Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild (2005)
Reviewed by Gillian Polack (this review was first published in November 2005)
The Grinding House is a collection of stories by Canberra-writer Kaaron Warren. Most of the stories are reprints, but there is some new material, including the story “The Grinding House” itself. Several of the reprinted stories have been nominated for awards or have received awards, including the Aurealis. Warren is known for her horror writing, and all of the stories in The Grinding House have a strong element of horror. The volume itself has been published by the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild with the assistance of an ArtsAct grant. It is the first CSFG Publishing anthology to focus on one author, reflecting the status Warren has earned as a short story writer.
Short story collections are often a worry. You know they’re going to be a mixed bag, but what you won’t know until you reach the end is how many of the stories are good, outstanding, or should have been left out entirely. There’s also the rule of averages – you tell yourself things like “Margo Lanagan’s Black Juice has miraculous writing. There won’t be another decent anthology for ten years.”
Kaaron Warren’s The Grinding House actually defeats that expectation. It is good. A large portion of it is outstanding. Published so soon after Black Juice, it beats that law of averages. It is not, however, everyone’s cup of tea. Warren gets billed as a horror writer, and certainly her stories creep under the skin. She does not write a classic horror story, though, and is far more an interstitial writer. She writes each story both close to home (presenting us with situations that we recognize as kin to our own), and in entirely alien environments, ones which we are thankful we are so far from.
The sense of nearness, however, predominates: even the stories of alternate worlds and strange futures are closely connected to our world and our feelings about ourselves. This is because her primary concerns are with feelings and reactions. Quite frequently she will construct a whole society to illustrate a simple set of reactions between people. This is seen in “The Blue Stream” where the whole story is based on the strained relationships that parents can have with their children. While they often start from simple premises, they move to the ideal or to the dream or to the nightmare – these societies are not our societies and these people are not our people.
The overall effect of this movement from near to far is that every single one of her stories disturbs – they fragment our reality and make us look thrice at things we think we know. In this respect, she is a lot like Lanagan. However, she doesn’t do this the same way as Lanagan. Where Lanagan focuses on the simple and on emotive response, giving her tales a Spartan reality, Warren’s stories link up with societies we know very intensely, using rich description and identifying us so strongly with a given character that these characters serve as bridges into Warren’s new worlds.
Where this technique works least well is in stories such as “The Hanging People” and “The Missing Children”. I found myself looking for more evidence for how these societies operated and how they would continue to operate. I kept expecting operational problems. “The Missing Children” was a particular problem because the location is so precise and, for anyone in the Canberra region, so very well known. The lake in question is a somewhat intermittent one – what did a society that needed that contact with water do when the lake dissolved into mud?
It isn’t fair to judge her writing on these relatively minor problems, however. Warren’s writing often harks back to an earlier form of the speculative fiction tale. It is a quite recent expectation that short stories should be completely valid and applicable in all aspects. While these stories are fractionally less successful than the others, they still carry meanings to the reader and there is an emotional component that rings true. It is not the how of what happens that is intriguing to read about, rather it is the who and why. In other words, the reader who expects created societies to be perfectly functional might not enjoy them, but they are still good stories. These are not as outstanding as the best in the collection, simply because questions arose – in an outstanding story the society rings true no matter how valid its operations are.
Where Warren’s style works best is where the focus is on one individual, without ramifications for the wider society. I was haunted by her vampire narrative in “The Sameness of Birthdays” for instance. I reached the end, read her comment, and found myself drawn back into it, reading it from an entirely different angle. “The Glass Woman” also demanded an instant re-read.
In short, The Grinding House is a strong collection. There are no stories that did not deserve to be there. Some of the stories are stronger than others, but Warren is a good craftsman and this shows in the structure of every one of her stories. The lesser stories in the collection have moments of realization or perception which make them worth the effort. Most of them leave resonances and, because they are all concerned with humans and their lives, are thoughtful reflections on the human body and on human lives.
This is not, however, a book to read quickly. Each story needs focus and time and attention. If you are meeting a story for the first time, I would suggest not reading the comments by Warren at the end. They are interesting, but not life-changing and they often dilute the impact of the tale.