March 2011

Paul Charles Griffin

fiction

Grim Tales by Norman Lock

Norman Lock is a writer of terrifying ambition. In Grim Tales, his slim collection of fairy tales, he 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. Yet, along the way, Lock’s apparent aim is to remind his readers of the most thorny of metaphysical truths such as the fact of karma, or the pathetic limits of the human perspective, or, 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 story. Miraculously, he and his cryptic miniatures get the job done.

Reading Lock’s tales -- there are about 150 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 apparently 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. Yet, 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. Most miraculous is how Lock’s text commands its authority. The astute use of atmospheric detail -- e.g. subway posters “advertising the season’s new plays” -- lends Lock’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 wielding 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.”

Grim Tales by Norman Lock
Mud Luscious Press
ISBN: 0983026300
88 Pages