ARTICLE – REVIEW (August 2018)

Step Inside this Emporium of Literary Strange

Figurehead by Carly Holmes

Reviewed by MATTHEW G. REES

A CAPTIVATING story and fine writing are the two qualities that above all cause a work of literature – fiction or non-fiction – to succeed.

In short fiction – stories and novellas – the pressure on the writer to deliver is intense. Much more so than in the novel where the writer can wander and grow flabby and the reader can leap a passage in order to hook-up with something more congenial a few pages further in (potentially at no great loss).

The writer of the short story lacks the novelist’s cushion. Many contemporary stories simply aren’t long enough to have their content jumped. Which means that if they don’t possess what John Mullan has called ‘voltage’ they will (more likely than not in this age of short attention spans) find themselves dumped.

Figurehead, the new collection from Carly Holmes, a practitioner of fiction she describes as ‘literary strange’, has tales that are not only very well (indeed, at times, brilliantly) written, but which are in themselves compelling.

Holmes has a growing reputation. Recently this reviewer happened across her as the subject of an essay in a journal of the peer review kind by a scholar at a university far removed from the author’s home on the western edge of Wales.

She’s a relative newcomer to the literary ‘scene’, breaking through with her novel The Scrapbook in 2014 (shortlisted for the International Rubery Book Award) and contributing stories such as ‘Heartwood’ and ‘Strumpet’ to journals (some of which are included in this volume). Her story ‘The Demon L’ (with which this collection opens) can be found here at Horla (though it shouldn’t be seen as definitively representative of her work – her writing roams, as I shall attempt to explain).

For those unfamiliar with Holmes, and particularly that term literary strange, I offer some guidance.

An early story in the collection, ‘Miss Luna’, put this reviewer in mind of Angela Carter. A runaway girl joins a circus and falls under the spell of a bearded lady. The story has fabulous moments and images: the lifting of said lady on an elephant’s trunk, being one. This engaging tale also contrives to be faintly erotic.  In a glorious dénoument the bearded one unbeards herself to her young admirer.

The short and highly compelling tale ‘Maria’s Silence’, in which the ghost of a young girl appears on the back of a stone horse in a town square (to be surrounded by the local populace and striking her father dumb) had this reader thinking afterwards of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Meanwhile the rather longer ‘Sleep’, in which a mother turns against her ‘difficult’ young son, has the feeling of early Ian McEwan.

Holmes’s novelette ‘Three For A Girl’ – after an abortion a woman visits her sister at a rambling country house once an orphanage – brought to this reader’s mind Rudyard Kipling (‘They’) and Daphne du Maurier (Don’t Look Now’).

Catherine Fisher (as in her recent story ‘The Tunnel’) is perhaps another ‘match’, also Stephen King, as in Holmes’s ‘Ghost Story’, in which a geeky student interviews a lively old lady about a haunted cottage in a wood – Holmes tends to the sylvan and rustic. The researcher sets off for the dwelling with the old woman’s sassy grand-daughter (not with the results he hoped for).  My breezy micro-summary does the story something of an injustice because the inner tale, recounted by the grandmother, is quite a chiller – elements of it playing out in the subsequent expedition.

In ‘Three For a Girl’ Holmes is at her most skilful, ratcheting-up the tension in a genuinely scary story that’s several cuts above the kind of haunted house fare offered by lesser writers.

Here can be found fine writing of the kind that’s a feature of the stories in this volume. The narrator – much of Holmes’s writing is first person – comments, elegantly: ‘… when I woke the savage grief that had walked beside me for the last couple of weeks had eased back. Not far behind but no longer linking arms.’

A passage from the same story demonstrates Holmes’s awareness of the need to engage all of the senses of the reader beyond that which can be seen – a skill which is at the heart of good writing.

‘Once I closed my eyes and stopped hoping the child came to stand beside my pillow. She was still whimpering but the sound was less depthless in its misery, as if there might be an end to the sorrow. I lifted her to lie against me and held her close under the blankets until the shudders left her body and she slackened into dream-twitches. Her hair was coarse as teddy bear stuffing against my cheek and smelt of long-rotted leaves. I pressed a smile to her temple and finally slept.’

There are vivid, at times brilliant, passages throughout this book, fine lines and phrases, so it seems, in every story. Rivers toil, the roofs and chimneys of a village slide down a hillside, a dead sheep’s tongue is a ‘purple spill’. In the prize-winning story ‘Wich’ we are told of a village where ‘the sun set like a guillotine and the shadows sprang sudden, dark and thick as spilled blood.’

And there is ingenuity aplenty. In ‘Dropped Stitches’, for example, a daughter born with an excess of fingers has them removed by her mother (born with too few) who transplants them to her own hands.

‘Figurehead’, the title story, is a marvellous piece of creative writing, its narrative from the perspective of a figurehead on a beamed sailing ship: a self-described ‘good time girl’ who we learn was sick for five years after she put to sea but came to love the waves.

Her vessel starts to spring leaks and, on her last voyage, she fears for her future, summoning suitors to her timbers for what seems like one final fling. The tale’s Beckett-like construction is a triumph. One can imagine the playwright’s great muse Billie Whitelaw bawling Holmes’s splendidly salty lines: ‘Oooooooh! Damsel in distress! First one back to me gets a close up of my… Let’s be having you! Full speed ahead!’ 

Glorious, confident writing.

This is an impressive body of twenty-six pieces which are by turns surprising, intriguing, poignant and humorous, and always intelligent.

It has been issued in a limited edition of 300, priced at £35 each, in an attractively crafted 246-page hardback. (Features include a silk ribbon marker.)

Not a cheap buy, but a book that admirers of Holmes’s writing are sure to be interested in as well as those with an inclination towards her range of fiction as outlined here (together with bibliophiles generally, given the high production values).

It’s published by Tartarus, a small, independent British press with a name for producing literary dark fiction by past and present-day authors. Their site can be found here: Tartarus Press

Matthew G. Rees is the editor of Horla. He has been undertaking a doctorate at the University of Swansea, Wales, on the influence of imagery in the writing of short fiction. His supernatural story ‘The Word’ has recently been published by Three Impostors press

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