Vampires in the Clubs

Leon Craig, Parallel Hells

Sceptre, 224pp, £14.99, ISBN 9781529371420

reviewed by Lily Kuenzler

Within beauty, there is horror. Within horror there is beauty. This is the paradoxic at the heart of Leon Craig’s debut short story collection, Parallel Hells. Craig’s stories have an otherworldly sense of the supernatural: she writes of strange creatures, magical outsiders and uncanny happenings. Often, these folkloric elements are woven into a fabric of modern day debauchery — drugs, parties and sex. There are vampires in the clubs and the Devil is on acid. Though the stories nod to religious and gothic traditions, they feel electrically modern; non-rigid gender identity, queer sex and sexuality add a fluidity that allow her characters to dance in every direction.

The most rewarding aspect of Craig’s prose is its duality. Her reader never feels too full of one poison or too far from its antidote. This is apparent in her fluctuating use of language. Sometimes she describes things so visceral that the reader almost feels physically sick, like when she vividly narrates eating a human corpse, at once 'sweet and bitter'. Or the twisted and hideous jealousy that drives an academic to attempted murder. This is counterbalanced by Craig’s astonishing lightness in describing beauty. An insect with legs ‘as fine as hairs’ wonders through ‘Unfinished and Unformed’. In ‘Stay A While’, haunting life is breathed into stone:

A raised marble slab lay at the centre of the folly, with tufts of moss growing from its veins. The slab had absorbed none of the day’s heat, and Livia was already tensing her body as she undressed to lie upon it.

The narrator of ‘Ingratitude’ pauses to ponder an uncanny apparition:

She had found an envelope and was tearing into it with the letter knife. Through the window, I could see snowdrops around the pond and a furtive cat, white against white snow.

Beauty and ugliness nestle together, as exemplified in the queer club scenes in ‘Hags’, ‘The Bequest’ and ‘Stay A While’. In ‘Hags’ a timeless, genderless being, Asta, inhabits the body of a woman to feed on the shame of modern day Londoners — a genius twist on vampire folklore. The nightclub, and all its lovely danger, is encapsulated in the ‘Broken glass glittered in a spray around the overflowing bins’ outside. Finding a lover here to feed on, Asta reveals: ‘We passed pain back and forth between us like language.’

The nightclub scenes are in equal measure sordid and salvationary — they are hell and home for their inhabitants. In ‘The Bequest’ they undo our protagonist, but also allow her to escape. The violent and sadomasochistic relationships in ‘Stay A While’ are painful when echoed against past trauma, but empowering in their release: ’Two high femmes with long blue tresses were weaving green ribbons into a corset pattern around the needles they’d inserted into a third girl’s back.’ Craig is not shy of gore or guts; at a time when our literary and artistic landscape feels increasingly sanitised, the sheer grisliness of her stories really packs a punch.

Somehow, in magicking a world of religious superstition, monsters and fairytales, Craig creates situations which ring absolutely true. Often, it feels like contemporary writing tries too hard to reflect exact reality back to us: we are left wondering whether perhaps a trip down to the corner-shop for a packet of cigs and a chocolate bar could have taught us the same thing as the story we just read. Craig’s writing is more fantastic, more colourful, more beautiful and ugly in equal measure than real life could ever be — and that's precisely what makes it feel so powerful.

Take Asta, for example, bound to wonder the planet lonely forever. The hungry connection and shame she finds behind the closed doors of a stranger’s orgasm speaks straight to the pit of all the joy and sorrow of a one-night stand. Or our narrator in ‘No Dominion’, whose ghoulish resurrection from the ocean floor is a beautiful distillation of unrequited love. Or the father in ‘Lipless Grin’, who refuses to love his daughter for who she is rather than who he wishes her to be, and watches her crumble before his eyes. Anyone searching for an adventure into the literary underworld need look no further than this queer and compelling collection.

Lily Kuenzler is a writer working in London. She is a member of the Word Factory UK team, and has written and directed theatre in London and Edinburgh.