by Norman Lock
Mud Luscious Press
Published in 2011
By Paul Charles Griffin
Norman Lock is a writer of terrifying ambition. In Grim Tales, his slim collection of fairy tales, Lock tells what appear to be campfire stories of mysterious disappearances, haunted mirrors, and grotesque transformations—stories that will make you shiver in the night or check your back in a dark woods. Lock’s apparent aim is to remind his readers of the thorniest of metaphysical truths: karma (universal moral law); the pathetic limits of the human perspective; and, most grimly, the inexorably cruel irony that pervades our lives. To achieve these lofty illuminations, Lock allows himself, on average, about a hundred words per cryptic miniature.
Reading Lock’s tales—there are about a hundred and fifty of them collected here—I was reminded of Einstein’s famous phrase describing how electrons, separated by a vast distance, communicated with each other. Einstein called this faster-than-the speed-of-light instant messaging “spooky action at a distance.” (For the record, Einstein did not think such communication was possible.) In its essence, Lock’s novella is a meditation on this difficult-to-explain phenomenon. How does one seemingly unrelated event cause another? How does the mind affect matter? How do our dreams seep into our waking lives? Indeed, Lock’s stories persistently reveal this curious and complex interconnectedness of the entirety of existence. Take this tale for example:
That it was only in his dreams he behaved violently to her made it no less culpable: the bruises to her face and arms were always new as she brought him his breakfast.
These miniatures are full of brutality: beatings, murders, suicides, drownings, stranglings, and death galore. Like a good theologian, Lock endeavors to explain the world’s violence, and an undercurrent of a kind of cosmic law offers a subtle consolation. Lock’s playful exploration of the theory of reincarnation, for example, suggests a world of absolute, if imperceptible, justice.
He was turned into a bed so that he might lie beneath a woman night after night and burn with unappeasable desire—this philanderer, who had broken the hearts of so many women.
Using the poet’s principal of pithiness and the dramatist’s sense of irony, Lock distills the world down into a set of universal axioms in his narratives: all violence is domestic violence; everyday objects, too, like wives and husbands, seek their revenge; all matter is subject to metamorphosis; and normal human perception is woefully circumscribed. This last theme appears in my single favorite tale in which a woman’s magician friend explains to her how his illusions are accomplished “outside the ‘sight lines.’” This woman, who had already believed that “her real life lay just out of sight,” one day hears the noise of an animal “fastening onto the body of its prey.” Then:
Turning with surprising celerity, she saw at last the beast that had all her days kept well out of sight. The last thing the woman saw on earth was this beast, this monster, flying at her.
A grim tale, indeed. Lock uses several rhetorical devices to give the text its air of authority. His astute use of atmospheric detail, e.g., subway posters “advertising the season’s new plays,” gives the book’s bizarro world a concrete and relatable reality. More subversively, Lock, posing as a kind of cultural anthropologist, often provides alternate endings to the tales, as if these legends were already woven into our collective, canonical mythology. Lock’s most cunning trick is his use of quotation marks throughout the text. Notice how the quotation marks in the following story reference a source of authority, perhaps an eyewitness or a Book of Record. While the source of the voice is ambiguous (maybe the husband himself), its authority is clear:
She was about to step into the bathtub when the wall opened and a hand—large and grotesquely misshapen—reached out and pulled her inside. Her husband hurried to her; but the crack had, in an instant, closed “like a wound that has healed.”
Above all, Grim Tales is a collection of mysteries. While I have shared some of my interpretations here, the mystery will work on you in its own way. For those of you reading this now who remain unconvinced of Lock’s surreal, mind-bending, and cruelly calculating vision, keep in mind that the worst of fates is reserved for the unbelievers. In other words, you might at least keep an open mind. Because, according to Norman Lock, our finest modern fabulist, “the hedgehog, dead by the side of the road, was once a man who refused to believe in fairy tales.”
Paul Griffin writes fiction, essays, and book reviews. His work has been published in the VQR, the NY Press, the Common Review, the Brooklyn Rail, and Bookslut, among other places.
John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.