Unexpected Places To Fall From, Unexpected Places To Land, my second collection, is published by Unsung Stories. It includes twelve stories dealing with journeys taken and the paths we choose. Some of the characters might crop up as slightly different people in different places, there’s a little bit of horror, a little bit of science fiction and a weird story in which I try and prove that all accredited London taxi drivers are actually descended from the rat coachmen in Cinderella.
In the exact same moment, all possible versions of Prentis O’Rourke will cease to exist. By accident, by malice, by conflict, by illness – Prentis will not simply die. He will go extinct. These are the stories of the journeys we take and the journeys we wish we’d taken.
Malcolm Devlin’s second short story collection ranges from science fiction to folk horror as Prentis O’Rourke’s demise echoes across the dimensions. Scientists, artists, ex-nuns, taxi drivers, time travellers and aliens – the same people living varied lives in subtly different worlds. Something unprecedented will happen, and it will colour them all.
Crossing multiple realities, countless versions of ourselves, and shifting backwards and forwards through time, these are stories of forking paths and unexpected destinations – of flying and falling and getting up to try again.
My Uncle Eff
My Uncle Eff had never been the sort of man who would simply die. He climbed too high, he saw too much. He was a man always destined to become one of his own stories.
This is not a story about how he went missing. This isn’t a story about how I found him. You might not believe it, but this isn’t a story about Eff at all.
’My Uncle Eff’ comes in the final third of the collection. In a way, it’s the last stand-alone story in the book, followed by the third part of a novella and a story called ‘Talking to Strangers on Planes’ which serves to wrap up a number of threads. I’ve described this collection as being less horror focused than ‘You Will Grow Into Them’, but ‘My Uncle Eff’ edges into a horror a couple of times, even if only at arms’ length. These are stories within stories, but some of them are a little bit on the nastier side than others.
I tell Carrie stories about Eff. When I do, I’m conscious that I’m digging him deeper into his own mythology, occluding the gauche simplicity of the truth with further layers of narrative. It feels right, in a way. It’s all he ever wanted; the widening lie. Nothing so common as a funeral for Eff, when his elevation to legend is at stake.
I tell Carrie stories and the infection of Eff seeps like spilled water. A single incantation of ‘once upon a time’ and I sense him somewhere hidden, growing stronger as the words feed him. I see his fingerprints on Carrie’s schoolwork. The stories Eff once told me, the stories I told her, repeated and adapted, scrawled in colourful crayon on a page of sugar-paper.
Although I described this as a stand-alone story, this isn’t the first time we’ll have met Carrie in the collection. She appears in ‘Five Conversations with my Daughter who Travels in Time’ and in ‘The New Man’. So it should be clear to the reader by this point that the narrator is likely Laura O’Rourke, another reoccurring character, and the husband who gets a passing mention later on is Prentis, the protagonist of the second story in the collection. This happens quite a lot. Prentis, Laura and Carrie circle each other in a number of the stories, even if they’re not explicitly named. The idea being that each separate story shows a different version of their dynamic in slightly different worlds.
I must have been her age when Eff first told me about his mother. I was eight years old, an empty vessel ready to be filled, and from her drawings I know that Carrie’s no different. There’s a curious kind of horror to children’s pictures. Here’s the grandmother who died before I was born, resurrected on the page a generation later. A circle for a face, blots for eyes, staring upwards at the pencil-line ceiling of her downstairs room.
‘She lived alone in the family house,’ Eff said. ‘And when she got old, she had me and your dad come by. We moved her bed down to the sitting room so she didn’t have to bother on the stairs. But she didn’t like the thought of all the empty rooms above her. She said she could hear footsteps in them.
‘“You’ve got to seal it all up,” she said to me. ‘You’ve got to lock it all up or the devil will move in.”’
‘My Uncle Eff’ is made up of a number of stories-within-stories. This particular one is one I’d been batting around and trying to figure out how to make work. I had an idea for a story in which an elderly widow moves her bedroom downstairs, leaving the upstairs rooms of her house to the ghost of her dead husband. They share the space as neighbours but he has a tendency to devour those who venture up the stairs. I quite liked the idea, but I couldn’t get it to work in a way that interested me — it felt either too obvious or too clunky whenever I tried to take a run-up at it, and I gave it a few attempts. Sometimes, I find that stubs of stories like this can be fed to other stories to fatten them up a bit. A story that I find myself less invested in becomes lively again when I get another character to tell it.
Eff said he did as he was told. He boarded up all the windows and had locks fixed to all the doors. He brought a contractor in to install a door at the top of the stairs and he set a bar against it, tight and firm.
‘It didn’t do any good,’ Eff said. ‘She heard what she wanted to hear. Her husband’s footsteps in the locked-off rooms. His impossible footfall on the stair. I’d go round sometimes and find a mug of old tea left for him outside the locked landing door, teabag bobbing as he used to like it, getting stronger, colder.
‘But she wouldn’t be moved. She wouldn’t hear sense. I can respect that, kiddo. People don’t always need what’s sensible because it doesn’t always do you good. Everyone thinks it’s the best thing but it isn’t. Not for everyone.’
