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Black Static

New Horror Fiction BLACK STATIC ISSUE 71 OUT NOW!

Kaaron Warren: Slights Revisited

20th Aug, 2011

Author: Peter Tennant

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Kaaron Warren was our featured writer in the Case Notes section of Black Static #24, with reviews of the novel Mistification (Angry Robot Books) and short story collection Dead Sea Fruit (Ticonderoga Publications), and Kaaron will be along here shortly to do the usual 'Getting To Know You' piece, just as soon as I've thought up some suitably inane questions.

In the meantime, to whet your appetite and keep up my blogging commitment, I've reprised my review of Kaaron's earlier novel Slights, which appeared back in #15 at the start of 2010 as part of a feature on Australian horror.

There's also, at the foot of the page, links to a few of the items discussed in the interview Kaaron did for #24 - a) a video of Tommy Cooper's death on stage b) a Wikipedia list of entertainers etc who died while performing c) a video to show the musical genius of Nick Cave and d) Kaaron's blog entry on 'good' and 'bad' magicians. And while you're over at Kaaron's blog, be sure to check out more recent entries, which include a series of 'Sparks', writers such as Angela Slatter, Gary McMahon and John Shirley talking about the inspiration for particular works.

Okay, the review:-

            Slights (Angry Robot paperback, 528pp, £7.99) by Kaaron Warren is simply magnificent, a tour de force of harrowing invention that I sincerely hope will win a truckload of awards and make a pile of dosh for the writer. It's a work that both defines and transcends the horror genre, with American Psycho probably the most apposite comparison I can give, though the publisher's back cover blurb is also spot on - 'A Wasp Factory for the misery memoir generation.' It's also a very difficult read, the kind of story that was probably dragged kicking and screaming from the author's subconscious, and certainly not a book for everyman or woman.

            Make no mistake: this is strong meat, and ripe with psychosis.

            The story is told from the viewpoint of Stephanie, or Stevie as she is known to most people, with one chapter for each year of her life, from age eighteen through to thirty five. The role of parents is central to the book. Stevie's policeman father, who she idolised and resembles in so many ways, was killed in the line of duty, saving the life of another officer, events that took place when she was only a child and are here recaptured in flashback, while in the opening chapter her mother is killed in a car crash when Stevie was behind the wheel. In the wake of this crash Stevie undergoes the great formative event of her life, a near death experience, one in which she finds herself in a 'dark room' and surrounded by all the people she has 'slighted' in life, each of them intent on hurting her and exacting a modicum of revenge.

            The years roll out, and while her brother Peter has gone off to make his way in the world, Stevie lives alone in the family house, constantly digging in the back yard, taking and losing a series of dead end jobs, having friends and lovers come into and out of her life, alienating just about everyone who cares about her, the perennial square peg in all aspects of her existence. Several times she attempts suicide, but on each occasion help arrives in time, just as she planned, and Stevie returns to life with memories of that 'dark room' and its ever growing band of occupants whose delight is to torment her. While hatred and love pass, slights live on.

As the book progresses, more and more of the back story is filled in, with incidents of child abuse and bullying, Stevie both victim and perpetrator. It becomes evident that she is an unreliable narrator, her memories of an idyllic childhood just fantasies of denial. She constantly digs in the back yard, an activity that borders on OCD, but it's a way of connecting with her father as she unearths all the things he buried there, souvenirs of a terrible legacy. And finally, Stevie realises that if she wants to learn the truth about the 'dark room' and what happens there, she doesn't have to kill herself. There are others ways, other people.

This is a clever and subtle book, and one that is beautifully written, with the truth only revealed piecemeal, and the reader left with no idea how to feel about Stevie. She does terrible things, but at the same time terrible things have been done to her, and there is emptiness at the heart of her life, along with a feeling that she has been lied to and betrayed, if only by her own subconscious, by the memories she has of the only man she loved unreservedly. Warren is brilliant at portraying how Stevie interacts with others, their reactions to her and Stevie's feelings of superiority because she is not like them, but at the same time she fails to connect with other people, even with the men she shares a bed with. It's a chilling portrait of the mindset of a sociopath, someone who has no real depth of emotion, can only fake what she thinks others expect to see.

The way in which her father's back story is filled in, passages written inside books by the librarian aunt who knew the whole story, adds yet another fascinating dimension to this multi-faceted story. It also raises the question of nature versus nurture. Is Stevie a killer because she is her father's daughter, a chip off the old block, the bad seed of much genre fiction? Or is it because of things like child abuse and humiliation at school, the guilt she feels because of what happened to her mother, the way in which nobody really seems to care about her? The reader is likely to end up feeling as conflicted as the character. Perhaps the real point here though is that the 'truth' about her father's crimes is seeded in works of fiction.

In a similar vein, the visualisation of the afterlife, with its suggestion that hell is a thing of our own making, comes over well and gives Stevie a reason for her actions that seems credible, even though as logical people we know that it is totally unacceptable.

I've seen other reviewers describe this as a violent and gruesome book, but most of the killing takes places off the page or is only suggested, allowing the reader, as with Patrick Bateman, to believe that none of this is really happening, it's all the fantasy of an unbalanced mind (there are moments when Stevie tells declares 'This is what should have happened' and contrasts it with her reality). Warren's genius is seen in her ability to disturb and unsettle without lashings of gore, to tap into the psychology of the reader as easily as she does that of her characters and plant a chill in our hearts. She does this with stealth and skill, so that we have to constantly revise our opinion of Slights as more information is added to the mix, with what begins as a strange story, one with a mainstream cast to it, growing steadily darker until there's no light at all, just the 'dark room' of Stevie's sickness.

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