shining the spotlight on short story collections
Eibonvale Press, 2012
“Helen stumbled backwards and I finally saw what she had become. Her legs had fused together and seemed to have lengthened, tapering to a point and then curling up behind her. A smooth belly gradated imperceptibly into a scaly skin. From her waist up she was still human and her head was one of sublime beauty, now with long, black, alluring hair, which before had been short and greying. Was she some sort of a shape-shifter in mid-transformation?”
Jeff Gardiner’s first collection, A Glimpse of the Numinous, is definitely one which can be judged by its strange and beautiful cover, as designed by David Rix. It shows a loft-style apartment, or rather, in estate agent lingo, ‘a space for urban living’ as characterized by exposed brickwork, large windows offering panoramic views. But this ain’t no normal flat. There’s no flat screen television, no posh urinal-style speakers affixed to the walls, no corner sofa in sight. Instead we’re presented with, variously, theatre-style spotlights whose luminosity has been whacked up to ‘screaming’ level, one large seagull in flight, two dismembered shop window dummies (naked) and in numerous parts, a miniature version of the moon, and a suitcase. The apartment’s view is not one to write home about: we look out over a dark, urban landscape in which more identikit buildings loom. And behind that, we can just about make out the roiling cloud cover, which has a purple tint to it and looks vaguely threatening.
This intriguing cover is an excellent introduction to Gardiner’s collection as a whole, suggesting the random nature of the stories and the very disparate characters and situations which lie within. A trawl through this book, leaving lingering fingerprints on various wildly diverse surfaces, is almost like wandering through an antiques shop on the hunt for dusty treasures. At first glimpse it appears the stories, the objects d’art within, are too different, too disconnected, to form a coherent whole. But such a conclusion would be to seriously devalue Gardiner’s excellence as a writer.
Another clue as to how we are to read this book lies in the title. That use of the arcane-sounding word “numinous”. Yes, I had to look it up. Gardiner, in his interviews, helpfully explains. Apparently, “numinous” is used to express “the deeper realities of reality itself”, suggesting “something metaphysical or supernatural”. The word “combines the words ‘numen’ (spirit or deity) and ‘ominous’ to find a way of expressing the experience of being in the presence of a divine power.” And hence the numinous is something unencumbered by “genre boundaries”, and “has a close alliance with that gothic term ‘the Uncanny’ which derives from Freud’s ‘unheimlich’ (that which is strange or unfamiliar)”.
Thus, A Glimpse of the Numinous is Gardiner’s unheimlich manoeuvre on our expectations. A rapid shock to our systems, a release from our reading constraints. A flapping gull to our faces. A screamingly bright light shone into our eyes. A body deconstructed. Gardiner’s stories are “clues” to a deeper life, a stranger truth, a scarier reality. They are stories about dysfunctional sexual and familial relationships, about masturbation and transformation, about death, about religion, about the ominous.
It’s about shifting us out of our comfort zones as readers. Gardiner has a skill for eye-opening first lines which immediately draw us, kicking and screaming, into the worlds he creates. In Writers’ Block for example, we get this: “To have married one exploding wife was unfortunate, but to have married two was just getting silly.”
And once you’re in, you’re instantly won over all over again by his boisterous, yet ultra-realistic dialogue, which especially shines through in Past Away: “Piss off you old tart” and “Flo – put your libido away.” And then, after the unbeatable combinations, Gardiner provides us with his knock-out blow, his simple, great writing, which acts like an uppercut to the brain.Take this example from Dionysus:
Dionysus’ voice hits the final note with a perfectly pitched screech and holds the note longer than anyone else in the arena. The wild applause drowns out the beginning of the guitar solo in which Dionysus’ fingers glide and flick with supernatural dexterity sending the crowd into paroxysms of delight. His guitar is a magic amulet of paranormal power perfecting subtle changes and intricacies, twisting and turning through impossible sequences, with the sound of a demented banshee.
