“That’s what youth does. It leaves. Just as you left your home in the mountains for a better life in the town; just as the colonists left the Old World all those generations ago to set up their own, better places. The young of us set out, they seed new places, to produce crops that will be harvested, to dance until the end of the night.”
– from “Her First Harvest”
The phrase “you will grow into them” does not appear anywhere in the main text of Malcolm Devlin’s debut collection. “You will grow into them” exists as a promise. A promise made by an adult giving a child a gift of clothes that are too large. If you’re that child, maybe you can’t imagine this promise ever coming true (perhaps, secretly, the adult can’t imagine it either). And, when it finally does, maybe you can’t see how it ever happened. Devlin’s characters may not have clothes to grow into, but they are facing or have faced moments of change. And they don’t necessarily understand all of the forces at work around them.
“Two Brothers” is perhaps the piece where the collection’s title is a warning at its most literal. At some point early in the last century, William awaits his older brother Stephen’s return from boarding school at Greyhurst. When he steps off the train, Stephen is not as William remembers him; this Stephen has “the newly acquired air of one who understood his place in the world”. William doesn’t recognise the thin, cold smile on his brother’s face, until he sees it reflected in his father’s. In the grounds at home, William comes across the pretend fortress, now gone to seed, that he built with Stephen only the last summer. Nearby is a bedraggled boy — apparently Stephen, as if he’d taken refuge in the grounds rather than being sent away: “The fear and anger which had haunted his eyes on the day before he left for Greyhurst were still there; they had grown over the months, become wilder, an expression of wordless horror carved on to ruined features.” Perhaps this Stephen is a mirage; perhaps he’s an analogue of Dorian Gray’s picture, suffering while the ‘other’ him learns a new personality — it hardly matters. When William’s father says to him, “Next year you’ll be at Greyhurst yourself. Next year, you’ll understand,” the threat of what William may grow into — the culture he may perpetuate — is only too clear.
The rituals of high society appear again in “Her First Harvest,” though this time the setting is a sterile off-world colony. With any capacity for cultivating crops in soil long gone, instead they are grown on you. These body-grown crops are displayed on people’s backs like plumage at formal functions, ripened through ballroom dancing, before being harvested. The story follows Nina, a debutante from the mountains, who is unhappy with the state of her crop and equally unsure of her place in society. There’s some nicely queasy fungal imagery, but this story tends to pale in comparison with what’s around it in Devlin’s collection.
That company includes “Breadcrumbs,” which is a grand headrush of the bizarre. Ellie sits on her bed with her beloved book of fairytales, grounded while her parents have gone to visit Auntie B in hospital. Ellie wishes for… well, maybe for life to behave a bit more like her fairytales: “If Auntie B could one day find her way through the woods to a happy ending, then perhaps she could leave a trail for others to follow.” In other words, Ellie would like her situation to be different, only she’s not quite sure how. But, if Auntie B could get better, that would be a sign at least that the world can change. Well, the world does change, just not in a way that Ellie might have anticipated: the city transforms into a fairytale forest, and she grows into a Rapunzel-figure with hair tumbling down the sides of her tower block and turning to brambles at the extremities. This could be seen as a metaphor for a kind of personal transformation that consumes others as well as the oneself: those around Ellie become adjuncts to her fantasy (neighbours turning into forest creatures); others outside look on enviously (folk going on quests to Ellie’s tower, either to rescue or destroy her). Then again, you could just read “Breadcrumbs” revelling in the power of the imagination at play.
Like Ellie, the unnamed narrator of “Passion Play” feels distanced from the adults around her; however, this girl’s feelings are directed inwards. She has been asked to take the main part in a reconstruction of the last known movements of Cathy McCullough, her missing best friend. When the reconstruction starts, people soon see the girl walking as Cathy; the narrator’s own identity becomes irrelevant to them. What the narrator knows — and the onlookers don’t — is that Cathy disappeared looking for the “cross-hatch man,” a figure first seen by the pair on a school trip to a church, apparently scratched into the images of the Stations of the Cross. Later, the girls went back to the church at night, and there might have been… something. Cathy was curious to find out.
“Passion Play” is concerned with the gap between (or the blurring of) reality and its representation. Things which should be real are made to seem unreal, and vice versa. In this way, the cross-hatch man is placed on the same level as Cathy’s absent father. The narrator knows that her walk (like Cathy’s before her) will inevitably lead to somewhere dark. Whether there is something supernatural at work or not becomes irrelevant; either way, the narrator (again, like Cathy) has experienced something that all the adults watching her reconstruction have not. “Faces that have witnessed everything and seen nothing at all,” as the narrator describes the crowd. You will grow standing apart from them, because they don’t carry your burden of knowledge.
