Jude Whiley-Morton reviews Famished by Anna Vaught
What do you get if you cross Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge and Gertrude Stein’s Food, is it Anna Vaught’s Famished? No. I reckon the recipe has a couple more ingredients. One hundred grams of Dahl, Roald, a spoonful of Wharton, a generous helping of Poe beat together with Joyce. That’s better. Maybe include a pinch of Fremlin. Dust with Neil Gaiman to taste.
You can tell a lot about an author by the epigraphs they use. I list the authors above partly because I believe Vaught would appreciate it. Indeed the list intersects with some of her epigraphs: Poe, with Cave Venus Et Stellas, for one. Preceding other stories are words by Ursula K. Le Guin, (What He Choked On), while a segment of the Historia Angolorum above Henry And His Surfeit Of Lampreys, my favourite story, confirms the suspicion that Vaught is an insatiable reader with an appetite for books as eclectic and voracious as her characters for food.
The traces of an author in the work of another could be considered a fault, but this is not the case for Vaught. A cake has many ingredients of which we’re unaware while eating. As long as none overwhelm, the cake is its own delicious treat. If a flavour is particularly strong, it only accentuates the style. In Famished, I was tempted to ascribe the “ivory and willowy” lady “with intense blue eyes” Dahl-esque, or “the umbrageous inhabitants of the rest of the houses… corporeal, after all” as borrowed from a world of Poe’s. The truth is, they’re not. They’re Vaught’s own creations, as vivid and unnerving as those of her predecessors, bold enough to suggest traces of theft while, in reality, being wonderfully and expertly constructed.
As are her worlds and sentences. The book is a fine example of a craft honed near-to perfection. Vaught demonstrates a wide vocabulary that evaded me at times. While the odd strange word is not something to fear in literature, there is always the risk that their use in abundance could alienate readers of the story, making them feel stupid or beyond the writer’s scope. This is doubled when risks in language are partnered with such references to Trimalchio and Charybdis and Scylla, with only scant references to any modern referent. I fear for readers of the book who are not themselves well-read. That said, Vaught’s flex of her linguistic and literary knowledge, in the context of these stories, are an enriching and defining factor. The lack of any modern references, partnered with gothic illustrations of various well-known locations (including Virginia, Wales and Russia), throws the reader into an uncanny world in which everything – even the food they eat – is surprising, odd, even threatening. While one is tempted to analyse vocabulary and sentence structure to label the sentences archaic, for example: “Tell me: have you ever cradled a thrashing eel or formed a crucible of elvers and made them slip here and there through your fingers? Unguent, vicious and unknowing.” After reading the whole text, you can only come to the conclusion, the sentences are alternative. Their syntax is not that of some old Tudor baron or Victorian lawyer, but a modern construct composed by one who respects the sound and patina of lesser-known words and uses them to create a world neither old nor new, but which runs on a string parallel to our own, where people eat Lampreys or threaten murder by tripe.
That is if you can decipher what is happening. Some stories in Vaught’s collection require quite intense concentration. You are forced, at times, to grab at her reigns as she spirals into a demonstration of her talent. I found this especially odd after discovering how involved Vaught seems to be with her readership. Her website, www.annavaughtwrites.com, features a list of book club questions to accompany your reading of the book, an almost charitable gift by an author so obviously busy with the act of writing. However, these questions revealed a sort of achilles heel for me. One question stated, “did you find any of the stories too horrifying or too creepy?” While answering this myself I discovered, I did not. But I wanted to! There is nothing better than a story that really challenges, which really horrifies, and Vaught is obviously capable of constructing an extreme world. Unfortunately, an obscurity sometimes created in the fog of language obscures what I sense could be real horror, but through straining to understand, cannot shock. This comes in Nanny Lovett and Pop Todd, when the “bad thoughts of goggle-eyed dictators and influentials and of all men…” are caught “in a butterfly net… like puffs of gauze or tiny cumulus clouds.” Beautiful enough, but then I’m made to understand these are used to fill pies. What? Even upon rereading I’m made to understand this is the case, and can’t find any convincing allegories that relieves my tension toward the story. It is fantastic, in ways a fantastic that evades definite meaning. And while this is not bad in itself, it seems incompatible with the horror genre that Vaught occupies. For something to be horrible, I feel, it needs to be definite. This definite can reside in the realm of the uncanny, where things can be not-this-and-not-that, but they must be definitely not-this-and-not- that, or obviously this, the horrible this! It is a fine tightrope to walk, and a tightrope Vaught occasionally slips from. However, she does not fall into nothing. The areas where a fog descends are made foggy by something, and this something seems to be the demonstration of a skill pushing the envelope.
I believe the arrival of Anna Vaught is something to cause excitement. Personally, I am not a devotee of the genre Vaught promotes. But, after reading Famished, I can feel myself becoming a devotee of hers, not least to watch how she develops, how she shocks, how she changes the genre she loves. Watch horror, it is about to get weird.
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