Keith Ridgway’s A Shock and Leon Craig’s Parallel Hells
In his seventh book, A Shock, Keith Ridgway is like a croupier, shuffling together southeast London lives and doling them out to the reader.
The novel opens with an evening in the lonely life of an elderly widow. Whilst a party next door throbs through the walls, she drifts through her house with a ghostly lack of purpose. She begins picking at a dent in the kitchen wall. The dent becomes a hole. The hole becomes a cavity barely big enough to accommodate her. She squeezes into the dark space, pursuing a dot of light on the other side of the wall, beyond which, the neighbour’s party thrives.
“She holds her breath and tries to squeeze further along, her left arm outstretched towards the light, such as it is, a glow from the kitchen”. Pulling in her stomach, contorting her shoulders, she shimmies further and further into the cavity. “There is a rib of wood at her back stopping her. She pushes with all her might against it. She is not mighty. But something shifts.”
This endeavour is echoed later in the prose when Tommy, disorientated in the throes of his abundant drug use, expounds to his Uber driver about cavers who “go down into the deep deep cave systems, tiny little tunnels barely the width of their bodies.” Tommy talks about the fear of getting stuck and jamming “like a piece of wood you stick in a wall or something.” It is this choking, engulfing sense of claustrophobia that Tommy says opens on to eventual ecstasy. “They pull and push and bleed and then suddenly the tunnel bursts open into a huge and beautiful cavern like a train station, like a cathedral, like a city under the ground” – like a neighbour’s party.
As the cast develops, new characters appear in the peripheries of each other’s narratives, but are blurred and distorted. These are characters in the background of someone else’s story, who are later given the chance to be the main character in their own. A character called Yves, for example, is called Stoker by one character – due to his vampiric appearance – and Yan, or Yanko, by another. Characters in this novel are forever painting profiles of others from a distance, drawing hundreds of nuances from their public poses. Even when Yves introduces himself later in the narrative as Michael, the eerie character of “Stoker” is indelible, a second skin we can’t peel away.
The beating heart of this community is The Arms, a rodent-infested pub where many of the characters glance off of each other. Patronised by London’s precariat, the conversations we witness here needle at entrenched social issues and pick at the political fabric of the city in the pre-election years.
Whilst the chapters in this story are loosely-linked vignettes, what all the characters share is the claustrophobia of a caver. These people are desperate to escape their own lives, but don’t always know it. They feel trapped, whether it’s an old lady who has crawled into a wall cavity to spy on her neighbour’s party, or a plumber called Pigeon who gets locked in the house of a woman he’s doing a job for and retreats to the attic to hide. Hiding in lofts and peeping through cracks in the wall, these are characters moving rodent-like through spaces which are not their own. Yet, they are terrified of being noticed, like the rat which causes a horrifying shock when he scurries through Stan and Marie’s flat.
We spend this novel watching characters as they watch others. But in the chapter titled “The Flat,” we are thrust into the primary voyeuristic perspective, as though we are watching David, who has just moved into a new apartment, through a hole in the wall. David is eager to learn more about the previous tenants, Karl and Peppi, who, according to neighbours, mysteriously disappeared. He cannot curb his curiosity. Karl and Peppi live in his mind as a “faceless fact,” a thin form of life that desperately needs fleshing out. We watch David as he eventually discovers pornographic photos of the couple: “In the mirror there is a reflection of a fourth man, naked, with an erection, holding the phone that is taking the photos.” Then, as though noticing us watching him, he says “this is private.” His frankness causes a sordid sensation to seethe the length of the reader – we feel no different to the faceless fourth person in the images, recording David at his most intimate.
Throughout this novel, photos have a mystical ability to breathe life into a character. In one segment, “The Camera,” the friendship between Stan and Gary, both in their 20s, is strained when Gary begins taking photos of Stan without him knowing. He then posts the results to him with no explanation and ignores all other forms of communication. Stan believes “the photographs, and Gary’s silence, seemed to amount to something… they constituted a challenge.” When Stan, who is white, confronts Gary, who is black, the encounter bristles with accusations of racism. Perhaps, it is this very reason that Stan objected to his photo being taken and shown to him. His own unconscious prejudice, until this moment, was the previously faceless fact that he had never before been acknowledged.
The characters in the novel are eager to observe others, but refuse to see themselves, even when staring into mirrors. Pigeon “looked at the mirror, not into it,” David “stares at the mirror. Not at his own reflection but at the mirror,” while the elderly widow at the beginning of the novel stares at her own reflection, fails to see and “just listens”. These characters are reflections themselves of a society which is increasingly living elsewhere. The narrative is a collection of stories that are clipped and staccato like the trimmed and pruned tweets we send pulsing into the ether every day. They live in the real world, but feel like they only exist on the surface, like a reflection.