In the story “Dogsbody,” the big change took place five years ago: for a few hours, some people turned into werewolves. It became known as Lunar Proximity Syndrome, but no one has ever found an explanation for it. The transformation became something that couldn’t be made to fit into the world, and those who experienced it found themselves marked out as different. One of those people was Gil McKenzie, whom we join as he discovers he’s been rejected for a job. Gil has been working as a labourer while trying to get his marketing career back on track — there’s just always some little thing stopping him. He’d like to think it’s not because he turned into a werewolf that time, but he saw the interviewer’s expression when she noticed him tick the LPS box on his equal opportunities form.
It’s nearly the anniversary of Lunar Proximity Syndrome, and some people are wondering whether those who were affected five years ago might transform again. Gil just wants to get through it, with booze if necessary. The names he gets called, and the arguments he gets into, are revealing. It’s not just stuff like “wolfman”, but also things about his social status: a drunk work colleague tells him, “You’re the sort of stiff who puts on a tie when he wants to relax. And here you are, come to a bar, pretending to be someone who works for a living.”
As metaphors go, it’s not far from a larger-than-life transformation like lycanthropy to just falling off the career ladder, and wondering how you’ll ever get back on. It seems that both have left Gil unable to grow out of his past — or his present.
In “Songs Like They Used to Play,” Tom Kavanagh has arranged to meet his ex-boyfriend, Bobby, for the first time in six years. It doesn’t go all that smoothly (“What did you think was going to happen here?” asks Bobby). Apparently life is not going to lead down the path that Tom hoped — if he were planning that far ahead. When he was a child, Tom’s family were the stars of a reality TV series that immersed them in British family life through the decades of the 20th century. Devlin portrays the dissonances that this created in Tom’s sense of reality: for example, the Kavanaghs once experienced a mock air raid from within an Anderson shelter — and the sequence was refilmed, again and again, with Tom asked to appear as scared as he could. Tom’s memory of this is hopelessly fuzzy; the iterations have blurred together so much that it’s impossible for him to be certain that what he remembers is ‘what really happened’.
The show continued to leave its mark on Tom’s mental world long after it ended. At the age of eighteen, he left his mother’s house because “everything she said felt like it was scripted, every look she gave him seemed to be followed by one for the benefit of an audience that was no longer watching them.” In short, Tom left home in search of some reality, which is perhaps still what he’s after from his trip to York to see Bobby.
The story’s title comes from a strange nightclub built into the B&B where Tom is staying. The clientele of this club are there to hear music the way it used to be — not just songs of yesteryear, but a whole experience that’s apparently far richer than anything you find these days. The thing is, there are no performers on stage, just a gramophone; and the audience are rapt, hearing something that Tom simply cannot. This is the flipside of Tom’s childhood: then he was inside a reality-warping experience which was just a TV show for those watching; now, he’s on the outside of an extraordinary experience. Tom was never quite comfortable with what he grew into; this might be just what he needs to re-calibrate his sense of reality. So, “you will grow into them” becomes (after a fashion) quite a positive idea for Tom Kavanagh, just as it remains a threat for William in “Two Brothers”.
The frontier between youth and adulthood is a common theme in several of the stories in Devlin’s collection; but each one approaches it from a different angle. The passage to adulthood comes across as something best deferred in “Her First Harvest, and outright feared in “Two Brothers”. In “Passion Play”, childhood becomes (for the surviving character) a period of dark secrets that will loom over a lifetime. Adulthood itself may be no less fraught in these stories, as shown by the repercussions of transformation that Gil has to endure in “Dogsbody”. Devlin is often concerned with the choices that individuals make at turning points in their lives; but sometimes he’ll take a longer or wider view.
Almost every story in You Will Grow Into Them leaves behind a vivid central image. This may be grand and bizarre, like the transformed city-forest of “Breadcrumbs”; or something more low-key and menacing, as the enraptured clubgoers of “Songs Like They Used to Play”. In a few stories, these images can end up overshadowing the piece as a whole. Most of the time, however, Devlin gets the balance spot-on; then his stories shimmer with an otherworldly light.
David Hebblethwaite is a reader and reviewer living in Berkshire, England. He maintains the blog David’s Book World and can be found on Twitter as @David_Heb.
Malcolm Devlin‘s stories have appeared, or are forthcoming in Interzone, Black Static and the anthologies Aickman’s Heirs, Gods, Memes And Monsters and Nightscript Volume 2. He attended the Clarion West writers’s workshop in 2013.
Author bio courtesy of Unsung Stories.