I saw four things in beautiful fashion
journeying together. Dark were their tracks,
the path very black…
Exeter Book Riddle 40, Paul Franklin Baum translation
Three fingers and a quill move swiftly, leaving the written word black behind them, they are faster than birds when travelling over paths of gold. When trying to describe the writing of Parallel Hells, I find my mind called back a thousand years towards this anonymous Old English poet’s account of setting words down on the page, in very different circumstances to my own, although the sense of the ‘wiga’ or warrior fighting to direct the fingers’ route to form each word remains much the same. For much of my early twenties, I was unable to write, my brain overstuffed with Medieval literature and literary theory, concerns about whether I would become an academic battling with plans for the usual student antics of pubs and parties. Returning to the riddles of the Exeter Book (to which Riddle 40 belongs) as part of my Master’s degree, with the dawning realisation that I would not be going on to do a PhD in the subject I was studying, I was suddenly struck by how many of them gave voice to objects that may have been people or people who may have been objects. The Riddles conjure up a lost world of ploughs and oxen, masters and Welsh slaves, butter churns, drinking horns, cows transformed into pages of vellum and so much more. Reality flickered in the telling, the thing described might be a human warrior or a badger defending his set from line to line, gaining and losing contours in the mind’s eye. I would not be spending the rest of my life employing my creativity in service of hunting down the different definitions of words in the Old English and Old Icelandic that shifted the meaning of the poems, or analysing the manuscript trying to spot possible transmission errors from oral to written form, or theorising about their relationship to the material cultures of the era. But I could still have an ongoing relationship with the texts by drawing inspiration from them, adapting their imagery to my own purposes while trying to retain some of the mystery that had so attracted me. There is always grief in turning one’s back on an imagined future, but sometimes a great surge of energy also, the possibilities of the world reopen once more, the space in one’s mind formerly spent worrying about next steps is newly cleared for ideas to enter.
The first story I wrote that went to form part of Parallel Hells was ‘Pretty Rooms’, a short, sad tale narrated by a set of furniture about the brief lives of its human owners and the dispersal of the objects among their descendants. Initially it is intentionally unclear who or what is speaking, the reader only knows that they are employing ‘we’, the first person plural and it gradually becomes clear over the course of the story whose perspective we are viewing the defamiliarized, enigmatic humans from. Some readers have remarked to me that this story sits oddly among the others, containing no overtly supernatural elements and focusing on a conventional straight couple. But the gaze it casts on them is an uncanny, alien one, removed from their concerns. The narrators note the woman’s lost creative talents, given over to decorating her marital home and resent the couple’s children, ‘the creatures’ who damage the woodwork and break things. This is not a voice that takes twentieth century English norms of marriage and childbearing for granted as the natural way of things, they have seen far more than that over the centuries. The furniture stands witness to their lives but does not reproduce itself, its collective identity is porous, it is presumed silent when in fact it has a voice. Queer people are not furniture of course, but queerness may be the key to unlocking the riddle of the furniture’s perspective. By looking from the corner rather than the centre, we may see the horror, beauty and mutability of a world we had believed unchanging, prosaic and easily comprehensible.
Many of the protagonists in Parallel Hells are simultaneously insiders and outsiders. In ‘The Bequest’, Miri is helping her cousins to clear out the hoarder house of her recently deceased great aunt Ruth and stumbles across a box containing a dybbuk, the restless spirit of Ruth’s lover who was murdered in the Holocaust. Miri is troubled, at odds with her immediate family, who she begins to realise have kept Ruth’s queerness from her. Her lineage and her life are mysteries she must solve, and becoming possessed by a dybbuk eager to experience the pleasures of life as a young woman again is paradoxically helpful for Miri in getting out of a bad relationship and learning to stand up for herself more often. The spirit herself is a sort of interloper, at once intimately rooted in the family’s history and their Jewish history more broadly. Yet she is not tied to them by blood or marriage, no one but Miri knows her name. Both Miri and the dybbuk reside at the heart of things and yet look out at the familiar world at a slant, observing uncomfortable truths. Queerness is sometimes posited by conservatives as an incursion from the outside world, disrupting family norms, but it is Miri’s paradoxical intimacy with her relatives that allows her to find the box and house the dybbuk in her own body before she can lay the familiar ghost to rest.
