‘What is a monster?’ asks Helen McClory. Her forthcoming collection, On The Edges Of Vision, may help you answer that question for yourself.
On the Edges of Vision began life as Monstirs, a tidal wave of a collection started in the beginning of April and finished, for the most part, by the beginning of June. Two stories were older: “Boy Cyclops” and “Pretty Dead Girl Takes a Break.” These I wrote years apart, when I was still at work on a short novel. It took me a while to realise that I’d found in them a theme I could explore further. I’ve always been drawn to narratives of the supernatural, the intersection of humanity and monstrousness. ‘All monsters are human’ says Sister Jude in American Horror Story: Asylum, repeating a truism that’s nevertheless a repellent little koan of a thought we generally jam to the back of our minds like a wad of gum.
I had just finished watching a TV show, Hannibal, all gloriously gruesome, psychologically rich and full of vignettes in the form of moments of instability, and of course the fantastical death tableaux. Hannibal poses the question, what is a monster? and answers it with transformations, film history, churned-up Catholicism. I realised with “Boy Cyclops”(published in Smokelong Quarterly), a story about a friendship with a fantastical creature who may be nothing more than an ordinary man, that I was asking the same thing. What is a monster? In what ways are others read as monstrous? Given that we cannot know who a stranger is, or even who we are, all we have is external or legend. How we tell ourselves into what we see. Or the ways we don’t, which is where “Pretty Dead Girl Takes a Break” steps in. The corpse of a beautiful woman proliferates to the point where we expect one in every crime drama. A horribly normalised visual trope, a monstrous assumption forged by misogyny.
All monsters represent some fear, some disgust, bafflement: we are worried by our bodies, by the possibilities of other bodies. We worry about the fluidity of our identities and our flesh. We’re all sliding around trying to find our balance, and at the same time watching what the other dancers on the floor are doing. That’s why I chose the title Monstirs, at first. My way of pronouncing the word monsters, to put the word as-I-say-it in your head. To leap across that membrane. But On the Edges of Vision, suggested by the publisher and a portion of a line from ‘Boy Cyclops’ and performs the same trick—sidling up to you, turning your head, asking you to look at the periphery, where two eyes become cycloptic, where they split apart. It’s asking you to see both the fuzzy and shadowed, and the sharp and sunlight—to see that the quotidian and the monstrous are at once in the same place.
Once I had the desire to write a collection set in this uncanny Venn, the momentum pushed me ahead. In about a month and a half, I wrote about forty-three pieces, one after the other, each hovering around the thousand word or under mark, with a few stragglers going long. I took out four or five fairly quickly, and the rest I ran by my husband, D, who suggested I throw another two. Unlike most of my other projects, I wasn’t thrown into agonies of choice. Cutting down seemed like the natural thing to be doing, given each word in each story has to be carefully weighed and each at any moment is susceptible to ditching. The arrangement of the whole was based on trying to compliment the themes and styles. If a story was in third person, I wanted it to be next to one in first, or second. If it was about a dead person in some way brought back into animation, I wanted it to be near a story that was full of life. The pared-down collection I sent out to a small number of likely looking places, and it was this version that Queen’s Ferry Press kindly took up. When submitting the full manuscript to them I added an extra two flash, written a few weeks before, and inspired by a trip in June to the holy isle of Iona and the strange black cave-dominated island of Staffa. Thin places both.
I approached QFP initially because I knew they’d published Aaron Burch, the editor of one of my favourite literary journals, Hobart, and another of my favourite presses, Short Flight, Long Drive. His Backswing looked great, though I wondered if my style, miles away from Hobart’s house style of impossible American coolness, would appeal to QFP. Then I saw that QFP was inspired by a bit of the world that was less than a handful of miles from where I was living. The Firth of Forth—the estuary of the River Forth—has been a place of crossings and re-crossings for over a thousand years. I myself had crossed the firth countless times travelling between university in Fife and the city of Edinburgh, over the iron-red bridge that links the twin settlements of North Queensferry and South.
The fact that QFP took its name from this iconic point of connection eased my fears of the work being misunderstood. Place is important to my writing, and though I’ve lived in and write stories set in America and in Australia, I’m a writer with a Scottish accent. There are Scotland-based stories throughout this collection and a smattering of Scottish words and turns of phrase. The collection was rejected by only one other publisher, also America-based, who shall go unnamed. In their critique they cited poor spelling and general ‘sloppiness’ of the manuscript. When I went back to check, there were perhaps three misspelled words, so I can only conclude either they were very rigorous, or that pinch of Scots dialect had really thrown them. But language is a bridge, and I think readers enjoy walking out to catch the view. So far, QFP has proved to be everything I could hope for from a publisher—understanding, open, and direct. Living up to their name.
Why write flash fiction, low-count short story, veering into prose poetry? Well, because I love reading flash, love the sharpness, the unsettling power of the fragment. The excellence of Anne Carson, Casey Hannan, Kathy Fish, Tania Hershman—and there are more writers I’m finding. A boon of them, writing in a form that’s perfectly suited to the constraints and eye strain of the internet. That attempts to charge the language up and then folds it small, handing it to the reader where it will discharge like an opened missive of tiny lightening.
To date, stories from the collection have appeared in nine literary journals, with one of the very shortest pieces, “Lope,” shortlisted for the Bristol Flash Fiction Prize this year. I took part in FlashFlood, the UK’s National Flash Fiction Day deluge of flash with an appropriately waterlogged story, “The Drowned Sailors,” about longing and its twin, loss. I hope that for the reader of On the Edges of Vision, the flash form calls to mind island territories, the pockets of night that lurk in old houses and the bottom of the sea, the changing look in the eye of a stranger, the charged stage sets of the motel, the diner, the car, the family home. I hope that they read this collection, then take to the book shops looking for more, and that we meet there among the stacks, there to exchange To-Be-Read Lists as long as our shadows dancing behind us.
by Helen McClory