These are thrillingly blackhearted tales, fantasies of women who rewire their world through visceral transformation. The events take place in cities and flats like the ones you know, except that behind these doors men are being turned to stone, or torn apart by women’s hands – or assembled from bones that the women exhume by night. Desire is the motive force in Armfield’s stories, and its effects take bodily form: it’s a slow, febrile thing that leads girls to metamorphose into killers, monsters and savage birds.
Physical transformation and strange textures also imbue Armfield’s prose, in contrast with Harpman’s spare observations. Waves draw back like “lips revealing teeth”, “mushrooms as bodies” crowd doorways; women are “sore-boned, grimly hyaline”, eyes “melt” down faces and animalistic protagonists spill their insides out on “febrile” moonless nights. Armfield’s techniques are on the whole effective (at times chilling, often carnivalesque, regularly funny), and bring to mind those used by Angela Carter in The Bloody Chamber or Samantha Hunt’s dripping prose in The Dark Dark.
What makes this collection so exciting? It’s the way the salty, unsentimental underpinning of mythology combines itself with clinical contemporary observation: “Someone had once told Miriam she looked like Princess Anne and this throwaway comment had come, over time, to form the basis of her whole personality.” It’s the way that although Armfield is full of tenderness for her characters, she never apologises on their behalf; she’s fantastical, but never less than realistic. It’s the satisfying lean towards the macabre and the metamorphic, balanced by wickedly clever prose and a sense of humour that seems to loom up like a character in itself, having been lying in wait in a corner all along. It’s the way that every paragraph balances itself perfectly between the visceral and the cool.
This is an artfully confected collection. There are themes that run through each story – a prioritisation of the female voice, the home which is no longer a home, right down to specific images such as tangerines, skin diseases, absent fathers and an odd fearfulness about tooth loss. It is like a string quartet with an idea put forward, twisted around, brought back and set as variations of itself. It reminded me of Felipe Alfau’s Locos in terms of how disparate stories can be knitted and strangled together. That may sound rather portentous, but it is a hugely enjoyable, if unsettling, book. It looks askance at the contemporary through the myths of poltergeists and werewolves. Armfield almost makes a quasi-confession of her method when in one story old-fashioned horror movies are a significant aspect. There is a poise here among the gothic horrors. But there are certainly horrors... The prose is just a delight, wrong-footing the reader at every turn. The adjectives clash against the verbs, the names are sometimes wryly funny until the unexpected happens... There is a melancholy sense in reading such a wonderful collection of short stories and finding them so subtle, intelligent and imaginative. When I put the book down I wondered: will her first novel be as good?