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“Rich and original”: ‘Parables, Fables, Nightmares’ Review

Parables, Fables, Nightmares is the first short story collection published by Malachi McIntosh. A short traditional story collection can be likened to a gallery of sameness – great pictures with a few stylistic differences – essentially stories varying only in content rather than in style.

The uniformity often found in such collections can put people off, since they appear less exciting. But insipid sameness is nowhere to be found in McIntosh’s work.

The collection is a unique one compared to others I’ve read recently – like Raymond Carver or Ernest Hemingway say – as it is not exclusively made up of pieces structured as typical short stories. For instance, one is a list (White Wedding), one is a two-page piece, one is without a title. McIntosh uses the tried-and-tested short story format as a starting point and goes from there. This experimentation is not done purely for novelty’s sake, however. If a story’s format is unique, it serves a clear purpose: to enhance the reading experience in a way a conventional structure cannot; whether to make a joke funnier or a sad moment sadder or heart-warming moment more uplifting.

Even if the diverse range of formats all land, as they do here, they are wasted if the writing itself is bad. There is no need for such concern here. McIntosh’s prose more than carries its weight: outlandish, funny, moving and ingeniously fresh. The phrase ‘a way with words’, though trite, is an apt description of McIntosh’s style. His prose fits perfectly into the mould of each of his stories which vary wildly in voice and circumstances; he has a way with each of these that makes them a delight to read for entirely unique reasons. The voices of his characters, whether a dedicated but neurotic mother trying to prove the world’s opinion of her child wrong (Examination) or a well-meaning but crabby father who discovers his adult son no longer resembles the child he knew (Mirrors), sound idiosyncratic and genuine. To write in a number of distinct voices with confidence and ease is no easy thing.

McIntosh’s uncanny and inexhaustible ability to write astonishingly rich and original descriptions is clear throughout. Two of my favourites are from the story White Wedding: the first is the description of a sexually-frustrated fiancé who resolutely abstains from masturbation for a month, purportedly to make his honeymoon more passionate. Consequently, his penis becomes ‘some wild Grecian deity in his jeans, storming at every mild provocation and threatening to enter the world of men and set things right’. After caving and spending hours shamefully but intensely masturbating, his erection does not subside. His unabating member looks like a ‘hitchhiker’s thumb forever thrusting out below his waistband’. My prim readers should note they are not all as ribald as this. They are equally as humorous, though.

As with every short story collection, the great ones cast a long and uncompromising shadow which make the more flawed stories stand out. Hemingway is one example; The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Big Two-Hearted River are such exquisite stories that his others in any collection don’t look as good nor deliver the same oomph. I was not unimpressed with the vast majority in this collection; it is just that the exceptional ones made me hungry for what I found in them and when the other stories did not deliver as much, I was disappointed.

As a reader, instead of trying to fit a conventional story-shaped hole into the lock of each piece, it is tempting to use the mediums listed in the title instead. To discount them would be a mistake but to rigidly sort each story into either a parable, fable or nightmare misses the point. McIntosh’s clear vision of the short story’s capabilities and his skilful manipulation of them ultimately makes the vivid and multivarious ways a short story can turn out appear obvious.

Parables, Fables, Nightmares by Malachi McIntosh is available to purchase from The Emma Press.

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