Helen McClory discusses On the Edges of Vision

We begin a new year with a new author. Helen McClory's otherworldly short fiction recently won the Saltire Society First Book award, and she chats here about how her fiercely original collection On the Edges of Vision came to be born

Feature by Alan Bett | 11 Jan 2016

Sometimes less is more. Anybody can describe a chair or an apple, to the finest detail perhaps. Most could even draw quite an accurate picture of one or both. And wouldn’t that be boring?

Far more intriguing is when the dimmer switch is turned down. When that everyday object or situation is seen in the half-light, that psychological dusk. Possibilities open into spaces as wide as your imagination.

Helen McClory’s stories are told in that half-light. They exist On the Edges of Vision: the title of her debut collection. These are tales of the monsters lurking within us all. “Using that as a way to explore identity,” McClory explains. Many of her individual pieces have appeared elsewhere, in a list consisting mainly of online publications which most will never have heard of. Then again they are unusual pieces of writing. “I try to send them to unusual magazines, which publish weird stuff,” she says when we meet for coffee in the windowless basement bar of the Traverse Theatre, making it possible to believe that the monster lurking outwith – the torrential October rain – does not exist.

As we cup warm drinks in thawing hands, The Saltire Literary Awards are still far off on the horizon. In this real life story McClory goes on to win the first book prize, awarded at a plush ceremony in November. But at this precise moment she is weeks from knowing it, delighted simply to be nominated in the recently announced shortlist. “I was so surprised that they picked it [On the Edges of Vision] and so, so pleased, just absolutely amazed,” she says, before adding with a hint of optimism, “I think from other years, for the first book they do seem to choose sort of ‘out there’ things.

“When I found out, I was walking to Kirsty [Logan’s] launch… I was wandering around and sitting in Waterstones listening to Kirsty, going, ‘I don’t know what’s happening, something’s happening.’ I couldn’t really process it.”

The Saltire Society First Book award

Although the book was published a good two months earlier, as we talk not one review of it exists on Amazon, if that indicates anything at all. At the moment of writing, this has increased to one solitary soul leaving their well-considered five-star thoughts. The only other reviews of the collection exist on independent reader’s blogs. No mainstream press as yet – a situation soon to change, perhaps.

Yet somehow, thankfully, the Saltire Society took notice. A move to be lauded, for despite the unquestionable artistic worth of On the Edges of Vision, it is a defiantly uncommercial work. Jagged themes and structures ensure that these stories are no easy read. Although, in a more measurable way, they are. The full 40 stories form under 200 pages. There’s not much of them really. Well, not on the page anyway. But that wonderful space we mentioned at the beginning of this article. There’s just so goddamn much of it. So many questions left to be asked.

“Yeah, that’s something I’m really interested in,” McClory says. “Finding the spaces for people. I think it’s important to give the reader a lot of space. The stories that stick with you are the ones that aren’t quite neatly tied.” This opinion is reflected by the fact that her own tales dismiss conventional narrative with a pat on the head, as if to ask ‘why would we need you here?’ They are of a form which pays the reader the highest respect. “Sometimes I have to look back on stuff and go, 'Ok, you’ve just given the reader nothing to do.'” McClory says. “Try to give them something to test them.”

Much of her writing takes the form of flash fiction, a literary style of extreme brevity which can, certainly in McClory’s case, communicate through the visual, like a word sculpture. “I think I have a visual sense more than I have other senses, maybe that’s what I’m going for,” she ponders. “And I like flash fiction because you can have this small piece, even just a paragraph on the page, and all this white space around it forces you to kinda just look at it as a shape, you know?”

More from Books:

 New year's advice for new poets: how to get started in Scotland

 Claire-Louise Bennett on her debut short story collection, Pond

In addition to word count, McClory imposed a chronological restraint upon herself. Each story was written within a single day – the full collection (excluding two stories) written over only a month and a half. Yet it’s difficult to align the polish of these pieces with the concision of their creative process. “That was just natural,” she says of the method,  “because I have a word count. I say I’ll do 500 words a day, or 1000 words a day, and for a flash thing it’s really easy to keep to that schedule, it’s a really nice way of testing yourself and not starting to wander on and jibber, you know? 'Okay, this is my constraint,' this helps me. 'Here’s your white page, fill it up.'”

And we’ve got to this stage without really mentioning what these stories contain. Well, there’s Pretty Dead Girl Takes a Break, whose title provides far more of a spoiler than I ever would – if your mind is literal and dark enough. Then in Biblical we have a girl dismantling her own body far out in the desert. Far out indeed. Not quite blood and guts but also far from a clean literary metaphor – more a psychedelic 70s sci-fi headfuck. A number of stories have this glowing narcotic edge to them, and The Skinny is too polite to ask if McClory indulged in anything herself, but we suspect these tales were born more from dark day dreaming than any sort of drug dabbling.

Many pieces share a lineage with the strange old BBC 2 arthouse films you might have woken up on the couch to, before the channel finally called it quits for the night. This forms a delightfully unpretentious mix of cult and genre trappings with well realised high-end literary aspirations. “Well, I love so-called low culture stuff.” McClory confirms. “I hate that low culture/high culture divide. I watch a lot of macabre telly and films. I have a friend who’s a film buff and I’m just like, ‘What did I see?’”

Over the cooling dregs of our coffees we discuss tastes as wide and varied as the 1970’s Japanese film Hausu and American Horror Story. “It doesn’t make any sense really, the narratives just break apart all the time.” McClory says admiringly, and tellingly, of the hit US series. “People complain about it but it seems like it’s almost deliberate. They just go ‘we don’t care about that storyline anymore, we won’t resolve that in any meaningful way. Just move onto the next thing,' and I love that aspect. Really kind of creative, gory, challenging and interesting.”

Helen McClory's influences and inspirations

And while On the Edges on Vision is very much its own unique artefact, certain influences are still lightly worn: twisted humour very much in line with Roald Dahl’s tales of the unexpected – a crepuscular ray bursting through the brooding black clouds of horror; the sexualised subtext of Angela Carter’s dark fairy tales; the general otherworldliness of The Twilight Zone.

But McClory talks of further inspiration, from outside the sphere of narrative storytelling (and it’s always healthy when art looks beyond eating its own tail through self-reference): “I just wandered into an art gallery while I was in London and it was this really bizarre art, it was pictures of bodies made of tights, stuffed tights. So it looked kind of like human bodies but it was all these long weird limbs, bent out of place and odd, and that kind of haunted me for a while.”

Just as her stories will likely haunt anyone sharp enough to pick up a copy of this strange and rare book. This now award-winning collection of some of the most exciting and challenging new writing we've seen all year, which all began when a writer “just sat down one day and was like, 'OK, write a story a day and just see where you go.'”

On The Edges of Vision is out now, published by Queens Ferry Press, RRP £10.87