Outsiders, 3 of Cups Press, 2020, £12.99 (paperback)
‘We all secretly see ourselves as outsiders in one way or another.’ This, argues Alice Slater, editor of new anthology Outsiders from 3 Of Cups Press, is why readers are attracted to characters who do not fit in. But the very fact that the experience is universal exposes the paradox of the ‘outsider’ label. If we are all outsiders, then none of us are.
The outsider then must mean something different to different people. Often, an outcast narrator, as Slater says, can be a representative for the reader, who is after all ‘always an outsider to the world within the pages of a book’. But outsiders can also be the antagonists, whose disruptive presence is necessary to move forward the action.
It is the latter of these which appears in Julia Armfield’s ‘Wendigo’, the first in this selection of 15 stories. As her partner in crime lies dying, a not-quite-human creature reflects on their time stalking the country and picking off people to eat.
The tale is heavy with allusions to our oldest stories. The pair seem a kind of monstrous Adam and Eve – by some measures the first ‘outsiders’, cast from paradise – having arisen apparently spontaneously into being. Learning language from the radio, they discuss folk tales and urban legends, the kinds of things that expose our fears of people we don’t know. Most telling of all, the female creature ruminates on Beowulf, and identifies with its monsters. This archetypal tale of an external force threatening the society from its edges explores the outsider as a monstrous Other.
This interpretation of the theme appears a few more times in the anthology, most frighteningly in Leone Ross’s ‘Peep Hole’. Leaving his lover’s flat in the morning, a man sees a woman in the corridor. Her presence ‘alarms him immediately’, and the uneasiness only increases as the hours pass, even though she is unmoving. Ross expertly builds a sense of horror out of the instinctive fear that the stranger inspires without ever fully revealing what she is.
Then there is the ghost in Sarvat Hasin’s ‘The Lady’s Not For Burning’, my personal favourite of the collection. Hasin plays with an old gothic trope of the newly wedded bride arriving at her husband’s house only to find it haunted by something hostile towards her. This time the ghost is the house’s previous owner, who is not best pleased by a Pakistani couple living in its home. From the ghost’s perspective, the new couple – and many of their neighbours – are the outsiders. Yet it is the ghost who is the intrusive antagonist, threatening the domestic safety of the house.
Many of these stories are similarly playful, interrogating the concept of outsider-ness and turning it upside down – or rather inside out. In stories by Susan James, Kirsty Logan, Emma Hutton and Jen Campbell, women find solace in other women. Roommates, friends, romantic partners or something in between, their status as outsiders allows them to create a separate space for which only they are the insiders.
The ‘inside out’ inversion is taken most literally in ‘Skin’ by Lena Mohamed, who imagines a world in which people take off their skin at night to sleep, a system that seems to be accepted without question until a spate of thefts leaves some skinless. Mohamed pulls off the creation of this strange society, and the dark implications that it has for our own – about whose skin is most valuable – with great skill.
Elsewhere, Outsiders is concerned with the way a character exists alone. Both Stephanie Victoire and Anna Walsh write of flâneur-esque people who wander the streets, while memories of previous relationships emphasise their characters’ solitariness and independence. There is a meditation on the simultaneous sadness and strength of being alone here, with the latter also brought out in Lara Williams’s short piece ‘Interval Training’, in which a woman works through anxieties through swimming.
Since 3 Of Cups Press is itself ‘dedicated to providing a platform for voices otherwise unheard in the mainstream’, it seems fitting that two of the best stories in the anthology are by writers for whom this is their first published piece of fiction.
The book ends with Heather Parry’s thrillingly unsettling ‘The Curse’, about strange phenomena sweeping the female population, told through abstracts from academic papers. It is an apocalyptic note to end on, though it is also a kind of final victory for the outsider, as the final paper concludes that the only choice is now to ‘join or run’ from the groups of rebel women.
In fact, the overall note I was left with by Outsiders was one of surprising optimism. The outsiders are not necessarily unhappy with their status. In Eley Williams’s ‘Wilgefortis’, young Jenny prepares herself to shave the hairs off her upper lip after having them rudely pointed out by a girl in her class. It would be easy to make her an object of pity, but instead Jenny’s curiosity, intelligence, and her ‘shy, sure smile’ give us the impression that she will be just fine.
Outsiders is a rich and varied anthology, never settling on just one answer to the question of what, exactly, constitutes an outsider. And since the category of an ‘outsider’ is much broader than its antithesis, we get to hear from lots of voices. Readers are presented with quite drastically different styles and interpretations of the theme. But that also means it can be difficult to understand what links a story with the ones that come immediately before or after it.
Though it might be tempting to fly through multiple stories in one sitting, I much preferred the experience when I gave each one some breathing space. Ironically, for the situation we are in right now, these would be the perfect stories to read in discrete sessions on your commute.
Yet when taken as a whole, the anthology makes sense. The label ‘outsider’ suggests something defined by what it is not, but here we have a range of things that outsiders are: resilient, intriguing, relatable. Outsiders leaves us with both a reminder of why they resonate with us, and an understanding of what those narratives mean to others.
Words by Alys Key.
For more information and to buy Outsiders: A Short Story Anthology, visit the 3 of Cups’s website.
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