Ikky was standing on the bank, her hands in a metal twin loop behind her. She'd stopped sulking; now she looked, more, starey and puzzled.
Chief Barnarndra pointed to the pit. "Out you go then, girl. You must walk on out there to the middle and stand. When you picked a spot, your people can join you."
So Ik stepped out, very ordinary. She walked out. I thought - hoped, even - she might walk right across and into the thorns the other side; at the same time, I knew she wouldn't do that.
Margo Lanagan's stories get under your skin. They seem to slide in sideways, exploiting gaps you didn't know you had, lodging themselves in the recesses of your mind.
Take 'Singing My Sister Down', the first story of Lanagan's collection Black Juice (2004), whose opening is quoted above. The story's action consists entirely of a condemned young woman sinking to her death in a tar pit, watched by her blood-family (who have accompanied her onto the tar), her family-by-marriage (sitting "prideful" on the bank), random gawkers, plus some witnesses of standing in the community (the chief is also on the bank, we're told, where he "sat in his chair and was fanned and fed"). It's a horrible, inexorable, and very public death: a death to set an example, a death to give the satisfaction of revenge to the wronged, a death aimed in part at Ik's family ("we had to go out, and everyone had to see us", the narrator, Ik's younger brother, tells us; it is "like us being punished, too, everyone watching us walk out to that girl who was our shame").
Through the eyes and emotions of Ik's younger brother we, too, are forced to bear witness. Her family do their best to make Ik's final hours celebratory: "it did feel a bit like a party", the narrator says as they set themselves up for a picnic on the tar, with good food ("May as well have the best of this world while you're here", Ik's mother tells her, as she feeds her) and even some dancing. But nothing can get away from the fact that Ik is dying, as the tar claims her, inch by inch: closing over her feet, oozing up her legs, compressing her chest so she struggles to breathe.
Around midafternoon, Ikky couldn't move her arms anymore and had a panic, just quiet, not so the bank people would've noticed. "What'm I going to do, Mumma?" she said. "When it comes up over my face? When it closes my nose?"
We never learn exactly what was Ik's crime that condemned her to this fate; references to her husband's angry family, and to an axe handle, suggest this was domestic violence of some kind ("I always knew you'd be too angry, once the wedding glitter rubbed off your skin", says Ik's mother at one point), but we're told nothing else of either circumstances or motives, or of who Ik was before she was scared and sinking. The story lives in the moment, in the inescapability of death; there are no recriminations from the family she has brought to this pit, only the urgency of time running out ("I wished I had more time to think, before she went right down; my mind was going breathless, trying to get all its thinking done") and the need to see her off, as privately as they can on the community's terms, being "watched so hard".
The stories collected in Black Juice - eleven in total, although I'm only going to discuss a handful here - are, by and large, about communities. They're about families, whether biological or chosen, good or bad, nuclear or extended; they're about individuals struggling to work out their place within their communities, or to extricate themselves from communal identity, or to return after too long an absence; and they're about the land these communities are a part of, the often fierce, unforgiving land they live in and labour on, and whose unpredictabilities shape their lives.
Many of the stories, too, are told from the perspective of young people: adolescents learning their worlds, with one foot in the imagination and fears of childhood, and one poised to take them in search of wider horizons. Dot in 'House of the Many' is just such a character, growing up in a dirt-poor subsistence-farming village where behaviour is carefully constrained, according to rules that appear terrifyingly arbitrary from a child's-eye-view. An episode that stands out is when a boy breaks out into spontaneous song, within earshot of the tent of Bard Jo, the village's spiritual authority and keeper of male mysteries:
Then one day, when spring was on the way and they were all excited for the coming plenty, this boy threw back his head and sang... nobody knew who, but if Viljastramaratan had had four sisters and five brothers, dancing together, they might have brought these sounds out.
