REMEMBER WHY YOU FEAR ME
By Robert Shearman
“I define theme as a general useable statement of the author’s belief about the world and human nature. A theme is useable if it incorporates a statement of human desire and a further statement about how the world works to thwart or interfere with that desire. . . . it seems to me that the best themes evolve out of deeply held personal beliefs. . . . To arrive at your theme (if you’re not lucky enough to figure out what you are doing right away), you need to ask yourself over and over: what does this material illustrate to me about what I believe to be the way the world works? The key here is that you have to arrive at some rock-bottom belief of your own . . .” – Douglas Glover, “How to Write a Novel”
Understood this way, the analysis of theme is key to any attempt at holistic criticism, which looks for consistency and pattern in all of an author’s work. How could a core belief and understanding of the world not be reflected in everything they write? It’s an approach I often take myself, mapping a writer’s signature landmarks and moral geography and then plugging particular incidents, scenes, characters and stories into the matrix. Theme becomes authorial DNA, a marker that can take many different forms but which will always reveal the same unique, infinitely replicating code.
In a short story collection, especially a “selected” volume of an author’s best or most representative work, you can expect this thematic code to be more obvious. And so, I think, it is in Robert Shearman’s Remember Why You Fear Me, a collection of the British author’s “best dark fiction.” And while at first blush a book full of the usual horror panoply of ghosts and werewolves and Santa Claus (not to mention removable hearts and fanged cherubs) might not seem like the best place to look for material that illustrates “the way the world works,” it is in fact the very freedom that fantasy gives to envision a more stark and elemental psychological and social reality that makes stories like these all the more essentially thematic. A fantasy writer doesn’t have to pay pen service to canons of verisimilitude and can present a more abstract and imaginative vision in the most revealing and evocative terms.
How does Shearman’s world work? Its abiding psychological state is one of uncomfortable numbness. (“Uncomfortably numb” was a note I made after reading the first few stories, and I felt a certain sense of critical validation when, in the later story “Alice Through the Plastic Sheet,” the young couple have Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” on their playlist. When things like this happen you know you start to feel you’re on the right track.) Numbness for Shearman most often takes the form of emotional detachment, an inability to feel emotions oneself or to empathize with those of others. Typically his plots revolve around couples who are breaking up, though not because of any particular dislike for each other. Husbands and wives in particular fall into routines and out of love: they get to know each other “less and less day by day” and “make love that [isn’t] love at all.” This, experience and surveys tell us, is nothing new, but in Shearman’s hands even a young couple away on a romantic holiday for some bread-and-breakfast shagging find themselves already going through the motions on Day Two. Meanwhile, parents can’t understand their children and children are cut off from their parents (a boy watches his mother die in spectacular fashion but only feels “a certain ennui;” a mother gives birth to a dead baby and is appalled to learn that now she has to “take the stillborn little parasite home and feed it and pet it and read it fairy tales and give some sort of shit when it screamed”).
If the nuclear family can’t keep its shit together, what hope is there for the rest of us?
One could see in this the dark side of the British stiff upper lip: an apathy so deep it never gets ruffled because no one really cares about anything. What makes this all the more remarkable is the fact that the people we meet are confronted with emotional extremes (births and deaths in the family being recurring plot points) as well as some other very odd, supernatural phenomena. But none of it seems to get a rise. A reproductive miracle in “One More Bloody Miracle After Another” leaves the narrator just feeling old and “droopy.” In the story “Good Grief” David’s wife Janet is killed in a car accident and it doesn’t affect him at all:
What actually happened, when he found out his wife was dead, was that he went quite numb. He felt sorry for the policewoman who brought him the bad news: she was so upset, she was so young, she probably hadn’t done this much before. But only vaguely sorry, he wasn’t sure how to express himself. And when he thanked her for her time and wished her a nice day he hoped it had come out right.
David’s sense of not feeling the way he’s supposed to feel, and eventually his questioning whether he actually feels anything, stays with him as he goes through all the formalities of informing other family members and arranging the funeral. Then he notices his face going numb.
As things turn out, this is a ghost story, a nicely-turned tale of possession, but what I think it’s meant to illustrate is a natural slide into moral paralysis or spiritual deadening. Numbness is the entropy in Shearman’s universe, the still point to which everything is running down. Relationships take work/energy in order to maintain. As we get older we find it harder to hold things together. And if this is a “rock-bottom belief” then you can expect to see it not just in obvious instances like a story about the (literal) hardening of a man’s heart (“Pang”), or another story (“Featherweight”) that begins with a man having just been in a car crash that has killed his wife (“He thought at first that she was dead. And that was terrible, of course – but what shocked him most was how dispassionate that made him feel.”), but also in all the little spaces in-between:
And for a moment he felt quite relieved, because it meant he had no reason to run anymore, and he’d done his best, hadn’t he? And for another moment he was quite angry. And then he just didn’t feel anything very much, he was just so tired.
The story “Alice Through the Plastic Sheet,” one of the best pieces here, expresses a lot of this very nicely. It begins with Alan and Alice finding out that one of their neighbours has died and that his widow is selling the house. And they hadn’t even known! “How could all that death and suffering been going on not thirty feet away without their knowing?” How? Because they didn’t much care, and weren’t particularly interested. Alice trots out a stock response: “We’re going to miss them.” Alan is less sure: “I suppose we will.”
This is a common enough situation, typical of atomized life in the ‘burbs everywhere. But their lack of true neighbourly feeling is a signal of how things are going to start changing for the worse. Things fall apart and the deathward entropic march begins when a mysterious new family moves in next door, one seemingly defined by their status as consumers of all kinds of stuff. Like the woman in “So Proud” who gives birth to furniture and useful domestic items, they are defined by things. And as it turns out, their dead plasticity is infectious. Peeping in their window, Alan falls off a ladder, which gives rise to a flash of unwelcome self-analysis:
“I’m going to die,” he thought, quite clearly, “I’m falling into the black,” and down he crashed, and he wondered whether death would hurt. And he wasn’t bothered, and he wondered why he wasn’t bothered, and his brain said to him, “God, Alan, just how depressed are you?” but he put that out of his head quickly, he always put it from his head, he had no time for depression, and besides, he didn’t want that to be his final thought as he died.
In that evasive jerk – “he put that out of his head quickly” – there is already a little death. Thought can be a bother. Depression involves too much self-awareness. Better to empty oneself completely and focus on getting on with it. The results of this comes later, when Alan is told by his wife that she is starting an affair. By then he can only respond with the numbness of rigor mortis.
“Oh,” said Alan. He supposed he ought to have felt angry. Was that what she wanted? But he had no anger left. He’d used it all up, wasted it on loud music and garden rubbish.
There’s one zombie story included in Remember Why You Fear Me, “Granny’s Grin,” but it’s an odd kind of zombie story, and the fact is almost all the other stories are zombie stories too, in another manner of speaking. And I think this reflects the reasons why zombies have become the defining monsters of our age. Shearman’s characters are hollow men (and women), numb on the outside and rotting within. They have the sad, pathetic quality of Romero’s lumbering living dead, with many of them even having a kind of terminally in-between status (a man whose death notice has been lost; a mother who “dies” at different times for each of her children). Also reminiscent of Romero is the satirical commentary on the zombification of our culture, the sinking into automaton like routines of consumption. We often speak of the “zombie apocalypse” as a spectacular end-of-the-world event where graves open, blood runs in the street, and civilization as we know it comes to an end. In fact, “apocalypse” when used in relation to zombies more accurately means a kind of revelation (the strict meaning of the word) of “the way the world works.” And it makes for a great theme.
Review first published online November 26, 2012.