Barbara Comyns’ Who has Changed and Who has Died (1954) – Misery and Malice in a Small Village – The Willoweed family life is defined by misery made worse under the scrupulous eye of an embittered matriarch, Grandma Willoweed.
The cranky and controlling woman holds power over the family through an inheritance that they are dependent upon. Her son, Ebin, takes her abuse in order to keep a home while unemployed but often passes off his own insecurities onto his three children, Emma, Hattie, and Phillip, through insults and abusive behavior.
Consequently, when tragedy befalls the small town in the way of madness induced through sickness, the Willoweed’s become drawn to the situations for their own morbid and selfish reasons–both as a means to celebrate others’ downfalls and to escape their own misery.
Billed as a ‘tragicomedy’, “Who has Changed and Who has Died” is a deceptively bleak novel that hides under a thin veneer of dark humor.
In fact, those unfamiliar with prose or media that relies heavily on uncomfortable and amoral characters to push comedic elements will likely find the work entirely off-putting.
At the same time, the playfully crass nature of the work does not lie in shock value as death is never graphically conveyed, and instances of abuse spare morbid details. Instead, repulsion from the audience will come in the form of a moral repulsion from her character’s inner dialogue that is largely harsh, uncaring, and vindictive.
A prime example of amorality on display is Ebin’s observation of the passing of a woman in town instantly invoking a sense of disgust at how her sex appeal has declined in the throes of death over empathy for her suffering. This is just one of many observations that will make the readers feel repulsed by the family unit, particularly Ebin and Grandmother Willoweed.
Comparatively, the children of the family do maintain their innocence to a degree but even their broken-down spirit under the cruel matriarch transforms them into meek and awkward personalities to the point that their sorrows become rather mundane.
The work can be compared to a lot of ‘dark comedic’ literature from Europe that loves to focus on tragic characters, yet the book lacks any social commentary that gives it that edge that allows the work to at least be reflective of some societal woe.
The family lives and dwells in misery and carries few redeemable qualities, a fact that only compounds as the town delve into madness and people start dying.
Undeniably, Barbara Comyns is a deeply talented writer of demented prose, and the world she creates is really easy to get absorbed in despite the morbid, bleak nature of it all.
Where the book does carry redemptive qualities through the author’s ability to create characters that are deeply fascinating to explore, flaws and all.
Ebin Willoweed, who is perhaps the worst of the bunch, born of privilege has become petty, embittered, jealous, and often takes it out on his kids through weird mental games. Notably, his abuse of Phillip in beatings and abandoning him in odd places in a way to push him to be more masculine is an obvious pathetic compensation for his own emasculation at the hands of his mother. Despite Ebin being so despicable, Comyns still manages to make him an intriguing car wreck by meticulously defining his fallacies through both his own perspective and that of others in the family.
Make no mistake, as miserable as the book can be it is still a captivating read and worthy of exploration if you are one of those readers that find themselves mysteriously drawn to tragic and deplorable characters.
Furthermore, the light flairs of comedic prose through peculiar observations on how the family appears both to others and how they interpret the world is conveyed with a sharp intellectual wit.
There is an audience for this book, but it is one that you need to be willing to seek and be comfortable with.
Personally, “Who has Changed and Who has Died” did appeal to my own sense of dark humor and there were points in the book that I thoroughly enjoyed.
At the same time, the pain of those in the book seemed rather… meaningless.
Ultimately, this is what really pushed me away from the overall experience, at the same time I am really excited to check out more from Comyns because of the aspects that worked I adored, and am hopeful her other work will capture more of that magic out from underneath the morbid lense.
Dancing with the Tombstones is a delicious anthology of short stories, and I had the opportunity to review the latest book written by Mark Aronovitz and published by Cemetery Dance compiled during the COVID-19 lockdown of short stories that could be easily described as the adult equivalent of Scary Stories to tell in the Dark.
The following book review of Dancing with the Tombstones from Cemetery Dance is Spoiler-free**
This novel features seventeen short stories, with publication dates that vary from 2009-2020. Ten of these short stories have been published previously in various other anthologies, but it features seven new terrifying tales.