To the children listening, this is a marvel ("World upon world opened at their ears, worlds of lawless noise and play"), but to the boy's mother is to be feared and silenced. She is not quick enough, however; Bard Jo emerges from his tent, and, as the boy's mother "bent and swayed, holding her head, grinding her eyes", he takes the boy inside, and beats him so badly that "after that day no-one heard a sound out of him". When Dot gets older, he and his friends are initiated into the way of village manhood by Bard Jo, who explains the immutable importance of the structures of village life ("the working mothers, the fathers steady at the centre with all the wisdom"), feeds them drugged tea, and terrifies them via an encounter with some extremely noisy spiritual power.
Dot runs away from the village and finds new purpose and freedom, and all the knowledge he could ever dream of wanting, in the anonymity of urban life; but where a different sort of story might end things here, with Dot's happy escape, Lanagan has him return to the village, at length, to face the fact of how much harder he made his widowed mother's and his disabled sister's lives by his leaving. In this context, one person's new opportunity is another's crushing burden made even heavier.
There is a more positive, life-affirming departure and return - and coming of age - to be found in 'Rite of Spring'. With his mother too sick to carry out "her important business" of a mountaintop ritual to aid the season's shift from winter to spring, the task has fallen to the son she's long derided, impatiently, as too slow and "thick" to follow in her footsteps. So the narrator's journey is laden with family pressures - an unfavoured son long in the shadow of an over-achieving elder brother - but also with the expectations of a whole community on his shoulders, for his rite carries with it the hope of spring for a people living on marginal land, at the mercy of the elements:
The wind doesn't shriek or moan - nothing so personal. When the river took Jenny Lempwick last spring and half-killed her while we watched, it was doing what the wind's doing now, racing so strongly that a little thing like a person was never going to matter.
Like 'Singing', this story has essentially one thread - and most of that is the extremity of the journey, with very little about the rite itself, beyond the boy's fear that he will live down to his mother's expectations, and forget the words. But it is grounded - and given grandeur - by imagery drawn from the natural world; the narrator can do nothing as straightforward as speak, under the circumstances, but rather, as he puts it, "I carve the words out of the icy air with my snow-blown lips". The return is triumphant, but quietly so, bathed in "all the dampness and the dazzle of the first day of spring".
A more pungent strain of natural imagery pervades the creepy 'Earthly Uses', which draws particularly strongly on a child's point of view - with all that implies, in terms of seeing things adults choose not to, but understanding less - for its effect. The boy in question lives an unhappy life on a tiny, remote farmstead with his Pa ("He's an old man and cranky, but he's all I've got, so I must put up with him, mustn't I?") and his increasingly sick Nan ("so small and grey and quiet [...] like a cooking and housekeeping part of him, not really her own self"). Pa sends him out to try to make contact with one of the angels that live in the hills and "stink like potatoes and death", or - as the narrator puts it, in more vivid detail than is strictly necessary - like "having mouldy dung forced so far up your nose it starts tearing out the back of your throat". The hope is that the angels might offer a way to heal Nan.
At first the boy, wandering deserted wooded paths alone, shares Pa's folkloric fear of the strange beasts:
"And their eyes - you look in and there's no-one in there that's like a normal man - they're just bright and bright, and empty."
I didn't see eyes that day, and didn't want to. Even walking here through the angel-less darkness, the power of not-wanting-to-see-eyes makes me swerve and shake my head.
I love this: the way "bright" is made sinister, the way the boy's fear-but-fascination is drawn, creating a sympathetic itch of not wanting to look round at the back of my neck. Gradually, fascination wins out, though, because the angels seem to offer something different, something more, than a return to the cottage in the woods ("their smell was like crushed mint to my brain, breathing open new spaces there that I'd not the faintest notion how to fill"). When an angel does not cure Nan, but gives her the peaceful release of death, lifting her "up out of her own bones into its dark, dirty, soft, soft breast" - the softness of leaf mould, of mud, of decay? - the boy is set free, to leave home and seek a new community in one of the towns on the plain, far below the bitter spaces of the family farm.
By contrast, 'The Point of Roses' sees supernaturally-inflected nature bringing a family back together. Once again, Billy is a boy being raised by his grandparents - there's something very fairytale about this, as a recurring motif - although the setting this time is more small-town, or suburban. (There are no explicit markers of place, but it feels much closer to our world, and our present, than most of the other tales' settings.) Once again, the protagonist has a difficult relationship with an emotionally distant grandfather.
