Monday, 19 April 2021

Matryoshka, by Penny Jones

In a new edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book I've read and loved, which I think adds to the horror genre and that I think you'll enjoy if you're a fan.
There’s something wrong with her husband, Mark. Lucy had heard all the rumours about him, the whispered warning behind her back. The half heard Chinese whispers seemed to haunt her, mocking her wherever she goes. Now it appears that whatever’s the matter with Mark is spreading; tainting, infecting both strangers and those that she loves the most. So, Lucy will go to any lengths to protect both her young daughter and her unborn child.

Lucy is heavily pregnant with her second child and struggling to cope with her three-year-old Susie.  There’s also something wrong with her husband Mark - she’s heard rumours about him, whispered warning behind her back, mocking her wherever she goes. Now it seems whatever’s the matter with him is spreading, tainting strangers and those she loves the most so Lucy has to do whatever it takes to protect her children.

I went into this knowing very little about it and it worked all the better for it.  Having now read it, I’m not sure of how much to discuss in this review without spoiling the twists and turns that readers need to discover for themselves.  Online, Jones has said the novella is “about child birth, loss of identity and post-partum psychosis”, which it absolutely is and once you realise things are going very badly for Lucy, everything goes downhill.  You can see the signs, Lucy can almost see the signs, but there’s too much forward motion for her to make any changes.  Well told with a pace that doesn’t let up, this feels claustrophobic and oppressive, horrific but realistic and offers no easy get outs.  It also presses a lot of soft spots on the way (I found myself cringing in places), including an excellent sustained sequence in a caravan park that will make any parent sweat.  Lucy is a compelling protagonist, clearly suffering mentally and trying to keep herself together and she has our sympathy, even when she does things that make those around her question her sanity.  With a clever last line, this is well worth a read and I would very much recommend it.

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I'm lucky enough to know Penny and her husband, having hung out with them at various Cons and a Crusty Exterior gathering and she kindly agreed to answer some of my questions.

PJ:   Hi Mark, thanks for inviting me to prattle on about my new novella, I was so nervous when you said you were reading it. I get really bad impostor syndrome every time I have anything published, and as this book was written entirely during lockdown, my mind weasels have been working overtime.

MW:   It's good to have you here!  So where did the original spark for Matryoshka come from? 

PJ:   The story is very loosely based on a patient I nursed years ago who developed post-partum psychosis during the last two weeks of their pregnancy. It was a terrifying time for all involved, but for the mother to be it was like she was living through a horror movie. She believed that there was a family curse, that her own mother had actually given birth to twins and that the twins were given away at birth as they were evil, and that her twin was out there slowly swapping each member of the family with their evil twin. Imagine finding yourself forced into a psychiatric hospital, locked up, believing that your four year old son had been replaced, that your mother was not your mother, that your husband was under the spell of your own evil twin and that they were only waiting for the birth of your daughter to steal her away as well. For her family and for the medical professionals involved in her care it was terrifying: she was refusing medication and she wouldn’t eat or drink because she was sure we were poisoning her. She was a flight risk but we couldn’t restrain her because of the advanced stages of her pregnancy, she actually did manage to escape from the hospital and ended up barricading herself in her attic, no one could get up there and she only just fitted, so even if we got up there, no one would have been able to safely get her down again. I decided against adding the attic ending to my novella as I thought my readers would have found it far-fetched. In case anyone is worried, she had a healthy baby (though labour did start in the attic, it did not finish there) and following the birth she accepted treatment and when she came back to see us six months later mother, baby and family were all doing well.

MW:   Well that's reassuring!  Lucy is a fantastic character, did she appear fully formed or did you have to develop her?

PJ:   As I said in the previous question the story is loosely based on a patient of mine, and Lucy herself definitely draws attributes from several of the women I have nursed over the years who have had post-partum psychosis and depression. Rosemary from Rosemary’s Baby was also a strong influence in the character of Lucy and in the writing style I used for her. I was aiming for that unstable narrator throughout Matryoshka

But as with a lot of my characters there is a whole lot of me in there as well. I feel for a character to be fully formed there has to be a level of truth to their actions and behaviours. When I originally pitched the idea to Peter Mark May at Hersham Horror, I said my main concern was that I didn’t want the reader to feel cheated, as another nurse was fond to say I didn’t want to be a Dirty Birdy with my story. So I tried to put myself in Lucy’s shoes, took off my author head and tried to write her reactions as if they were my own in the same situation, as if I as the writer didn’t know if what was happening to Lucy was real or a slow descent into madness.

The Crusty Exterior in Ye Old Trip To Jerusalem, April 2019
from left - Wayne Parkin, Penny, Simon Jones, me, Ross Warren, Phil Sloman and James Everington

MW:   In your story notes, you mention that children scare you.  Did you find that factor helped or hindered you with this?  For what it’s worth, I read this as a parent dreading what might happen next.

PJ:   Children do scare me. I think they are an excellent trope that can never be overused in the horror genre. There is something innately alien about them, something other, an uncanny valley where their whole persona is so slightly off kilter from our own. They mimic us (both our good and our bad traits) to learn how to be functioning member of society. And there is something both comforting and terrifying in watching someone trying to be you (Vivarium builds the tension in this symbiotic relationship brilliantly). I am aware though that children in horror can be also be very divisive for readers. There are some readers who won’t be interested in the parent / child dynamic, and there will be those who will read it through the eyes of parents, fearful for the child, and there will be those who will read it fearful of the child. Each person’s own relation with the children in their life will colour the way they read a book with children at the heart of it, and it is balancing the story so that it can resonate with as many readers as possible without losing its central concept that is most tricky. I know that I am scared of children, but what I think is terrifying, someone else will see as endearing. So that balance of behaviours being both realistic and unnerving is really difficult to get onto the page.

MW:   Your pacing with this is very good, do you find the novella length works best for you?

PJ:   This was actually my first novella, I usually write short stories, and they tend to be short, short stories, my sweet point is only about 4,000 words. But I always knew this was going to be a novella length piece as there was too much to tell in a short story, but I thought it would loose its ambiguous horror if it was novel length. I really enjoyed writing it and I certainly have one other novella length piece that I want to write. 

MW:   And what’s next?

PJ:   I’m currently working on what I think will be a novel, though unlike my first novel, which I wrote very specifically on a traditional story arc and which came out at a traditional novel length of 90,000 words. This one I’m allowing some freedom to it, so if it ends up as another novella I won’t be disappointed. I’ve actually planned this story out, which is something I never do, though how useful that will be I have no idea, as so far I have missed out the second of my chapter post-its, and now I’m on post-it four, I’ve decided that the previous chapters probably aren’t needed. My elevator pitch for the story is Bridget Jones meets The Wicker Man.

MW:   Well that sounds very intriguing!  Good luck with it!

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Penny Jones knew she was a writer when she started to talk about herself in the third person (her family knew when Santa bought her a typewriter for Christmas when she was three). Penny’s debut collection Suffer Little Children published by Black Shuck Books was shortlisted for the 2020 British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer, and her short story Dendrochronology published by Hersham Horror was shortlisted for the 2020 British Fantasy Award for Best Short Story.

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