[The Grinding House by Kaaron Warren, CSFG Publishing, 2005.]
Illustrating other people’s stories is a great gig. The major perk is, of course, that you get to read some good writing for free. Sometimes you even get paid—and sometimes in beer, which cuts out the middle-man. I first encountered Kaaron Warren’s writing while helping to illustrate Gastronomicon, a speculative-fiction cookbook published by the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild. Yes, a cookbook. But it has stories as well and, unlike the Babylon-5 cookbook, the recipes are actually edible.
CSFG Publishing is one of a (small) handful of Australian small presses turning out good quality anthologies of SF, fantasy and horror. Gastronomicon and The Grinding House are CSFG’s fifth and sixth collections. The previous two, Elsewhere and Encounters, garnered five mentions apiece in Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror (in 2004 and 2005, respectively).
The Grinding House is the first time CSFG has invested in a single author. The result is one of the better short-story collections I’ve read in recent times. A “grinding house” is apparently a place where blades are given their edge and stones are shaped for commercial use. Deriving from this, it is also an eighteenth/nineteenth century slang term for a brothel catering to clients with more “specialized” tastes. It’s an appropriate title. Warren delivers horror and dark SF/fantasy of the squeamish and psychological variety, often delving into the supernatural, but never into splatter.
The author’s prose is lucid and mostly “invisible.” The only extended passage where the prose pushed me out of a narrative was the pedantic “he had said/she had said” of the flashback in “Fresh Young Widow.” The storytelling, too, is almost always effortless. Again, there are only a couple of exceptions, such as the clumsy exposition at the end of “The Missing Children” and the title story, a novella-length piece, which seemed to lack the intensity and finesse of much of the other work in the collection.
When the stories cut free of the here-and-now, as in “Fresh Young Widow,” the world building is tantalizing. I enjoyed the first half of China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station (less so the bug hunt of the second half) for much the same thing. And like Mieville, Warren has a keen sense of the grotesque, which she uses to good effect to dissect the issues that many of her stories explore.
To be sure, some of the pieces in The Grinding House are just good, dark yarns, nothing more. Some are quite conventional, such as “Smoko” (a mythical-creatures-living-in-the-modern-world tale) and “The Sameness of Birthdays” (a vampire-story-with-a-twist). Others are strikingly original. “Working for the God of the Love of Money,” for instance, which may make readers reconsider giving money to beggars (or give them notes instead of coins). Conventional or original, all of these are deftly delivered.
As with most of the best horror writing, though, the power of Warren’s strongest stories comes from the mirror they hold up to our everyday practices and prejudices. There are a number of recurrent themes across the collection that, for me, bring out the best in the author’s writing. Most of Warren’s protagonists are female and most are powerless, or nearly so. Sexuality and self-image are intimately tied to this recurring circumstance and it is here that Warren’s gift for the grotesque inflicts the most damage. That the protagonists are generally more pitiable than sympathetic somehow makes what they do and what is done to them that much worse.
A good example is “A-Positive,” the award-winner of the collection (an Aurealis Award in 1998—one of Australia’s two national SF writing awards). This story ruthlessly satirizes the selfish reasons why some people have children, which have nothing to do with the good of the child. It also delivers an aggressive statement on the consequences such behavior merits. Similarly, “The Blue Stream” is a biting satire of adult conservatism, bureaucratic inertia and fear of the wildness of youth.
“Skin Holes,” “The Smell of Mice,” and “The Left Behind” all explore the theme of physical perfection. The last of these is a standout, set up as a murder mystery among the blemished and disabled who have been abandoned on a dying Earth by the “perfect” majority. It plays out as an ironic moral fable about the true value our society, obsessed with superficial ideals, places upon the “imperfect.” “The Left Behind” brought to my mind recent articles in Australian newspapers, which revealed that this country’s immigration laws deny people with disabilities the right to gain Australian citizenship. How many steps is it, one wonders, from shutting them out to leaving them behind?
“The Left Behind” picks up another pervasive concern: namely, our sense of community, and how this might suffer or change in a situation of extreme social duress. The stories that use this as their narrative engine, rather than as setting (“The Grinding House” and “Survival of the Last”) are, for me, less successful. Maybe that’s just personal taste. Perhaps, because community is a more abstract concept than sex and body, Warren is unable to attack it with the same surgical precision she uses to dissect the more intimate concerns.
Returning to those: stories like “Tiger Kill,” “Al’s Iso Bar” and “The Glass Woman” have a strong feminist sensibility, but Warren doesn’t preach or rant. Rather, she wallows in the extremes of (particularly male) behavior that feminism finds most abhorrent and presents it as effective horror.
“The Glass Woman” is the story that introduced me to Warren’s work, and my pick of the collection. It is one of those stories that, for me, makes a whole anthology worth owning—like “The Tarot Dice” in Mary Gentle’s Cartomancy or the title piece of Lucius Shepherd’s Barnacle Bill the Spacer. Biting is not a strong enough word to describe this assault on misogyny. Warren trawls the cesspit hidden way down deep in the male psyche and brings some things to the surface that really should never see the light of day. This violence is in all men, the story says, not just the beasts who indulge in it. Tough stuff, and not the sort of thing I like to read about myself. What makes it even more discomforting—and very hard to dissociate oneself from—is that “The Glass Woman” is also a beautiful fantasy.
The weakest stories in this collection are competent dark fantasies. The best are high-class horror with something important to say. To say that I “enjoyed” The Grinding House may be a mild abuse of language, but I was certainly impressed. For those with an interest in powerfully expressed feminist literature, or in the politics of body and self-image, it’s highly recommended. For those without such interests, don’t be put-off by that recommendation.
Some readers will find the relentlessness of some of the stories in The Grinding House overwhelming. Direct comparisons between authors are risky, other than to give an idea of where a reviewer is coming from (it’s easy to put people off something they would enjoy by associating it with something that didn’t work for them). But, with that in mind, my earlier reference to Lucius Shepherd may be a useful one. People who have a taste for intelligent horror and dark fiction are likely, I think, to find The Grinding House a worthwhile read.