Mark Aronovitz tells us in the afterword that he put this book together in response to the pandemic, during the lonely days of quarantine.
His hope to bring some comfort and distraction during this trying time was a huge success and could have easily been titled Chicken Soup for the Spooky Soul.
Straight up – no nonsense horror.
Aronovitz delivers exactly what he promises, and this was a delightfully terrifying read, his short stories requiring no lengthy plot or conception of reality, just straight up – no nonsense horror.
This anthology is certainly one worth adding to your library, with tales that would be ideal to tell around a campfire on a chilly night and each packs a hefty punch that is genuinely terrifying when the blow strikes home.
Dancing with the Tombstones is split into four sections titled “GIRLS,” PSYCHOS,” “TOOLS & TECH,” and “MARTYRS & SACRIFICIAL LAMBS,” with each of his short stories falling into one of these categories.
Each short story is bite-sized and perfect to pick up and return to again over and over, and the fantastical element of short horror makes for a refreshing read. The short length allows these tales to grow more and more gruesome and disturbing. And every tale holds a more disturbing thought that is expanded upon to a truly terrifying conclusion.
My personal favorite in this anthology was “Puddles,” where Dora Watawitz’s obsessive cleaning routine turns into a waking nightmare when she starts to hallucinate the filth entering her home.
Mark Aronovitz delivers some truly real and a relatable material and to light brings disturbing thoughts such as “When DID I ever clean the toilet brush?” or, “How often do I ever really clean the bottom of my feet?”
These unsettling notions escalate into insanity (or perhaps a supernatural version of Doris’s personal hell) and all the cleaning, scrubbing, and bleaching just can never remove the filth plastered all over the walls of her mind.
Indeed, in a book where hell is described as an eternity consigned to an old Nissan Sentra in “The Echo,” there is something for everyone in this book.
Mark Aronovitz’s writing quality is stellar, and this is certainly a book to be enjoyed again and again.
Mark Aronovitz is the author of the novels Alice Walks, The Sculptor, The Witch of the Wood, and Phantom Effect. He has published two other collections, Seven Deadly Pleasures, and The Voice in Our Heads. He has published over fifty short stories in total and is definitely an author worth following!
The Last House On Needless Street by Catriona Ward unnerves!
This Preview Review of the upcoming novel The Last House On Needless Street by Catriona Ward that is being released in the US by TOR on 9/28/2021 is **SPOILER FREE**.
You will never read another book quite like this, and I mean that as one of the highest compliments I can give to a work of fiction.
This is a narrative with the most unreliable of narrators.
The main character, Ted, made me so uncomfortable and unsettled with his mannerisms, I had to grasp for anxiety meds.
His admittedly unreliable and past-present-ever-shifting memory, and his worries over what the neighbors may think of the young girl, Dee, a daughter-like figure – if not blood-related – that is only allowed out at certain times in his boarded up, dilapidated home on the end of the road and the edge of the woods, and the frantic frenzy of internal fear that came through Ted made me cringe steadily as I read on.
The writing from Ward is truly extraordinary, as the voices she emanates and the world she has built become so real that the tale is utterly enveloping.
Dark fiction has rarely been this bold!
The chapters shift to different characters and their point of view, so Ted is followed by the angry young girl, Dee, who lost her sister years ago, and Olivia, Ted’s cat, who has quite the outspoken and insightful feline personality.
Catriona Ward’s The Last House On Needless Street is a shocking and immersive read perfect for fans of Gone Girl and The Haunting of Hill House.
Think on that for a minute: the preeminent haunted house of Shirley Jackson combined with thrilling pace and murderous mystery of Flynn’s Gone Girl. WOW!
Make no mistake, The Last House On Needless Street will make you squirm; and the book will make you feverishly turn the pages seeking answers that come in bunches and only make the storyline more complex as more shakily reliable information comes to light.
This is a phenomenal work of writing and a nightmarish-like tsunami of story forcing the reader to pick up the pieces and refit them again and again as the characters feed the frenzy.