Exhausted from listening to a far-fetched anecdote, Maria “felt at once that this was fascinating, and interesting, that it was something of a privilege to be trusted with it, and also that there was something wrong about it all, something that wasn’t entirely decent.” It sums up accurately the overall feel of A Shock. The prosaic and mundane are braided expertly around the unique and uncanny. As characters founder in a chop of financial troubles, their oddities and obsessions rise to the surface. Drugs and pornography are pillows which the characters used to cushion themselves from the outside world. It is a raw look at life on the margins. These are people who don’t own their own homes and some – in the case of one compulsive liar – don’t own their own stories. Perhaps, the unsettling sensation that pervades the novel is no different to Stan’s discomfort when he is shown his own photo. There is something unnerving about its unavoidable familiarity, we, ourselves, have been captured when we least expect it.
Reflective surfaces are not far away in Leon Craig’s debut short story collection, Parallel Hells, either. In one story, titled “raw pork and opium,” a character re-applies her lipstick in the only reflective surface to be found “the kitchen knife we used to rack up lines.” It is a surreal sequence of sexual adventure, fuelled on the back of equally-liberal drug use. The prose style, too, is just as experimental. Part-way through the narrative of this story, the page splits and we are presented with two characters’ perspectives running parallel down the page. One point of view follows Carly, as she flees her friends following an argument. Carly had attempted to explain her sexuality to a male character, Luke: “why should I put myself through something I know I won’t enjoy.” But Luke insists “but you can’t know, that’s the point.” Frustrated by Luke’s trite ignorance, Carly goes to “find the rest of the party or I can find out how it feels to murder somebody”. As we trace Carly’s column down the page, we follow her brief excursion to a faraway room, where she proceeds to have a seemingly paranormal sexual encounter.
The second perspective follows Luke, as he pursues Carly to apologise. As Luke chases her through the dilapidating mansion, furnished with all the trappings of a distinctly gothic setting, he suddenly feels as though he is being pursued by somebody, and feels the urge to flee himself. These two narratives, side-by-side, have the reader’s gaze listing dizzyingly between perspectives. It is an expert example of how prose can create a sense of urgency. The reader feels both of these simultaneous experiences existing in one moment. The length of each column matches the other almost perfectly, bridging a formidable dichotomy between fear and pleasure. As Luke is panting, hiding under a table to shelter from his pursuer, in the same breath, the reader sees Carly tracing her lover’s concaves with her tongue.
As Ridgeway explores the landscape of queer London through frank and unrestrained gay relationships, Craig explores queer identity through a selection of tightly-knit gothic tales. Through this blend of folklore and legend, repurposed to capture modern anxieties, the reader will come across cursed bracelets, severed hands, vampires and femme fatales. Ironically, the relationships between genderless, otherworldly beings conveys a distinctly human experience. In the story “Hags,” a demon, which feeds on the shame of humans, experiences overlays of a victim’s memory whilst indulging in their undignified thoughts and feelings: “A child standing alone in a city park at dusk, droplets of blood dried into a pair of jeans, a pitch-dark room with the sensation of small, soft hands finding their way into a sleeping back. It was rich and plentiful, with notes of rage and fear that lent it additional savour.” The irony is glaring: how can a demon, which drapes itself in human skin and walks among humans, which has spent centuries slaughtering serfs and massacring armies in hedonistic pursuits of pleasure, find sustenance in such comparatively small earthly “shames?” However, the demon is clear on what makes earth such a bountiful feeding ground “… the complicated rules humans had invented for one another.”
It is impossible not to sympathise with this violent, shame-sucking demon as it longs to tell its human friends who it really is: “I couldn’t burden them with this, could I? I was not the woman they believed me to be, indeed I was no woman at all, I was only like this because most humans needed me to pick one or the other.” “Hags” is one of those stories that lingers in the mind like a fragrance, packing very human anxieties into the silver scales of a supernatural consciousness.
In Craig’s story, “Lick the Dust,” an Oxford historian uses a cursed hand to become invisible. In using it to overcome her academic rival, the character tells us “There was nothing so pure as being in things but not of them. It was what I had once loved about the past, the intimacy of studying other human beings and uncovering what had long remained secret, without any messy interaction.” It is a sentiment that Craig, Ridgeway, and all bibliophiles share: the pleasure of being able to vividly feed off other people’s dramatics, like a demon, but then close the book without consequence once we’ve got our fill. It is this ubiquitous sensation that makes Ridgeway’s finale so powerful. A Shock finishes when the book returns to the same party in the opening chapter that the old lady is spying on, but from the other side of the wall. Shockingly, those being observed are just as capable of looking directly back through the hole that promised unfettered anonymity.
Hallam Bullock is a journalist at Insider. He has also written for publications such as The Times, The Telegraph, and Vice. Alongside his work at Insider, he is also studying for his MA in Literature and the Arts at the University of Oxford.
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