The shift in perspective to throw new light on a seemingly familiar story is also a choice I made in my reworking of another well-known medieval literary text. ‘A Wolf in the Temple’ retells an episode from The Saga of Burnt Njal, a saga by an anonymous thirteenth century author written in Old Icelandic about a multigenerational blood feud between closely interrelated tenth century families. The strong-willed Hallgerdr is on her third marriage to Gunnar, a famed Viking whose best friend Njal Thorgeirsson is renowned for his wisdom and foresight but ridiculed for his lack of manly vigour. The original story is haunted by accusations of homosexuality and effeminacy, and Gunnar’s marriage is not a happy one. The saga writers were not always especially forthcoming on matters of sex and sexuality, preferring to work with inference, laconic wit and omission. What might Hallgerdr say for herself if she could speak? Why did she hate Gunnar and Njal so much? My answer is to imagine that these two men really were in an extramarital relationship and that the bloody events of the events of the saga were in fact partly a consequence of their attempt to fashion a happier life for themselves within the confines of their society. The freedom that they seized in transgressing gender norms might also have benefitted Hallgerdr as a woman who is shown having trouble fitting into the mould of a good wife throughout the original saga. In my telling, it is Hallgerdr’s stubborn investment in her own social status as mistress of the house and corresponding rage at Gunnar for not fulfilling his duties that provides the missing explanation for her murderous and self-defeating actions.
Obsession and rivalry are the mainstays of another medieval-tinged story in the collection, ‘Lick the Dust’, which follows an unnamed manuscript scholar who discovers a Hand of Glory in an Oxford library and uses it to torment her academic nemesis. A Hand of Glory is traditionally the severed left hand of a hanged thief, used to undo any lock and allow the bearer to walk invisible in the darkness, though this one comes with a high price for anyone who dares use it too often. The more I contemplated this motif, the more comprehensive a metaphor the Hand began to seem for reading the works of the past, which necessitates close contact with the dead and allows us into rooms, worlds even, that we would otherwise have no hope of penetrating. The grisly lantern of literacy affords us light to see into the vanished past, but only a little at a time. My narrator, walking invisible through the college, gloats that ‘there was nothing so pure as being in things but not of them’, misunderstanding both her own growing impulses to use the Hand for evil and the nature of her academic research. Contact in both directions is cumulative, inevitable, however spectral it may feel at first. We touch and are touched ceaselessly by the past as it reaches out to fold us in, searching the archive for the contours of our own faces, hoping that something might have been preserved. My narrator does not have enough tethering her to the present day, and so she is spurred on by the Hand to ever more drastic action to preserve her dusty berth among the manuscripts.
Objects with lives of their own abound in Parallel Hells, the reanimated Hand being just one of them. They trouble the living and make visible the control that unwanted legacies of violence or shame can exert on women’s choices. The silver snake bracelet in ‘Ingratitude’ that tightens with every year unless the wearer gives birth to a daughter and then retightens when that daughter is of age, forcing its own inheritance. It is a cursed item that transforms the inheritor into an object herself, an unwilling vessel for the next generation rather than individual with her own plans and autonomy. Likewise, the ribbon in ‘Stay a While’ is a sign of Livia’s submission to her girlfriend Annie, an objectification she has requested to avoid the burden of choosing freely for herself. But her Annie does not always make decisions with Livia’s best interests at heart and Livia chooses to remain unaware of the burden she has placed upon someone not ready or able to accept the weight of responsibility for another person’s happiness. The ribbon becomes imbued with all of Livia and Annie’s disappointment at the ways they have failed to care for one another and see each other in their full humanity. The ribbon and the bracelet are powerful talismans for truths too painful to be uttered but too important to be dismissed.
The golem in ‘Unfinished and Unformed’ is an object that its Creator has haphazardly imbued with life, below the status of a person and yet longing for human freedoms, for love and the power of speech. It discovers its Creator has a son and sorrows that ‘she had made someone else before me, and cared for him, even though she couldn’t see him’. Hidden away from the outside world, the animating charm placed on the golem is removed on the Sabbath in line with Jewish religious law to prevent it from carrying out work. But it also forgoes the intimacies of its Creator’s family and as a misbegotten secret fashioned by a learned outcast, cannot be absorbed into the public life of the shtetl. The golem’s desire for a form that would be acceptable to other human beings and its lack of knowledge about the world around it drive it to behave in ways its Creator could never have anticipated.
Questions of freedom and the boundary between subjecthood and personhood, the alive and the inert reverberate throughout Parallel Hells. The demon pretends her wings are prostheses, a vampire and a human pass the vampire’s hapless thrall back and forth between them like a toy, a father reels in horror at his disintegrating corpse bride of a daughter. Objects speak and humans fall silent, uncertain of what the events they have been party to might signify. The struggle to insist on one’s own autonomy is paramount, though sometimes this is best achieved by feigning a lack of animating spirit for a time. For a devoted reader, claiming a literary voice of one’s own can feel paradoxically difficult, an act of self-aggrandisement. The most helpful thing for me has been trying to reframe the act of writing not as shoving other books aside but reaching out for them to look again and differently, on my terms and from my particular sidelong perspective. The Medieval texts that came alive during my studies are still with me, having lent themselves to these stories and travelled over the page hovering alongside my halting fingers, though these dark trails are all my own.
Leon Craig’s debut short story collection Parallel Hells is forthcoming from Sceptre Books in February 2022. She has written freelance journalism for the White Review, the TLS, the Brixton Review of Books and Another Gaze, among others.