New Welsh Review
Lucie McKnight Hardy
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Lucie McKnight Hardy’s debut novel, Water Shall Refuse Them (Dead Ink, 2019), was a slow-burning folk horror set in a small Welsh village during the intense summer heatwave of 1976. A claustrophobic coming-of-age tale concerned with grief, family and the dark side of rural life, it simmered with menace and suspense, and the prose was beautiful. I loved it and have been looking forward to new work from the author ever since. Cue Dead Relatives, a collection of short stories in which Hardy retains many of the themes and qualities of her first book at the same time as tackling new, often more challenging material.
The first piece, which at seventy pages is by far the longest, offers a chilling portrait of a house for women dealing with unwanted pregnancies. Told from the point of view of a strange hermit girl, whose cold and controlling mother runs the establishment, it tracks the relationship she develops with a new client. Incorporating elements of folk horror, it’s a complex story taut with mystery and lifted by its originality. The choice of perspective, for example, works almost like a subversion of the sort of weird-child films where off-kilter kids deliver the scares through their very resistance to being understood. Here, instead, we join said creepy child as she observes the guests sleeping and internalises their responses to her idiosyncratic behaviour. We see her battling with her impulses and get to explore some of her shocking motivations, which makes for a thrilling read. Dealing sensitively with some difficult subject matter, this title story, ‘Dead Relatives’, employs a subtle, uncanny kind of horror, and the book continues in this vein.
‘Jutland’, originally published by the excellent Nightjar Press, is the second in the collection and concerns a writer, Ana, her artist husband and their two young children – one of which is only a few months old – as they move to a new rented home on the eponymous peninsula. Struggling with the constraints of motherhood, Ana finds it impossible to write, while her husband’s career is flourishing. Suddenly, she experiences a wave of devastating inspiration. It’s a brilliant story, cold and tense, full of keenly observed, harsh details. There’s an especially powerful description of a gull devouring a chick, and the final lines, which I read while travelling alone on a train, come like a punch in the gut. They left me yearning for someone to share them with.
Strained and broken families run throughout Dead Relatives and the dynamics are always deftly handled. ‘Cortona’ is a moving portrayal of a mother’s grief, while ‘The Birds of Nagasaki’ is a deeply unsettling take on sibling bullying, with a conclusion that plays out like a repressed fantasy. ‘The Pickling Jar’ sees a mourning widow embracing her role in a bizarre village custom that may or may not involve pickled body parts. It’s absurd and horrible, bold and funny, and the specifics of village life are perfect. Hardy does the small things extremely well, like in the exquisitely metaphorical ‘Cavities’, where the central character has had a molar removed and keeps prodding the hole: ‘only her finger registers the space as wet and flaccid; her jaw remains numb.’ She doesn’t waste a sentence.
In two of my favourite stories, place plays an important part and is rendered beautifully. ‘The Puckering’ joins an aquarium worker in crisis as she moves through the ‘cruelly indifferent coastal town’ she’s lived in all her life. The descriptions of a ‘weed-pocked and hostile’ scree path and ‘skeletal ribs of wooden benches, rotting into themselves’ are excellent. And there’s the ‘rusting filigree ironwork that encompasses the bandstand, home now only to broken glass and seagull shit.’ It’s great writing that rolls towards a hypnotic crescendo. Just as impressive, ‘The Devil of Timanfaya’ is a truly terrifying piece of short fiction set in a Lanzarote twisted into a hellish lunar landscape, where a dark and disturbing narrative unfolds, with hints of Freddy Krueger about it.
There’s no filler in this collection – every story is well worth your time. They are haunting and disorientating pieces, with enough left unsaid to warrant multiple readings, though resolution will likely remain elusive. In Dead Relatives, Hardy has produced something serious, unnerving and very entertaining, and she doesn’t pull any punches. For me, it more than lives up to its predecessor.
Tim Cooke’s ‘School’, an exploration of a traumatic memory which opens up profound questions around media, sensation and memory, was published in the winter 2020 edition of New Welsh Reader, edition 125.