Licorice – Bridget Penney

Halloween, a perfect time to review a novel about four people making a horror movie.

Bridget Penney’s ‘Licorice’, primarily, revolves around four characters; Licorice, a “Chinese lady”, middle-aged, overstayed her visa is the co-director of the film, Pete, who lives upstairs and is organized (and has the ability to claim VAT) is made co-director, then there’s Angela a friend of Licorice’s who is playing the lead role and Roy, Angela’s ex, who is playing the Angela’s partner.

The movie they are making, unscripted of course, is about local legend Nan Kemp (played by Angela), who allegedly killed her children and fed them to her husband (played by Roy). She was executed and is buried at the local crossroads

The novel swims in and out of each of the four main character’s thoughts, with no qualifying markers letting you know whose internal monologue you are eavesdropping on, as well as having no punctuation for conversations, you’re not sure who is talking, if they’re talking at all. An “experimental” mishmash of local lore, relationships, movie making and horror. The movie feel coming through as though you’re observing a bunch of rushes, unedited, what will end up as the final product?

The backstory of Licorice, her illegal immigrant status bleeds through the movie theme:

English horror roots itself in the land, celebrating its muck and grooving on the old ultraviolence. People cling dumbly to traditions because they are things they’ve always done not because there’s anything good about them. No one makes any attempt to understand why they act the way they do. They look on anything new, anyone from outside, with fear and suspicion. Any ‘different’ element entering an English horror film has to be consumed before it can threaten their ‘way of life’

The prose rambling and frenetic:

Small tortoiseshell meadow brown gatekeeper orange tip brimstone green hairstreak wall comma common blue Adonis blue chalkhill blue small blue ringlet dingy skipper small skipper grizzled skipper marbled white my favourite one of all painted ladies migrating in huge clouds peacock red admiral and very exceptionally the duke of burgundy might dark up from just in front of your feet.

A style that may disorient a number of readers, however I took the advice of one of the characters:

The most important thing you’ve taught me Licorice is how when your surroundings are brand new and strange you should treat everything as a gift rather than a threat.

Approach the novel with this philosophy in mind and there are riches galore, yes it’s not all comfortable, however persistence will bring forth a number of horror movie tropes, if you’ve watched English horror you find yourself entering into a dream like state, déjà vu as you are sure you’ve come across this scene before.

One of the other prominent “characters” in the novel is the mill, the wind powered structure that turns wheat into flour. There are many references to the multiple strains that are put on the mill’s structural timbers, causing the body of the mill to collapse. An allegory for the relationships between the characters perhaps?

The blurb at the publisher Book Works website points to the book using “Well-worn tropes lifted from films”, three are mentioned and I’ve thought of possibly two others, originally the blurb mentioned there were “more than 25 films”, it has recently had the number edited out. As an avid movie watcher, it would be great if other readers could point me to any films they believe have been included:

  1. Irma Vep (1996) – Licorice the Maggie Cheung character, dressed in black, displaced, lusted after by all
  2. The Mask of Satan (1960) – a witch is put to death by her own brother
  3. The Blair Witch Project (1999) – improvised, hand held footage, missing footage, camping
  4. The Shuttered Room (1967) – set in a mill in Norfolk
  5. The Wicker Man (1973) – I’m not sure the linkage here, even if there is one, but the scenes in the pub and the rural setting brought it to mind as I was reading

A book about a horror story, using horror story tropes, it is the first book in the Book Works “Interstices” series. As the accompanying bookmark explains:

Interstices are very small spaces ‘standing between’ solid objects. Sometimes so minute the eye passes straight over them, yet a beam of light directed through and interstice has the potential to illuminate in an unexpected way. Interstices simultaneously divide and connect what surrounds them. They can be places for distraction, experiment and potentially radical redefinition. An interstice can also be a tiny interval of time, unaccounted for and uncountable, the transitional space at the end of a breath. On the web, interstitials are those annoying pages overlaying the content page you were expecting to reach. On the map, a border or a nobody’s land could be visualized as an interstice; whether it’s safe or dangerous will depend on who you are.

A radical experimentation of a novel from Bridget Penney, who is also the author of ‘Honeymoon with Death and Other Stories’ (1991, Polygon), and ‘Index’, published by Book Workds in 2008, the opening entry in their Semina series of experimental novels. Another of her stories is scheduled to appear in Salt publications ‘ The Best British Stories 2020’. I received my copy of this book through my subscription to the Republic of Consciousness Prize, where a monthly subscription to the Prize is rewarded with a book from a small independent press (fewer than five staff) each month. As did ‘Mr Beethoven’ by Paul Griffiths, and ‘New Passengers’ by Tine Høeg (translated by Misha Hoekstra) two other titles I’ve reviewed here recently. All books worthy contenders for the 2021 Republic of Consciousness Prize an award for “the best fiction published by publishers with fewer than 5 full-time employees”.

Off-kilter, yes but when your “surroundings are brand new and strange you should treat everything as a gift rather than a threat”.

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