Book Review by Patrick Quigley
Out of Order
by Susan Knight
The Irish short story dealing with everyday life is a familiar genre, but Irish stories of fantasy or horror are rare. Celts are usually credited with lively imaginations, reflected in our myth, legends and fairy stories, yet this is not apparent in our current literature except for the valiant efforts of the Swan River Press. It was a different story in the past, when many of the major writers in the Gothic and fantasy genres – Bram Stoker, Sheridan LeFanu, James Stephens and Lord Dunsany – were born in Ireland.
Things are clearly ‘out of order’ for the characters in Susan Knight’s imaginative collection of short stories. She uses fantasy as an instrument of satire and a means of portraying extreme psychological states. Her characters are people we meet every day: frustrated office workers; a freelance translator; a small-time drug dealer with a psychotic pal. Instead of the usual slice of misery fiction she puts her characters into extraordinary situations. A newly widowed housewife loses connection with the outside world as her body literally begins to disappear. Another character hires a hitman to dispose of her dog and finds his services useful in other ways.
The book opens with the aptly named ‘Horror Story’, the title a play on the Russian word khorosho (good) misheard by the crass narrator. He is a tourist in modern Russia who visits a theme park based on life in the Soviet Union. He finds himself trapped in a nightmare scenario with filthy lodgings, cheap food, bad vodka, thieving neighbours and the secret police on his trail. The story, the longest in the book, is an entertaining tale and a deft satire on tourists who seek to immerse themselves in someone else’s reality.
‘If You Go Out to the Woods Today’ deals with a haunting at a holiday destination in winter, a setting reminiscent of MR James’ classic ghost story ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’. Kevin is a man with a guilty secret that interferes with his concentration at work. He takes a winter holiday at an unnamed location (though clearly Glendalough) but finds that frantic hill-walking cannot erase the past and he succumbs to a grisly retribution.
In some of the stories the emphasis is on buried family secrets. Susan Knight displays her dexterity in writing about characters from different backgrounds, notably the psychotic Quentin in ‘Cliff Edge’ who takes revenge for his frustrations on an unsuspecting bird-watcher; after reading this story I will never stand near a cliff while strangers are passing.
The stories are told with wit and style where the author displays firm control over the material. ‘Superman’ analyses a maelstrom of guilt and regret that can hide behind the mask of suburban normality and is one of the most powerful in the collection. The suitably named ‘Grand Guignol’ eschews suburbia for a full-blown supernatural yarn in the tradition of the great Gothic writers.
Out of Order is an entertaining collection of well-written stories that linger in the mind. Susan Knight returns to the shape-shifting and magical roots of storytelling, telling old stories with new twists in the contemporary multicultural Ireland.
Patrick Quigley is a novelist and writer on historical subjects. His books include Borderland, The Polish Irishman and Sisters Against the Empire. He is honorary treasurer of the Irish Polish Society.