shining the spotlight on short story collections
Still: Short Stories Inspired by Photographs of Vacated Spaces
Edited by Roelof Bakker
Negative Press London, 2012
‘Jesus loves me,’ said the man. He had passed the sign many times on his way to work, and perhaps that was why, as he was driving at seventy-five miles per hour down Kilburn High Road with a blood-soaked T-shirt clinging to his oversized belly, he instinctively hit the brakes and lurched into the potholed church carpark. (From Sanctuary by Andrew Blackman)
Even though I have seldom seen it done well, I’ve always admired fiction writers who have the courage to integrate some form of imagery into a book. It’s a brave thing to do because it’s broadly regarded with suspicion. Like many readers, I tend to believe that a book’s prose ought to be powerful enough to paint pictures for itself.
However, no such criticism can be levelled at Still. Here the idea has been turned on its head, with the pictures coming first and the words serving to illustrate them. In his introduction, Roelof Bakker explains how the project began as ‘a photographic and video exploration of vacated interior spaces at Hornsey Town Hall…’ and fledged into ‘a creative collaboration in the shape of a literary art book’. Inviting writers to compose stories as a specific response is risky business for an editor, but Bakker has been spectacularly lucky with his twenty-six contributors. The standard of writing is consistently high and the breadth of approaches is vast. It helps that every one of Bakker’s photographs is captivating and beautiful, even though few of them depict beautiful things. There’s a piano’s grubby keyboard, a door with a patch of its paint scratched clean by the handle, an old-fashioned telephone left off the hook. There are empty book shelves, pleated stage drapes, labelled light-switches and iron banisters. Not one photograph shows a person, yet the text brims with people. Each story is an acknowledgement that even the slightest detail is the trace of a life. As a whole, the collection explores how every keyhole and windowsill and lampshade give rise to a plethora of associations and memories.
Unsurprisingly, there are generous helpings of nostalgia. In the very first story, Mark Piggott’s Midnight Hollow, the town hall’s former caretaker sneaks into the building by night. Impelled by melancholy, he takes his old buffer out for a final ride, polishing his ghosts away as he goes. In S.J Butler’s A Job Worth Doing, the mayor’s cleaning lady shines his majestic table on the morning after the town hall’s doors are closed forever. With the exception of these two, the majority of Still’s stories steer geographically and imaginatively clear of the obvious context. Opportunity by Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende is set during a power-cut in Zimbabwe, and Nina Killham’s My Wife the Hyena is precisely as surreal as the title suggests. Nicholas Royle’s The Blind Man and James Higgerson’s Noise both concern buses, while James Miller’s From the Archive is set in the distant future and narrated by an archaeologist from the ‘Ancient Cultures Research Centre’ who analyses Bakker’s photograph of the council chamber, conjecturing as to what it signifies about the power structures and belief systems of the era in which we now live, so called the ‘First Digital Age’. It’s a clever idea and a meticulously thought-through piece examining how humdrum objects and spaces might logically be interpreted if assessed from a far flung perspective. Of the clock mounted to the wall in the centre of the photograph, the archaeologist says: ‘Most experts agree that this device was a sort of primitive chronometer – a popular means of ordering the day-to-day during this period.’
From a clock trickling liquid rust down the length of the wall to a clock partially obscured by a ball of electric cables, ‘primitive chronometers’ feature heavily in the photographs of Still and a number of stories concern the measurement of time. In Jan Woolf’s Ten a Day, an unlikely scholar contemplates the nature of French Revolutionary time whilst cruising the local pubs in pursuit of beer dregs. Deborah Klaassen’s How to Make a Zombie begins as a philosophical discussion on ‘the metaphysical trap of seeing time as an objective linear dimension’ before crashing to a violent crescendo.
A handful of stories lament the loss of childhood innocence, thereby taking a more oblique slant on the insidious passing of hours. The narrator of In the Dressing Room Mirror by Claire Massey recalls a grievous ballet recital which caused her to be forever a little frightened of her own reflection. S.L. Grey’s Still is a fairground tale with a black twist, and Evie Wyld’s Corridor is an elegant account of a mother‘s advice for combating bad dreams: ‘Think of it,’ she’d say, ‘the brain is in two halves, and when you want to get rid of bad thoughts, all you have to do is step out of one side of your brain and into the corridor that runs down the middle.’
It isn’t corridors but doorways, both literal and metaphorical, which take the spotlight in Justin Hill’s Waiting: ‘There are doorways we want to open and those we miss, and never see the other side. There are some doors we opened that should have remained closed. And there are doorways that once we pass through disappear entirely.’ Like many of the stories, it has an autobiographical feel, drawing from an object to tell the story of a life. In Lift Under Inspection Do Not Touch, Richard Beard’s narrator leaves home at seventeen to discover the world of lifts, and the narrator of The Staircase Treatment by Myriam Frey is prompted by a staircase to address a moving story of motherhood to her estranged son.
Imbued with a strong sense of absence and wistfulness, those stories which remained tethered to a detail seemed to me to capture the spirit of Bakker’s project most successfully. Truth be told, I’ve never heard of a ‘literary art book’ before. This collection is the first print publication by Negative Press London and it sets a high standard for a sort-of new genre. Perhaps for the first time in my life, I just didn’t have the heart to scribble notes or fold the page’s corners down; Still is simply too attractive and unique a book.
The photographs included in Still as well as tiny extracts and interviews with most of the contributing writers can be found here on the Negative Press blog.
About the reviewer: Sara Baume reads and writes about art and books in a small house on the coast. Her reviews, interviews, articles and stories have been published online and in print, from HTMLGIANT to The Stinging Fly.