Twenty-three-year-old Nathan is a storyteller. He tells stories around the fire at night, stories of the women who’ve been missing from the community for the past six years.
Miriam died early, one of the first, with the yellow fungus thick on her nose and tongue. It crawled out from her womb and down her legs. […] Today the world moves on, and I must find new ways to turn the truth into stories. The graveyard bears more mushrooms, clustering in soft wet shapes, yellow folds and rivulets, in the outlines of the women beneath the soil. It must mean something good.
Two of the men touch the mushrooms and disappear. The community sends out a search party including Nathan. In the woods at night, he falls asleep. The following morning the sound of humming awakens him.
The ground shudders and from the hole climbs a thing. A woman. A thing. It is yellow and spongy and limbed, with a smooth round ball for a head. It is without eyes, without ears. I press myself against the rough wall as it emerges and stands like a human, like a woman. It has breasts, globes of yellow, and rounded hips that speak to me of woman, of want, and that disgusts me beyond words.
The thing follows Nathan and eventually captivates him. He names her and begins a sexual relationship with her. When Nathan returns to the group, he takes the Beauty with him and they possess the men.
The Beauty bring about a reversal of gender norms and soon it becomes clear that they’re out for revenge, for the ‘Hysteria, the sickness of the womb’ that killed them.
I thoroughly enjoyed Whiteley’s speculative fiction tale. Elements of it reminded me of Margaret Atwood and who can resist Doctor Freud’s misguided, endlessly perpetuating nonsense about women taking a good kicking?
The Arrival of the Missives
In a story which initially seems quite different from The Beauty, our narrator, Shirley Fearn, landowner’s daughter and seventeen-year-old schoolgirl, confesses her love for her teacher, Mr Tiller. Not long returned from the first world war, the villagers gossip that “He isn’t a real man, of course, not after that injury”. Shirley cares not, preferring to imagine what’s under his shirt and waistcoat and declaring her plan to marry Mr Tiller and ‘become a schoolmistress to raise the finest generation yet known to England’. First though, she needs to go to teacher training college in Taunton, if she can get the letter past the busybody at the local post office without her father finding out.
When she sees Tiller tremble as she loiters in the school room after class has finished, she identifies herself as the cause:
The village is unaware how much has changed in the last few moments, and how much I am changing within it. I feel strong, powerful, ripe with possibility.
Shirley walks until she finds herself outside Tiller’s house where she gets what she wants as she sees him remove his waistcoat and shirt. What’s underneath is far from anything she could’ve imagined though:
…the scar is not a scar. It is a pattern revealed, which decorates the entire of his chest and stomach, and lower; I cannot comprehend so many lines and angles, made in the flesh. Except in the centre of the pattern, where there is no flesh at all. There is rock.
How can it be rock? It is solid, and juts forth from the bottom of his ribcage, making a mountain range in miniature, sunk into the body in places and erupting forth in others. There are seams of bright material within it that catch the lamplight, and glitter, delicate and silvery as spider thread.
[Anyone else suspect Whiteley’s a Joy Division fan?]
Once Shirley has seen Tiller’s secret, he recruits her to help him fulfil the needs of those who’ve controlled him since his injuries were sustained. It’s not by accident that he’s come to the village of Westerbridge where generation after generation of the same families have lived, worked and married.
The Arrival of the Missives cleverly shows how a girl on the precipice of womanhood can be manipulated, as were the young men who marched to their deaths – physical and mentally – following the orders of those who should’ve known better. It questions whether our future is predetermined or whether we can change our own destinies. In one sense, it requires more of a suspension of disbelief that The Beauty due to the insertion of something fantastical into an ordinary seeming village in Devon, but it is no less powerful if you’re prepared to give yourself to Whiteley’s vision.
Thanks to Unsung Stories for the review copies.