Rating 4 stars
famished is a collection of ultra short stories by Anna Vaught. The minimalist, modernist cover contains 17 baroque horror stories, all centred on food or eating, and influenced by writers from Angela Carter, Henry James and Edgar Allan Poe to F Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and Carson McCullers.
These tales are strongly feminist, peopled by women who are taking control. The subtext is often ‘eat, or be eaten’.
The opening story, Cave Venus et Stellas, gave me the same thrill as the Puffin Book of Ghosts, Spooks and Spectres did as a child, Teeny-Tiny, a classic English folktale about a teeny-tiny woman who finds a teeny-tiny bone in a teeny-tiny churchyard and takes it home to make soup, in particular.
Vaught’s are stories in the same tradition. They feel like they want to be read out loud on a cold night in a room lit by candles. Or at the very least, a room lit by a single lamp with a low watt energy bulb. Because these are modern stories with an ancient flavour, intended to reconnect us with our fundamental need to feel scared but not in danger. The best of them have a lilt of humour in the telling, a wink and a nod, like the short stories told in Inside No.9 and those at the heart of Dead of Night.
Vaught’s descriptions of spooky houses in her stories reminded me of a spooky house on the Llanbadarn Road in Aberystwyth when I was a student. We walked everywhere in Aberystwyth. It isn’t a big place. One of our gang, my best friend, lived for a time at the convent on the Llanbadarn Road. In daylight, we’d cut down Penglais Hill via the National Library of Wales. In the evening, we’d go the long way round and walk past a house that would fit within the pages of this book – a little bit set back from the road, a little bit weatherbeaten and neglected, the garden a little bit overgrown. We’d make up stories about who lived there and whether it was haunted. We all like to take the things that unsettle us and gain a modicum of control over them through storytelling, don’t we?
That’s what many of these stories do; they take wrongs and suspicions from the corporeal world and deliver vengeance or explanation from the liminal, supernatural one. They hint at the way we tell ourselves all manner of stories in our attempts to feel secure, but as Vaught says in Feasting; Fasting, “Our understanding is infirm: our known world is only a beginning.”
There are other, less traditional horror stories. These stories contain more personal horrors, the kind that stem from and fuel disapproval in others and so are kept hidden, eating away at the person suffering them, or the kind that make us look away from the sufferer, glad that we’re not going through their experience. Two lines in The Choracle extracted an ‘Oh, yes!’ from me:
Now, Donna the pickled egg had turned fifty. She looked thirty-eight, but either is the age when women are expected, by some, to turn invisible …
There is vengeance aplenty, overt and subtle. The consequences of cruelty and bullying are myriad in these tales. Sometimes the vengeance is triumphant. Other times it’s harrowing.
A story that lingered for me is about a boy, bullied at school, bullied by an overbearing, critical grandmother. Her criticism is of his lack of adventurous palate, and so food becomes a horror to him. When I read it, I didn’t think much of it, but as time has passed I’ve thought about its meaning more – how cruel people can be, how they cover it with a veneer of moral superiority, that belief that we should all be made of tougher stuff and get on with life, not wallow in weakness.
A Tale of Tripe manifests the horror of how certain foodstuffs smell, taste and feel in a way that took me back to childhood. I’ve never eaten tripe but my dad once made me eat cow heel, which in Oldham is pronounced cow eel, a much more accurate name for such a wet, slippery dish. Does it need saying that I’ve never eaten it since? Unlike the woman in the story, though, I’ve never been haunted by offal.
Food as horror, then, with claggy tripe waiting to suffocate you and murderous lampreys jumping down your throat to suck you dry, but also food as glory, eaten however you want it, as with the lard-arse, so named by her husband because of the combinations of food she relishes.
Talking of relish, I enjoyed how Vaught relishes language. There are words in this collection that I had to look up; perfectly chosen, but not in common usage, a bit like the spices you encounter in a Yottam Ottolenghi recipe, drawing out new flavours among the familiar.
This is a delicious little book. You can buy it direct from Influx Press, or via your favourite independent bookshop. I got mine online from Mr B’s Emporium, because they had an offer on signed-by-the-author editions and I fancied a signed copy. And it’s a properly signed copy, to me, with a message, not just a signature. In answer to your hope, Anna, I did enjoy these stories.