Surreal, discomfiting, incomprehensible and laugh out loud funny.  It was a joy to read this debut collection.

opening remarks

David Hayden’s Darker With The Lights On is a short story collection I’ve heard a great deal about – all of it good.  The book has been sitting on my bedside table for four or five months.  As with a good deal of books I end up reading, the collection being longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize has spurred me onto to finally picking it up.  I won’t be commenting on every story – unless I’m compelled to do so – but I will be taking shitty photos of those pages that wow or horrify me with their prose.

knee-jerk observations

In ‘Egress’ a man jumps out of his office building, endlessly falling.  If this short piece is any indication the collection won’t be brimming with the conventional and straight-forward.  Not entirely a bad thing:

There’s a perfectly pitched oddness to a story like ‘The Auctioneer’ which makes the ending all the more wrenching and real.  In this excerpt the auctioneer is selling some collectable shit.  Literally:

 Hayden’s embodiement of the weird, the surreal is devoid of pretension and artifice.  The dialogue in ‘Hay’ is certainly strange but it has a lovely rhythm and it’s bloody funny:

Hayden also likes his prose bloody.  This excerpt is from ‘The Bread That Was Broken’, but ‘Leckerdam of the Golden Hand’ also eases waist deep in viscera and gore:

After reading two or three deeply strange, hard to grasp, yet beautifully written pieces ‘Last Call for The Hated’ is a shock to the system for its almost linear narrative.  It’s about a bloke named Michael who keeps being pranked and harassed by those around him.  There’s no rhyme nor reason to the hatred and Michael mostly takes it on the chin.  The tale does, eventually, enter what I’m now calling Hayden-town, but it’s the ordinariness that makes this quite a discomfiting piece.

‘How To Read A Picture Book’ is precisely that: a set of instructions on how to read a picture book.  What makes it an incredible piece of writing isn’t that our guide is a cigar-smoking squirrel named Sorry (though how fucking awesome), it’s that Hayden has written something informative, funny and surprisingly heartwarming.  Given Hayden’s predilection for the weird, the abrupt and the violent I expected the children sitting and eating up Sorry’s every word to, I don’t know, transform suddenly into adults, strangle Sorry and roast his corpse on a spit.  But, no, this is a truly delightful fiction about story-telling through the medium of picture books.  You could almost… almost  read this to your kids at night before they go to sleep.  Almost:

‘Play’ is a hypnotic, melancholy story that seems to bobble around between a lecture on the nature of play, a commentary on the lecture by three of the students and slotted in amongst the lecture and the commentary a story about a stolen piece of art, a dead guard and the involvement of lecturer’s son in the crime.  It shouldn’t work as fiction, it should be a confused mess, but as I’m coming to discover with David Hayden’s work the structural quirks and the overall weirdness don’t get in the way of the core message or theme of the story.  In this case, a father coming to terms with his son’s actions.

‘Reading’ has this hilarious, brilliant opening.  I especially loved the bit about poetry.  The torment!

The Gist Of It

I know it’s a shitty cliche but I can’t help but compare David Hayden’s short fiction to David Lynch (and not just because they’re both Davids).  Aside from the distinct lack of coffee drinking, pie scoffing FBI agents there are stories in Darker With The Lights On that have the same vibe and texture as Eraserhead or Inland Empire.  That Lynchian quality is evoked by Hayden through the off-putting imagery, sometimes violent and askew with reality and the awkward dialogue between people replete with non-sequiturs and allusions to things the reader is not privy to.  If I wanted to push past David Lynch I could point to Kevin Davey’s Playing Possum or Max Porter’s Grief Is A Thing With Feathers and remark that I experienced a similar modernist tingle.

But whomever Hayden reminded me of the point is that Darker With The Lights On is a fantastic debut collection of stories.  Not every single piece worked for me, some zipped well over my head, and yet many of them were a genuine joy to read.  The prose is distinct and poised and requires the reader to concentrate.  The themes, which are crystal clear even if the narrative is less so, cover everything from loss, to the fraying of relationships, to the mysteries and wonder of creativity and the imagination.  Some of it is unsettling, some of it is laugh out loud funny, some of it is like walking through David Hayden’s dreams.  I made a mistake of reading these stories one after the other which I think blurs the impact.  To end on a cliche, something you will not find in David Hayden’s work, these are stories that deserved to be savoured.