Georgina Monk

The Dark Nest

Sue Harper’s new collection of warped, modern fairy tales, The Dark Nest, updates classic characters – from European folklore to Wonder Woman – for a contemporary audience interested in taboos and the macabre. The book is a twisted but amusing journey into the quirks of fear and human desire.

Kafkaesque transformation, of people and the worlds they inhabit, is a recurring theme in Harper’s work. Instead of men waking up from long slumbers to find they have turned into insects, the living mortify and the dead begin to dance. In the story ‘Graisaille’, the narrator is  ‘frozen and immobile’ like a corpse, while the dead rise up in  ‘an ecstasy of music and movement’. The same character ‘swaps’ place with the statues she has been sitting beside and becomes another inanimate object. Forms are permeable in The Dark Nest and the characters, as the title of the collection suggests, hatch new and often grisly shapes in their image.

Repeatedly challenging our expectations, The Dark Nest conjures a bizarre alternative dimension where recognisable suburban life is invaded by hypnagogic horror. Georgie’s ability in ‘The Shaman’ to hear how the ‘the snowdrops rejoiced’ and the grass ‘waved at the stars’ is undoubtedly poetic. But poetry turns grotesque as her ears grow so large that they look ‘rather like an Alsatian dog’s’. Harper’s writing yearns to breach boundaries, be these the physical confines of the body or the limits of literary genre. Neatly encapsulated in ‘The Cave Painter’, its narrator describes a ‘teeming earthly playground’ that best characterises The Dark Nest as a collection, as something which looks and feels starkly different yet uncannily familiar.

Harper’s flair for alluding to myths and folk stories is evident in the same story when Cath, the narrator, wishes that she had ‘the wit to leave a thread or some crumbs’ for others to follow. Whether its Hansel and Gretel or the legend of the Minotaur, Harper’s reworking well-trodden narratives – narratives often intended for children – with adult themes, are just as chilling for us today as the witches and wicked stepmothers are for kids. It’s remarkable how the stories capture our innocence and wonder for the world, only to estrange us from it again.

‘Doubling Up’ riffs on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic gothic novel, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Two lovers gradually take on each other’s characteristics until they are indistinguishable like twins or Doppelgängers. Eventually, the protagonist could ‘no longer sure who was who’. Elsewhere, the influence of Victorian genre fiction is more overt, as in the Sherlock Holmes-inspired ‘Irene Adler at the Reichenbach Falls’. Like the best nineteenth-century horror and science fiction, Harper physicalises our deepest fears and anxieties, making tangible our hazy nightmares. One is reminded of Wilkie Collins or HG Wells in Harper’s ‘twirling mannequins’, the non-persons of ‘The Sofa Stories’, who announce that they ‘are one of the people you might have been’.

The Dark Nest is as much a ‘Dark Web’ of shady interconnected stories as a breeding ground for what lies beneath them. (Indeed stories from different ‘volumes’ of the collection are available to read online). Names are repeated between yarns, even if they don’t necessarily refer to the same characters. The effect is one of an eerie echo, as the interplay between different themes – of change, death, desire, iconoclasm, female sexuality and the human body – turns The Dark Nest into something far greater than the sum of its parts.

While the brevity of the stories make some feel as though they have ended before they have begun, their ambiguities will haunt you for days. Alluring set-ups do not always pay off but instead leave you craving answers. For example, ‘Moby Dick’, for all its startling visual imagination (Harper is an Emeritus Professor of Film History a the University of Portsmouth), finishes with the threat of the riptide, of something ‘really dangerous’ lurking in mutability and the rhythms of nature.

Fantastical and ghostly, The Dark Nest’s universe is anything but escapist. Readers are sure to come away from its pages thinking harder than ever about the darker – and grotesquely bizarre – aspects of the human condition.

Review by Georgina Monk.

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