When I asked what happened to her, Eff cocked his head and lit his cigarette. He was a tall, lean man, and when he sat beside me on the beach he looked as though he had folded himself up like a stepladder. His hair was long and unruly, it curtained his face and hid him from me. When he was on holiday, he never tied it back.
‘Oh,’ he said. I saw a smile flicker. ‘She fell. In the end, everyone falls.’
There’s a Penn and Teller gag where, when watching a movie, they clap politely whenever a character mentions the title for the first time. Having a ridiculously long and unwieldy title insures me against something like that, but there are certainly a handful of references to the idea that ‘everybody falls’ in a number of the stories.
My parents didn’t like Eff telling me stories back then. He had a relationship with my dad that I never really understood. When he wasn’t there, my dad didn’t want him about; but when he was, he would never refuse him. There was something adult between them, which they never saw fit to explain to the likes of me.
When it came to Eff’s stories, things were more cleanly cut. My parents told Eff they thought I was too young to hear the things he had to say and the adamance of the way they said this fuelled me. It drove me to linger near Eff and wait for him to tell me what we both knew he shouldn’t. And he did. He always did.
As I got older, I imagined I would never tell a child of my own the stories that Eff told me. I shield Carrie from the things I see in the news that frighten me: climate change, politics, the bloody despair and conflict caused by both – but there’s something about the way a child can look at you that makes you want to raise your game for them.
‘Tell me a story,’ Carrie says.
And so, of course, I do.
’My Uncle Eff’ was originally written for the anthology, ‘An Invite to Eternity’, edited by Marian Womack and Gary Budden and published by Calque Press in 2018. The brief was to write stories about the scope of climate change and the reaction of the natural world. ‘My Uncle Eff’ tries to address this in a slightly abstract way. The aim was to consider the scale of the oncoming catastrophe as one of Timothy Morten’s hyperobjects; a concept so vast it feels ungraspable, and which can only be comprehended by reducing it to the dimensions of a myth. So while climate is referenced in the background, in the foreground we have a series of myths: a cliff path which grants people the view the sheer scale of the world, and a parallel story about a child rejecting the truth of their parents divorce by framing it as a more digestible ghost story. Both are largely the same story and both, I hope, put Uncle Eff’s own story in context.
Here’s a story about where I used to live.
Years ago, before I was born, there was a man who lived in flat 913 who cheated on his wife. His name was MacNamarra and he was a miserable sonofabitch who didn’t have time for anyone except the woman two floors up, who let him fall asleep in her arms while she rocked him like a baby. When his wife found out, she seasoned his Sunday steak with rat poison and opened him a beer so he could wash it down.
Rat poison doesn’t kill you straight away. Not if you’re as big as MacNamarra was, not if you only have a little. MacNamarra didn’t have a little, but even that wasn’t enough to kill him outright. He felt something seismic in his gut and it lit warning lights all the way up to his brain. He made it to the lift in the south hallway, he even managed to punch the emergency button which lit all the lights red and sent the lift directly to the ground floor.
Only his corpse made it all the way. People said he died somewhere between floors seven and six, as though that was something anyone could possibly know.
A more lengthy story-within-a-story. The story of the undertower is more-or-less the opposite of Eff’s story about the cliffs. It crops up a few times through the story and fills in Laura’s relationship with her parents. For this opening section, I wanted it to have a slightly breathless pace as though it was being told orally around a campfire.
There were other lifts in the tower, but when I was small, we didn’t take any chances. Fuelled by sugar and superstition, all of us tower kids owned the staircases. We told each other that if you took the lift, when you passed the seventh floor, all the lights would flicker. They’d flash red and you’d catch sight of MacNamarra huddled in the corner scratching his stomach raw as though he could claw the poison away.
One summer, Beth Dooley from 812 said she saw MacNamarra’s face behind the window of the stairwell door on the seventh floor. Dooley was a bit of a punchbag. We’d each of us taken our turn holding her out over the stairwell, and even though we knew she was only talking to us because she wanted our approval, we staked out the door for a good week in case we might see something we pretended we didn’t want to see.
As we got older, the story grew with us. As the lift descended past the seventh floor the lights would now go out entirely, and when the doors opened in the foyer the lift would be empty, except for a sweet burning smell, like someone just put out a match. But for the passenger, the lift would keep going, deep down into the ground; down into the dark.
The Under Tower was the tower we knew reflected in the concrete and dirt which surrounded us. The primal ground in which the city had been seeded, the ground that untamed development had poisoned and corrupted. Sometimes, you could see the Under Tower in the sheets of rainwater which pooled between the broken flags, tinged dull and pink by the local clay. It extended deep into the earth, a neatly ordered hell. The corridors were endless, the walls were like red Chinese paper, and if you ever found yourself there, you would never leave.
We’ll leave it there. Coming up are more stories-within-stories, which — hopefully — coalesce into something whole. I find myself increasingly interested in stories that patchwork together ideas and pieces from elsewhere, pulling back at the end to reveal how they fit together. My Uncle Eff is ultimately about coming to terms with things that are too big to fully understand, so I hope the approach makes some sort of sense.
Malcolm Devlin’s Unexpected Places to Fall From, Unexpected Places to Land is published by Unsung Stories.