By far the strongest story in the collection is the brilliant 351073. Opening with the Dickensesque: “The day my daughter was born was both the worst and best day of my life”, this is the story of Eloise, a girl born with a number for a name, and her father, a man whose faith is shaken to the core by his wife’s death in giving birth to his daughter.
Eloise’s name is stumbled upon by happy accident: “a list of numbers printed out in computerised digits and the last six numbers were 351073, which upside down looked exactly like ELOISE.” But as she grows up, she increasingly begins to think of those numbers as fate. When she is still young, she decorates her bedroom with “a carefully lettered quotation from her favourite Greek that said, ‘All things can be expressed in numerical terms because all things are ultimately reducible to numbers.'”
As her father struggles to maintain a connection with her, Eloise becomes increasingly enamoured with numbers: “Her interest in occult writing didn’t stop there, though. Eloise found a fascination in Kabbalism, alchemy, druidery and any mystical system that delighted in number, calendars, cycles or secret alphabets.” Parent and child are speaking different languages. Their thoughts are coded, disguised. Eloise’s father, in his desperation to discover a deeper connection, slowly begins to descend into madness:
From that moment I was tortured by numbers cascading in my dreams, devouring all my thoughts. I saw a significance in all figures and digits. My heart leapt when I got a new Visa card and there in the middle of the long number on the front were six letters in exactly the right order: 351073. My first thought was that she was somehow contacting me, but then I wondered if it was, as she said, a mark of destiny.
351073 is not the only story in which a mother dies during childbirth. In Withdrawal, Rob’s mother also died, and this sad incident proves to inform the rest of his life and the way he handles his relationships.
A more positive example of a parent/ child relationship comes in the comedy Gull Power, in which the protagonist, Ray, an oologist (which roughly translates here as a stealer of rare bird eggs) finds one of his eggs hatched, and suddenly he becomes father to a fledgling seagull. Theirs is, of course, a very unconventional relationship, but one which is marked by tenderness and love:
At first the little gull refused to consume the blobs of mush as it had trouble digesting, so Ray popped the mulch into his mouth and chewed it vigorously. However, this still proved inedible. So Ray swallowed the food then stuck a finger down his throat and spat the regurgitation into a little dish.
The seagull, which he names Gavin, soon becomes a useful member of Ray’s household: “The ornithological books seemed correct when they stated that gulls are omnivorous and this talent gave Gavin an extremely useful function about the house as a domestic waste disposal unit.” And then becomes a celebrity:
Then he became the mascot for the local football team. When they won the FA Cup, the image of him sitting on the trophy wearing a tiny scarf was seen by millions on television, whereupon Gavin then decided to fly off with the lid and really show off to the camera. It was finally recovered from the Thames by a team of police frogmen.
This is a wonderfully nuanced, positive story, and one which neatly contrasts with another parents/ children story in Bred in the Bone. In this story, the protagonist lives in abject squalor, left to his own devices and seemingly unloved in a house with “dirt and stains on the walls” which he shares with the “dead rats in the corner of the hall and the cockroaches that freely scuttled about on the damaged floorboards…”
And yet, the protagonist is unaware that life can be any different from this ominous existence. He’s been indoctrinated into the depravity, and, indeed, is proud of it and loves his parents in his own, special, Stockholm-syndrome-a-like way, because you “don’t mess with my Dad. In any fight situation my Dad’s the champ – you’ve got to hand it to him.”
A Glimpse of the Numinous is far from an easy read, but it is a rewarding one, and, more importantly, an eye-opening one. Reading is a form of escapism, and in Gardiner’s fiction, we escape to places we’d never imagine journeying to.
Read a story from this collection in Twisted Tongue magazine
About the reviewer: A J Kirby is the author of four published novels (Paint this town Red, Perfect World, Bully and The Magpie Trap) and a host of short stories. His crime fiction collection, The Art of Ventriloquism, is due for publication in Summer 2012 and his next novel Sharkways is slated for publication in September 2012.