Culture & Conversation

A Half-Turn into the Horrific

There is a common, but mistaken, idea that genre writing is by definition plot-oriented. In fact, genre fiction can have strengths as widely varied as any other sort of fiction; it all depends on the way the material is handled, and on the nature of the writer telling the tale.

Halli Villegas’ new collection, The Hair Wreath and Other Stories, is mostly horror fiction—but muted horror. Ordinary people suffer uncanny dread, or encounter a moment of exquisite wrongness, or fail to realise the forces aligning against them. Some of the stories can’t even be said to have a truly supernatural element—though, on the other hand, the last tale in the book has a science-fictional setting. But that’s clearly the exception; most of these stories are about relationships, family, the quotidian that takes a half-turn into the horrific.

What makes the stories exceptional is the spare quality of the writing. The stories are mostly very short, and the best of them have a stripped-down intensity that eliminates the need for explicit horror. Small details carry emotional weight, fixing themselves in memory: a girl with hair “spring green, the colour of new grass,” (in “D in the Underworld”), or a moment (in the story “Peach Festival”) in which a girl “could see the wet gleam of her mother’s teeth through her parted lips, and looked away, back down into her cereal bowl, where amorphously shaped pastel marshmallows were turning the water a sickly pink.”

At their best, these moments crystallise character and symbol into a single concrete phrase. Villegas’ strength seems to be in the creation of these resonant moments, and in her ability to use them to illuminate a whole story. There’s an enviable impersonality to the stories even as they present strong emotional material, a detachment that works to draw the reader in.

Conversely, the stories are at their weakest in the actual telling of a tale. Villegas’ handling of plot is much less sure than her command of language; the meat of a story is sometimes either given too simply, or remains too elusive. “The Beautiful Boy” is a fine ghost story that explains itself too easily, leaving powerful images hung on a by-the-numbers narrative. On the other hand, the short-short story “In the Grass” doesn’t explain anywhere near enough to have any effect, feeling more like the hook for a longer tale rather than a story in itself.

It’s notable that one of the better stories in the volume, “D in the Underworld,” is a reworking of an old fertility myth (hence the spring green hair) in a modern city. Villegas creatively reworks a traditional plot, and the result is powerful and unpredictable. In general, the stories are best when Villegas under-explains, rather than over-elucidates; a story like “Peach Festival,” in which two kids wander unsupervised in a fairground, gains strength the more you think about it, the more you allow it to live in your mind.

Occasionally Villegas’ character work is too obviously calculated. The lead characters in “His Ghost” and “Neighbours” are a bit too flat to work, their flaws too clearly signposted and the irony of the stories therefore too blunt. But for the most part these stories are very finely thought through; their language is precise. And, on the whole, the emotional effects are successful. It’s a strong debut collection, marking a writer worth watching.

Matthew Surridge is a Montreal-area writer. His criticism has appeared in The Montreal Gazette and The Comics Journal.

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