Review: On the Edges of Vision by Helen McClory

Gothic Gravitational Pull

In 2015, Helen McClory’s On The Edges of Vision beat many excellent homegrown books published last year to win the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year. It’s a feat not only remarkable in that the book’s small independent publisher Queen’s Ferry Press hails from Texas, USA, but also that it’s a collection of short stories, too often disqualified from entry to debut writing awards. The title of McClory’s first publication, then, is curiously fitting for an outsider. The Saltire Society’s recognition of this book has validated a new writing talent that may otherwise have gone unnoticed and uncelebrated by larger, London-based book awards (and the accompanying national press fanfare) whose limiting criteria may exclude literary joys from small independent publishers willing to take a gamble on their convictions with short stories, or works more varied in their origin.

McClory’s author bio states “There is a moor and a cold sea in her heart,” a whimsy that succinctly encapsulates the collection’s poignant, gravitational pull towards the gothic. The stories within the pleasingly, deceptively sunny yellow cover emerge as if from Pandora’s Box: tipping open the ordinarily lurking, surreal gristliness of life into where things grow weird around the boundaries.

Free from the debut trope of self-reference and loosely-disguised autobiography, McClory engages in a kind of inquisitive modern mythmaking. Within settings as diverse as forests, airports and ideal homes, a pleasing jumble of styles and references emerge: fantasy, horror, classicism, fairytales, and other dark flavours. Such macabre turns bring to mind the terror of Ann Radcliffe or poetic justice of Roald Dahl. One flesh-eating picnic scene, in particular, evokes Dahl’s ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’, but moreishly fresh in its own sense.

Occasionally, McClory attacks idealised versions of domesticity and commercialism, painting uncanny blooms that she studs with thorns of knowing social commentary. A thirteen year old girl listens to a mixtape named “Misandry and Pink Glitter” and doesn’t know what it means but thinks it sounds “cool”. The delightfully named “Tablescapes!” sees the taping of a festive cooking TV show descend into surreal hysteria worthy of the title’s exclamation mark. ‘Pecan Pie’, a seductive highlight, is set in an all-night diner as two strangers meet and interact, testing limits: “Whatever he’ll do next she’ll do right back.” It’s a heady study of light and shade, voluptuous sexual tension, ambiguous danger and gender tropes that, deliciously, has a lot in common with film noir.

Whilst the stories do, towards the end, fall into a pattern that anticipates supernatural elements will appear from where there are none at first sight, this is a slight weakness and not enough to diminish the strength of the individual stories. These tales are on the short side of the short story and fit their form well; making it an accomplished and vivid collection of compact storytelling, and a debut worthy of its award. I started reading late one night and continued long into the strange AM, glad of the accidental perfect timing. Life is weird, if you know where to look. McClory knows where to look—and how to write about it.

 – Laura Waddell 

(Originally published in Gutter issue 15)

Queens Ferry Press, £9.99, 174pp

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