* SPOILER ALERT *
When it comes to horror, I am not a very big of fan of external malevolent forces – ghosts or demons – deceiving or possessing human characters but love it when the internal tumult of a soul/mind projects itself out and distorts the world. It was for this reason that I was drawn to The Many, the literary debut of British writer Wyl Menmuir (born 1979, wylmenmuir.co.uk, @Wylmenmuir). Menmuir, who lives in Cornwall (county on the southwestern tip of England) with his wife and two children, has worked as a literary consultant and freelance editor, and before that, as a journalist and teacher. A recent graduate of the Creative Writing MA at Manchester Metropolitan University, he was having coffee with his 90-year-old grandmother when the big news reached him – his slim first novel, which he had largely written in a Volkswagen campervan by the water’s edge and finished with the help of the wise counsel provided by members at Write-Track, an online global authors’ community – had been longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize.
Published by small press Salt Publishing (www.saltpublishing.com, @saltpublishing) and executed in economical and unassuming prose, The Many is the strangest work of fiction I have read in a long while. It is described as “an unsettling tale that explores the impact of loss and the devastation that hits when the foundations on which we rely are swept away”. At first glance, the setting and situation are easy to follow. A man called Timothy Buchanan buys an abandoned clifftop house in an isolated coastal village. He questions the wisdom of his move but begins renovating the house as he waits for his wife Lauren to join him. When the villagers see smoke rising from the chimney of the neglected house, they are disturbed and intrigued. Ethan, a fisherman, is particularly perturbed by Timothy’s arrival. Much has to do with Ethan’s grief over the death of Perran (which took place some ten years earlier), the previous resident of Timothy’s house. The incomer becomes fodder for rumour and stories spread:
Timothy has come to resurrect Perran. He has come to destroy Perran’s house, to erase his memory. He’s come because that’s what upcountry folk do, to replace the drudgery of the city with that of the coast. He has come to save them from themselves, or hold up a mirror to them and they will see themselves reflected back in all their faults and backwardness. He has come to change them, to impose himself on them, to lead them or to fade into their shadows.
Timothy makes enquiries but receives only animosity from the villagers as a response. He is able to communicate with Ethan but a code of silence always remains around the question of Perran. Soon, things turn sinister. The village, we realise, is far from idyllic. Life in the community has decayed on account of dwindling fish stocks. The sea is heavily contaminated, yielding catches of mutated or half-dead creatures. The waters are controlled by giant container ships spread out across the horizon, that are “tied to their positions by miles of red tape issued and reissued” by some unknown, disembodied authority. Psychological horror is tinctured with sci-fi and dystopia. The eerie and creepy atmosphere of the The Many is somewhat reminiscent of the stories of English author Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989) and even the movies Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976) made by the French-Polish filmmaker Roman Polanski.
In the feverish and nightmarish world of Ethan and Timothy, fantasy and reality are fused together. States of sleep and wakefulness cannot be distinguished. Walls rotate. All manner of voices can be heard in the room. A solid presence can suddenly materialise at the foot of the bed. You never know if the glass kept on the bedside has just been placed there or whether it has been there the whole time. There is an exodus of innumerable faceless and featureless men from sea and ground. Hairline fractures, cracks that are signs of fissures too deep to contemplate – appear on everything – sand, concrete, windows, doors, bodies. And in the middle of this all, the query “Who was Perran?” looms large and oppressive, the stuff of legend and superstition.
The point at which I almost jumped in my chair came just before the end. In a flashback (or is it?), Lauren delivers a baby and Timothy cuts the cord. A birth certificate and a death certificate. The next morning, the parents “wait for what seems an age and when the nurses bring Perran in Timothy takes him from the plastic crib and touches his son’s forehead. It is ice cold…”
There are no clear answers provided. And the questions are barely spelled out. That-which-is and that-which-is-not perpetually shift before the eyes. This book will not be everybody’s cup of tea. But those who end up liking it will be able to unpack layer after layer of meaning. A parable on ecological destruction, a commentary on monotony and parochialness, an obscure examination of sorrow, an investigation into the mysterious workings of the psyche – The Many is weird and disorienting, yes, but original and wonderful too.
Lines I liked:
- At some point between the waking and sleeping as the afternoon wears itself out, she pulls him over onto his side so their foreheads and the tips of their noses touch and stares into his eyes and they stay like this for what may be minutes, but may also be hours.
- …he slumps against the door-frame and allows himself to slide down to the floor. With his head held in his hands and his knees up around his ears he begins to sob, uncontrollably for some time and then because he allows it to continue.
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