Talk about books

A fortnightly newsletter by Art Kavanagh about things I’ve read

No. 19; 4 August 2021

Felicia C Sullivan, Follow Me into the Dark

“It deepens like a coastal shelf”

“I tried to kill you once,” Ellie, who is dying of cancer, tells her daughter, Kate. In fact, the attempt she is referring to, which she made when Kate was 10 years old, was her second.

The first time didn’t count because my motives were altruistic. I wanted to scrub your history clean with a little bleach, a little water — our family’s sicknesses — but I wasn’t successful. (Follow Me into the Dark, Feminist Press, 2017, p. 280)

Kate is the third generation of potentially or actually homicidal women in her family. The novel opens with her attempt to burn to death a woman named Gillian, who has been having sex with Ellie’s husband while Ellie lies dying. Kate tells us that Gillian, her stepfather’s lover, is “a photocopy of me, which sickens and comforts him all at once” (p. 3). Gillian escapes alive from the burning hotel room and takes over the narrative for a while. The story is told for the most part in the first person, but the point of view alternates, starting with Kate, then shifting to Gillian, then to Ellie and finally back to Kate.

Kate believes, perhaps with good reason, that her mother has never loved her, and this belief colours not just her relationship with her mother but her feelings about herself.

I traveled the distance between love and hate and all the desire, grief and sadness in between, but in the end I found that I’d only inched my way to the middle of the two, and I would be forever stuck in the place of hating myself for needing my mother’s acceptance and love. (p. 274)

Ellie was in no doubt that she had been hated by her mother, Norah, who could barely bring herself to say Ellie’s name. Norah told Ellie to call herself Ingrid (and other names) instead. Ellie’s friend Delilah disappeared, and Ellie suspected that Norah had killed her. Norah neglected and barely fed Ellie until Norah’s father, Simon, moved in with them and forced Norah to start keeping up appearances, including keeping regular meal times.

Sometimes a man needs to do whatever it takes to protect his name. Especially when his daughter is hell-bent on ruining it. (p. 126)

Simon is in fact Ellie’s father as well as her grandfather and Norah’s father, a fact that goes some way towards accounting for Norah’s antipathy towards her daughter. Ironically, Ellie finds Simon’s presence in the house a comfort:

I want this normal. I want to be afraid of the men on the radio, not what’s behind my front door. As long as my grandfather is alive, I’m safe. In five years’ time my mother will grow weak and her hands will involuntarily shake, and in ten years she will no longer remember her own name. I will find myself crawling my way back to her and later I will become her. I’ll drag my daughter Kate underwater in hopes that the mermaids will sing her a song. (pp. 129–30)

Later, when Ellie had left Kate’s father, Tim, and didn’t want to be found, she imitated her mother and imposed a different name on her daughter, who was now to be known as Gillian, to her initial distress. Acts of gruesome violence, cruelty and maternal abuse echo across three generations.

Of course, there’s paternal abuse too, notably in the behaviour of Simon, but few of the male characters are as dangerous as the female ones. Tim, Kate’s father, is described as “weak” and this is a term that can equally be applied to her stepfather, James. But then there’s Lionel, who appears to be an alter ego or dissociated personality, and is at least implicated in the murderous actions of a serial killer known as the Doll Collector.

Yes, there’s a serial killer, on top of everything else. Yes, as the nickname implies, most of the killer’s victims are young women. My tolerance for serial killers is usually low but I did not feel that this one was out of place (any more that the one in, say, Andrew Taylor’s Roth trilogy).

I don’t make a habit of avoiding spoilers in this newsletter but in this particular case I’m going to say no more about the plot, except that I found it to be very well put together. The reason for my reticence is that the novel probably isn’t as well known as it deserves to be, so that there’s less chance that you’ll have already read it.

I first heard of the novel at about the same time it came out, in 2017. I had signed up for Medium at the beginning of the year and wondering if it was a suitable place to post short fiction. I found that there was an active community of fiction writers on the site but that they tended to be eclipsed by people who wrote about things like technology, self-improvement and various other topics. I’d been toying with the idea of starting an email newsletter — something about which I was quite ambivalent — and I hit on the idea of writing one about “Recommended short fiction on Medium”. So, I started to look on the site for short stories that I could recommend.

I quickly formed the opinion that Felicia C Sullivan was one of the two best short story writers that I found on Medium. (The other was a former journalist writing under the name Dan Belmont. I believe he has since switched to software development.)

The links to two of her stories that I recommended in my old newsletter now don’t work. However, she has reposted those stories with slightly different titles (and maybe a few other details changed), and you can find them here:

We live in the Blue Ruin” (previously posted as “Blue Ruin”)

Watching Soaps with the Men Who Kidnapped Me” (previously “Watching Soaps with the Repo Men”)

We Decided to Wear the Sky
This is one I would have recommended in the newsletter if I hadn’t been limiting myself to two stories by each author.

This page has links to 16 of Sullivan’s stories on Medium, including “We Decided to Wear the Sky”. I haven’t read all of them, though I intend to now that I’ve reminded myself of the page’s existence. From what I know of Sullivan’s writing, I don’t think you can go far wrong with any of them.

All except one of the stories on that page are more than two years old. Sullivan has still been posting her writing on Medium but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to include any short fiction these days. She has considered leaving the platform, as she is unhappy that what she has written is being stolen and reposted by copyright infringers as “content” to sell ads. In short, there’s a risk that she may soon delete this fiction page, and I’d recommend that you read these stories soon, while you have the chance.

Thanks for reading. I welcome comments, and would love to get a discussion going.

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Originally posted on Substack (Talk about books), 04–Aug-2021.