Here, though, the boy isn't the centre of the story. Although Billy is the (current) bone of contention between his grandparents, Corin and Nance, and it's Billy's boyish dabbling in magic, using one of Nance's roses, that sets the story in motion, the emotional focus lies with Corin and Nance. At issue is the way Corin's resentment of their children - the way they steal her attention from him ("He had fumed and raged against each pregnancy, and snarled and boiled and beat at the children as they grew, and railed at her for enslaving herself to them") - has caused the slow, drawn-out failure of their relationship:
It seemed to Nance that they had held each other in a death-clasp all these years, meanly squeezing until every scrap of colour was gone from skin and hair, until their voices held no juice and their eyes too much.
The torrent of "rose-ness" Billy's magic inadvertantly unleashes ("His lungs struggled, his skin dissolved, his thoughts turned to vapour as the rose essence passed through, roaring") proves the catalyst for the self-examination and reconciliation of his grandparents. There is some wonderfully idiosyncratic confessional dialogue ("being angry was a kind of paint [...] and I splashed it all over everything, and everything looked the same"), and finally a confrontation and frank discussion of the problem.
It's all done with considerable emotional resonance and generosity, and ending with a calm, achingly well-judged moment of quiet acceptance, in which Corin potters around the kitchen, "for the moment, in this house, in this room, moving from here to there gathering bread, gathering cheese and sausage and pickle, knife, board, plate". He is preparing a plate of food for Billy, just returned home, "though he was not, himself, in any way hungry at all"; learning, at last, the contentment of a selfless, loving act.
The final story I want to discuss, 'Red Nose Day', centres on a rather less conventional community - a chosen family, built on past abuse, and present warfare - and carefully walks a line between horror and absurdity. Adolescent soldiers are hunkered down with their rifles, making nervious conversation while they endure the seemingly endless wait for their targets to emerge from a dilapidated old theatre. The narrator asks his older, more experienced companion, Jelly, about their mission; Jelly replies that they will have fulfilled their goal, "When we've made a dent in the programme. When there's enough gone to give us a warm fuzzy feeling."
When the enemy appear, they are "so close, I could see the sweat beading through their pancake". They are, you see, clowns.
That would be the absurdist bit I was talking about. This is a society in which clowns are every bit as strange and disturbing as you always suspected; in which clown-ness (clownitude? clownality?) occupies the top of the social hierarchy, but is perpetuated at the expense of child abuse (the stars of the clown world get their pick of children in state orphan homes) and affects those involved in a way that resembles drug addiction. A small, bitter guerilla army is fighting back against the clowns, and "the people who keep the world running: riggers and sweepers, ticket-sellers and physio-therapists, with a sprinkling of top hats and tailcoats".
Lanagan gives us an utterly deadpan and - if you're prepared to go with it - highly effective melding of war story and circus terminology. Our shell-shocked, emotionally deadened narrator is numb to violence ("I didn't care, as long as the painted people were falling"), but sees the world in the language of the big top ("I could read him like a matinee poster"). The deaths they inflict are glimpsed as distant, silent, stage-dramatic tumbles, until the moment where Jelly recognises two of the victims, and suddenly the reality of pain and gore comes crashing in.
But the most horror-struck tones of all are reserved for the slow-dawning reveal of Jelly becoming possessed by the spirit of Clown:
Jelly brought a foil out of his jacket He unwrapped it too carelessly for it to be drugs. Worse than drugs, a white nub of something glowed in the gloom. My whole body pulled back from it against the tower wall.
He didn't need a mirror. He drew a perfect white oval around his face from hairline to chin-dimple, and filled it in.
It goes on, all revulsion as Jelly adds more make-up, and his demeanour gradually shifts ("that terrible pretend childlikeness they have. The face dipped and floated as he stood, ooh!, surprised to find himself, why, here!"), for all the world like he's in a surrealist zombie film. I don't think I've ever been so creeped out by the appearance of a red nose before. Superb!