Christina Carè reviews Kirsty Logan’s Things We Say in the Dark and discovers a thoughtful, unsettling, sometimes macabre collection of stories
reviewKirsty Logan’s Things We Say in the Dark is a collection of contemporary feminist short stories that traverse the realms of fairytale, thriller and outright horror. The book explores these diverse themes while picking up on some of the darkest fears of womanhood, modern life, the supernatural and more. The way it’s structured sparks a debate over the balance of reality and fiction in the collection. With this, the perfect setting for any horror story is created; the sense that it all happened to someone, a friend of a friend, or the author herself.
Divided into three parts – the House, the Child and the Past – each one opens with a list of fears. These crisp fragments set the tone for each section, evoking oddly relatable, though irrational, fear in the reader. These are the things you might have dreamed over and over without realising that others, too, share the visions. It’s this masterful balance between the familiar and the entirely esoteric that sets Logan’s collection apart, making for a descent into a darkness and discomfort that goes beyond traditional ghost stories. One way the stories achieve this is through the way they present a distinctly female set of experiences – fears attached to the body, violence, privacy and agency.
There are moments very reminiscent of Carmen Maria Machado’s collection Her Body and Other Parties but stylistically, Machado manages to dig much deeper into each of her tales; they are almost four times as long in many cases. Logan’s work is much more wide-ranging, but also shorter, and herein lies a stylistic departure.
It all depends on how deeply you care to know your characters. In ‘Girls are Always Hungry When all the Men are Bite-Size’ – which obviously has an amazing title – we do get to know our protagonists more closely. One is a young woman roped into her mother’s seance act, playing a part in order to fool paying guests. The other is a male investigator who hopes to debunk them. Between the two, we have an increasingly creepy back and forth, finishing in a surreal absorption of the man – she literally swallows him whole. Many of the stories experiment with magical realism in this way. We follow what seems to be a logical progression of weirdness until the story lifts off into another realm.
Another highlight is ‘Birds Fell from the Sky and Each One Spoke in Your Voice’, which is one of the longer stories. Here we have a named protagonist, but no clear place. The fact that many of these stories could occur anywhere feels like much of the point. They are recognisable, yet unplaceable. In this one, Sidney receives strange phone calls and owns a store that celebrates all things 1990s – the time of his own youth. The ghost story that is his own childhood unfolds, and we learn just how deeply embedded in guilt Sidney has been, and how inescapable his past is. It feels a lot like the premise of a Hitchcock film, if one had been made today.
These two stories contrast quite sharply with ‘The World’s More Full of Weeping than You Can Understand’, which is not so much a story as an experiment in style. Everything is told in footnotes, each word expanding out to a series of descriptions. The plot, therefore, is all hidden in layers. It’s a neat device, but not entirely satisfying if it’s character or relationships that interest you in your reading. Many of the stories need to be appreciated on a big picture level and therefore have potential to divide readers.
Ultimately, one of the only shortcomings for me lies in the fact that some stories feel underdeveloped – the length of several of the stories is an issue. And there are so many stories crammed into this one book, and several are cut so very short, ending right at the point where things might have got interesting. They feel then more like crumbs than a solid bite. A few of these might have been cut altogether from the collection, with no detriment to the whole.
Several of the stories do seem to aim for an ambiguity that feels more like prompts that could have been developed so much more deeply, cut short because ultimately the twist doesn’t pay off as much as we might like – or they are just about delivering an eerie turn of events, rather than any solidity around character, plot or setting. It’s not universally the case. There are definitely stories that do pack a punch, regardless of how formed they feel, but there are enough of these shorter stories that feel more like asides, such that it can feel distracting or as though we’re still waiting for the real stuff.
It’s hard, too, to really draw overarching conclusions about this collection. The stories vary so wildly in setting, style and depth of character. Despite this, so many of them manage to evoke such visceral fears in me. Fears I must have buried to stay functional, but which certainly reveal themselves in several key moments. Thanks to this, these stories really make my skin crawl, make me wonder, are oddly alluring despite their nature. These are the hallmarks of great horror.
This culminates in the final story, ‘Watch the Wall, My Darling, While the Gentleman Go By’, which follows yet another unnamed protagonist who is kidnapped by a nameless psychopath. Once again, the nebulous, shapeless nature of these stories could rankle with anyone keen to know their characters. But the collection is really about style, themes and emotions, rather than concrete details like names or places. This story, in particular, leaves me reeling with emotions that are hard to parse.
I wonder how men might respond to a story like this one, which touches on the kinds of warnings so often dealt out to women, about how to operate in the world, how they must protect themselves or guard themselves from harm. It’s hard not to feel angry at how familiar the violence seems. It also challenges feminist-driven feelings of objection towards violence against women, as the story can be read either literally as an abuse victim giving in to her kidnapper, or on a larger scale, as the supposed inevitability of women returning to oppression. Both are challenging to comprehend, but the fears they evoke there are very real.
This is a collection for every kind of fan of horror, the macabre and the gothic. There will be a story in this collection to unsettle you. You’ll recognise it when you find it, among this thoughtful and diverse array of writing.
Things We Say in the Dark is out now in hardback and eBook. It is published by Harvill Secker, Penguin UK.
The main ‘featured image’ used is photo of the author stood against a yellow wall. The second photo used is an image of the book cover. The background is black and in the centre of the cover is a pomegranate cut in half. Around this picture, the title of the book is written in what looks like white pencil scratching. The author’s name is in red at the bottom. Both images are provided courtesy of Penguin UK.