Book review: Mayhem & Death, by Helen McClory

If there's a problem with Helen McClory's new book, Mayhem & Death, it's this: that the concluding 60-odd page novella, 'Powdered Milk', is so utterly absorbing and searingly memorable that it casts the various short (and very short) stories that precede it into the shade. That's a shame, because there are some real gems in the book's opening section, notably 'Lore', a deliciously sinister flash fiction about a haunted hunting party, 'This Place Is Mine', which reads like the intriguing first few paragraphs of a post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel, and 'A Silent Documentary Through A Terrible Place', in which the author draws on her considerable powers of description to produce something that's not so much a story as a single, slowly panning camera shot. Evidently McClory isn't afraid of the dark, but there are lighter moments too: 'Jeff Goldblum', for example, in which the actor is variously imagined 'walking shoeless into a house made of cats', 'singing a lullaby to a room full of newborn babies' and 'in a Santa beard, throwing bricks at a woollen mill shop', is gloriously silly.

Helen McClory

Compared with “Powdered Milk”, however, these stories seem somewhat insubstantial, like amuse-bouches before a meal. In fact, the concluding novella harks back to the opening short story, “Souterrain”, so the two should really be considered together. In “Souterrain”, a mother, Frances, is dealing with the grief of losing her daughter, Madeleine; in “Powdered Milk”, meanwhile, we discover what happened to Maddy and her colleagues – the crew of a deep-sea research station who suddenly and inexplicably find themselves cut off from the world above the waves.

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The purpose of their expedition, which is intended as “a dry run for the space colonies”, is to study “the way of human life contained, far from contact with the external population”. In her role as base psychologist, Maddie holds sessions with crew members in which they talk about how they are coping, and she is proud of her role as “the one on the ground taking first-hand readings as the whole project played itself through before her”. It’s McClory, though, rather than Maddie, who is the real psychologist here, showing us in all too convincing detail how a group of otherwise reasonable people might start to go to pieces in a scenario in which all hope appears to be lost, and in which the only way to stay sane is to stick doggedly to mind-numbing routines, even as those around you are starting to despair.

Structurally, then, Mayhem & Death is a little lopsided, but given the misfortune that has dogged McClory’s career recently – her last book, Flesh Of The Peach, disappeared last year, along with the ill-starred Freight imprint – it’s impressive that she’s been able to put out something else so swiftly. Apparently another novel is in the pipeline, as well as a book of poetry. Both should be eagerly anticipated.

Mayhem & Death, by Helen McClory, 404Ink, £8.99