A paean to the dream of ecological rebirth edged in fanged versions of fairy-tale transformations (think Disney, red in tooth and claw and hung, screaming from the ceiling), this unpredictable gem busies itself in the vivid fantasies and weirder fate of a fourteen-year-old girl, Ellie. “Breadcrumbs” draws copious from stereotypical images only to transcend them all in its final images of the courage rooted in patience and dreams that helps her to sever her past from her future. There is much here for a weird fiction reader; suitable, in fact, for a girl whose “mother once fed her worlds.”
With a name like You Will Grow Into Them, readers could confidently expect a focus on the organic processes of transformation. From the fungal dirt to the dreamy trees, these stories rehabilitate thoughts of posthuman growth, often with an eye dead-set on the mechanical inhumanity of redundancies and blind repetition.
Weird literature’s associations with terrifying knives in the dark or the inarticulate horror at the cosmic sublime are familiar — perhaps too much so. Deeper than these signs is weird literature’s characterization that “its interior is less repressed than unrecognized”, as China Miéville writes in his “Afterweird” to The Weird. Dodging typicality, Malcolm Devlin’s stories spin webs of hospitable darkness and thoughtful involution into the darkness of the unrecognized.
In You Will Grow Into Them, transformations are painful and strange, yet they also extend the hope of liberation. Fiction takes its readers up to the moment of vision and no further; it implies consequences and causal logics. Stories like “Dogsbody” and “The End of Hope Street” suggest that the bitter resistance to change may engineer fates that might be worse than death: to live uncharitably and ungenerously, selfishly cloistered in a shell of one’s own mundane devising. At their most extreme, Devlin’s stories glimpse the failing wills or the fractures of escape that mark the ends and beginnings of any given transformation.
In “Passion Play”, despite all her patient mimicry of a lurid type of weird fate, the unnamed protagonist remains trapped in the lurking horror of reality itself. The story ends with a common refrain on the inability of people to understand what lies directly in front of them, as the young girl sees “Faces that have witnessed everything and seen nothing at all.” At the other end of the collection, “The End of Hope Street” plays with mysteries of space and compression. In one of its many powerful images, “The End of Hope Street” leaves readers by picking out a character whose self-delusions leaves him isolated and without refuge. This almost-Nietzschean last man cleans out his house to paint everything a blinding white: “Layer after layer after layer, he painted, as though he might ward off the darkness by making the whole house shine.” Here, as elsewhere, strict moral associations between light and dark, good and bad, are traversed and interwoven. While hospitality’s invitation toward transformation is refused, isolation becomes the grim death of nihilistic purity.
On the whole, however, Devlin’s stories are characterized by their absence of fear in the face of strange changes. They oppose the grim stupidity of the horrific sublime with the quiet ironies of consciousness and the inexplicable flights of fate. It is a mark of distinction that, here as in much of the weird, visions of the world are made unstable and porous, even as they reveal how dangerous life has always been. Cracks emerge. Inevitably, bodies start to pile up. Almost worse, bodies begin to go missing. Who knows what will appear in their place? Generosity is not softness; darkness may be more comforting than any light. You Will Grow Into Them promises much, namely, a fate of incorporation into forming uncertainty. It delivers gleefully, warmly, and well — with a distressingly strange and inexorable smile.