Philip Pullman once wrote, “Swiftness is a great virtue in a fairy tale. A good tale moves with a dreamlike speed from event to event, pausing only to say as much as is needed and no more.” (Daemon Voices). Though he was speaking about the classical fairy tales collated by the Brother’s Grimm, he could well be describing Eric LaRocca’s new novella We Can Never Leave This Place.
Dreamlike is a particularly apt word for the story LaRocca conjures in this brief but memorable fable. Despite the surreal nature of the narrative, the characters, and the setting, we feel that there is this dreadful and compelling internal logic to what is transpiring, much as we do when in the throes of the dream (and it’s only when we wake up that we realise how strange and impossible everything that occurred truly was).
Everything is slightly off in We Can Never Leave This Place. The house in which our fifteen year-old-protagonist, Mara, and her mother live seems like a house, yet a pipe breaches into the living room spilling raw sewage. It’s a constant feature of the landscape, a reminder of something festering at the hearts of our main characters. Then there are the weird “monsters” who, one by one, are brought into the house under the mother’s orders. There’s Rake, a spider. Samael, a snake. And other creatures from your worst nightmares. But so well-realised is the mood and setting of the novella that we don’t find the introduction of these anthropomorphised animals absurd, but rather unsettling. We question what they represent. And we question whether we are actually being filtered through Mara’s perception. She sees them as monsters, so they are described that way, and maybe she isn’t delusional; after all, what she sees seems to be the truth of who these people really are.
LaRocca is apparently a playwright and this is evident in the way he uses “the stage”. For example we know there is a war going on outside the house, but we never see it. We hear the booms of bombs dropping and the rattle of gunfire. Characters sometimes come in and tell us about what’s going on outside. But we don’t step outside. Many playwrights are, of course, limited by what they can portray on stage but of course this limitation can also be used advantageously to create a pressure-cooker of drama, which is what LaRocca achieves here. The title of the novella becomes more and more ominous as we sense that we truly cannot leave this place.
Some of the scenes in this novel might be considered obscene or disturbing by some, but I feel this is less about LaRocca being a horror-writer and more about the fairy-tale genre; fairy tales are full of brutalities that many would shy away from showing to adults let alone children in our modern world, from incest to mutilation and torture. LaRocca’s tale touches on all these things, but it is the psychological aspect that is far more harrowing: particularly the mother’s treatment of her daughter, Mara.
LaRocca’s characterisation of the mother will no doubt raise hackles. She is so cruel she does indeed seem the fairy-tale archetype of the “wicked queen” or “cruel step-mother”. Sadly, the savagery is all-too-realistic and representative of what abusive relationships are like, and whilst LaRocca doesn’t shy away from showing us her despicable actions, he also shows us why she is the way she is.
Perhaps my favourite element of this story—strange though this is to say—are the small, precisely chosen details (the mark of a truly skillful writer). For example, Mara owns a little, red pet bird called Kali. Kali is the Hindu Goddess of Bloodshed and Ruin (often depicted as red due to being covered in blood); she is also connected to the Arts and creative output. This is because the blood-symbolism is twofold: menstrual blood (which is connected to creativity for it’s the womb that creates life) and blood shed in battle. Naturally, all of this interlocks with the themes of the story: war, creativity, childhood, birth, and story itself. Mara is a writer, so the fact she owns a bird with this name implies that little Kali is her inner creative spirit.
Likewise, Samael, the name of the serpent character in the story, is the Talmudic or Hebrew name for Satan. What’s interesting is that LaRocca delivers on this association but also twists it slightly. I can’t say more for fear of spoilers!
I was also impressed by LaRocca’s diction and similes. Many horror writers forgo similes and struggle to write them well. Part of the issue is that in horror there is more of a burden placed upon the writer not to break the spell of terror, or anticipation, and one accidentally comedic or lazy simile will do just that. LaRocca, however, is a precision engineer. His similes are taut, often surprising, but never break the “warp and weft of mood” (to quote Dean Koontz) that is the very foundation of good horror.
Here is perhaps my favourite: “My father’s hand had been severed. The white of his exposed bone—a gorgeous pearl jeweled in a sleeve of tendon.” Virtually every word of this is luminous. The juxtaposition of the grisly body parts with beautiful, luscious imagery recalls the work of Clive Barker. Notice too how the em-dash works to simulate mimetically the slashed wrist!
No book is perfect, and I do have one or two quibbles, particularly in terms of structure and pacing (those who read my work will know this is a bit of an obsession with me). But overall, it’s a vivid, nightmarish, beautifully written story that—and this is some of the highest praise I can offer—will stay with you for a long time afterwards.
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