Friday, 6 January 2012

Short Fiction Corner | The Grinding House by Kaaron Warren

Do you remember the Good Old Days?

"They were good. People cared about each other. Wealthy governments gave money to poor countries. You could go to the doctor even if you didn't have money to pay. The government would pay. And they'd help you if you couldn't find a job. Not throw you in jail."

Not so much nowadays. Nowadays, the sad fact is that "no one gives a shit about anyone. [..] People are dying of hunger and deprivations," and all anyone seems to care about - according to the gospel of The Grinding House - is Slenderize, "the complete weight-loss-mental-health programme. It's even got an anti-cancer agent in there."

Why wouldn't you want some of that action?

As it happens, there's at least one good reason - one very good reason - but I'll leave that for you folks to find out in your own time. As well you should: Kaaron Warren is such a powerful purveyor of the weird and the wonderful as to practically alarm, and her 2005 novella The Grinding House is, I think, among her very finest fictions.

Disturbing and disarming in equal parts, The Grinding House is the twisted tale of four friends - the brothers Nick and Rab; Sasha, the woman everyone wants; and Bevan, the odd man out - four friends and sometime lovers who escape to an abandoned almond grove in the countryside when an apocalyptic plague sweeps through the city.

I'll say they don't all make it.

"This is what happens. First the feet feel stiff and the heels sore. You can't bend your toes. Then your ankles feel stiff. It is worse overnight. You wake up in pain. As you walk you feel the bones crackle. Like walking on eggshells. Your fingers, too. You can't move your fingers. [...] You know then that you don't have long. [...] Your neck stiffens. Your groin feels painful. When you walk, it is like your pelvis is mortar and your spine a pestle, grinding, grinding."

It's harrowing stuff, this. Mercifully short, but bitterly, brilliantly beautiful; a fusion of intensity and intimacy so gnarled together as to appear inseparable. Warren wends effortlessly from moments of churning, repulsive horror to episodes abbreviated from some lyrical escapist fable. In quick succession The Grinding House put me in mind of The Pesthouse by Jim Crace, the work of Sam Taylor - specifically The Republic of Trees - and of course Warren's own Walking the Tree.

In the erstwhile Warren builds her characters cannily - not necessarily pleasant characters, but they are no less authentic for that - without seeming for a single solitary second to do so, and ultimately delivers deathblows so sudden and shocking as to appall. I was, for my part, quite beside myself by the end.

The Grinding House is experimental horror of highest order: a harrowing vegetarian fable - and what of it? - more affecting in just a few thousand words than most full length novels aspire to be in their entirely.

But I expect the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Thus, dear readers, I bid you: eat, and be well!

Or unwell, as the case may be...


The Grinding House is available now as a Kindle Single, priced to move, from the folks at 40k Books, or as part of Dead Sea Fruit, Ticondera Publishing's 2010 collection of this alarmingly talented Aussie author's sterling short fiction.

Go now, and gorge. :)

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