Things We Say in the Dark

Kirsty Logan

Harvill Sacker, £12.99

Review by Carla Jenkins

Can we ever say that we know what scares us the most? I am afraid of spiders and jenny-long-legs, but these are surface fears.

What scares us most deeply remains obscured and undefinable, enveloped within our psyches, thus allowing us to go about our everyday business.

Glasgow-based Kirsty Logan manages to chip away at the deep and undefinable fear residing within us, particularly women, in Things We Say in the Dark, a collection of short stories with titles that sound like poems or song names, where she writes of scarecrows and ghosts, men-eating women and being buried alive.

She also writes of empty houses that grow too big in their emptiness; children that grow up and leave their mothers; women spending long and dark nights alone in remote Icelandic houses. What they have in common is that Logan aims for the jugular – the things that unsettle us most. Her poetic, supernatural prose has lace edges of sticky, violent terror, and just when you feel you have a grasp of the characters and narrative, they are taken away. Anything more prolonged than a short story would perhaps become grating; but Logan masters the format indubitably, channelling the spirit of Angela Carter.

The characters and voices found in these tales seem to perfectly suit the unsettling times in which we live. Current news reports could easily read like something out of a Logan story. The political situation has an increasing whiff of anarchy about it; unless we change the level of carbon emissions, the world as we know may cease to exist in the near future. The fears surrounding these realities that are not the stuff of nightmares but broadcast on news platforms, splayed out in the cold light of day, and they permeate the prose.

At the same time, domestic fears are also growing. Many young people of my generation will never be able to own their own home. Refugee children and their parents crowd camps and detention centres across the globe; members of parliament and journalists have, in recent years, been murdered on the street.

When real life is this scary, one may wonder whether we really need these small, claustrophobic stories of women who want to be bricked up into their own graves. But Logan is both following and creating a Scottish tradition.

Glasgow in particular is known for its domination of the tartan noir genre, giving birth to a steady generation of authors who write about the shocking and the terrible.

Logan joins them, whilst simultaneously shifting the boundaries. She fuses the uncanny and sexy, dark writing of Carter with the quirky absurdist short stories of fellow Glaswegians Chris McQueer and Limmy, the black humour of Denise Welsh. Her stories are rich and bitty, like the seeds of the pomegranate that illustrate its cover (what is it that makes the pomegranate so terrifying, aside from its connections to the underworld?)

The stories in Things We Say in the Dark are described as ‘feminist’, and largely stories told by women, telling of things that scare women. In Logan’s world, these things don’t have to be as big as ghosts, seances or bogey-men, although sometimes they are.

The last story, Watch the Wall, My Darling, While the Gentlemen Go By is easily the most terrifying: a man abducts a woman and does terrible things to her, bashing her will to the point that when he finally lets her go, she goes right back to him. The terror is in the reality. One in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. It was reported in 2018 that 55% of the women killed by their ex-partner or ex-spouse in 2017 were killed within the first month of separation, 87% in the first year. When Logan writes “he’s big and strong and a man, and what the f**k are you?", it is perhaps the most terrifying sentence in the whole book.

Underneath such layers of horror, Logan traces other, more internalised, less talked about matters that cause women fear: children and childlessness, loving and being unloved, houses filled with people that close in on us, empty houses devoid of love.

Luckily for us, in writing these terrifying tales Logan, like Margaret Atwood or George Orwell, turns the big light on. She also suggests that the things we say in the dark are rendered terrifying because they are exactly that: uttered in the dark. Nothing to be scared of. Just words.