Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Patrick McGrath: Blood and Water

Here, at last, is a mention of some short stories that I have been reading. You will, perhaps, recall that on 16 March I provided an official history of the short story, closely followed (on 17 March) by the true history of same. And I said then that those pieces were provided as a preliminary to further discussion of the short-story art. So here's the first bit of further discussion.

Patrick McGrath is an English writer. He was born in London but grew up near Broadmoor Hospital, which is effectively a prison for the criminally insane. The patients who are sent there are the kind of people who kill their friends for fun and eat them for dinner. With such a childhood it is perhaps unsurprising that McGrath writes rather peculiar short stories.

McGrath's collection entitled Blood and Water contains some fine pieces. But be warned -- again -- that they are a bit on the dark side, at best. They are described by some reviewers as Gothic; which, I guess, means not out-and-out horror stories, but stories which are odd, peculiar, and vaguely disturbing without being disgusting (most of the time, anyway).

We begin with a story called The Angel, which is set on the Bowery, and which involves, as you would expect, an angel as one of the characters. A number of other stories also have a US background, which as far as I can tell is faultless.

A little further on in the collection, we have a story called The Black Hand of the Raj. This is set in India about a hundred years ago, and -- I kid you not -- it concerns a number of blameless, clean-living English chaps who end up with a hand growing out of the top of their head. Shocking bad luck, really, but then what can you expect if you live in foreign parts?

Towards the end of McGrath's book, The Boot's Tale is unusual in that it is told from the point of view of an old boot -- yes, the kind you wear on your foot. And it is as black a tale as you are ever likely to come across. The events occur post a nuclear holocaust, and I advise you not to read it either shortly before or shortly after a meal. Note: when I say this story is black, I mean it is middle of a moonless night, sixty feet underground in a cave in the middle of a thick primeval forest kind of dark.

And the last story, the title tale, features a knight of the realm, no less, who ends up being committed to Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum , as it was known in those days.

In addition to his short stories, McGrath has also written a number of novels. I have only read one of these -- Asylum. As its title suggests, this is set in what used to be called a lunatic asylum (and guess which institution it is based on).

Asylum is not only competent but is unusually well written (if we ignore the author's occasional practice of dividing two sentences with a comma). Why then do I hesitate to recommend it?

Well, for one thing the author tells us on the first page that he has a sad story to tell, and it's true; and I'm not all that keen on sad stories. For my money the book is a bit slow-moving and, up to a point, predictable. But it is certainly full of insights into the kind of madness which expresses itself as sexual obsession and passionate love.

By the look of things, Asylum is being made into a film, with a script by McGrath himself. He is married, by the way, to the actress Maria Aitken.

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