There’s a definite theme to Mercy, Rebecca Lloyd’s first published short story collection. Not only are the sixteen strange tales all tied together by the presence of the uncanny and the unsettling, but there are a number of motifs in particular which seem to crop up again and again. The most prominent one is houses – a topic that, thankfully, Lloyd handles extremely well. Again and again throughout the collection we are invited into the small (or sometimes not so small), private living spaces of her characters, and shown the states of loneliness or squalor or beauty in which they live.
In the titular story “Mercy”, for example, we hear from a slightly-unhinged narrator who has managed to keep an awful secret safe in the privacy of his home for seven years. Now discovered, he pleads his case in an eloquent and yet subtly-disjointed voice. “The Meat Freezer” is another story which features a protagonist with a secret. This time, however, the broken-down house which he moves into is less of a hiding-place and more of a battleground in which he wrestles a shameful and disturbing compulsion. In “Lucky Cat”, the protagonist Marcia is confined to the house while her lover goes out to patrol the nearby cliffs, ready to intervene in potential suicides. Here the house is safe and pleasant, a comfortable space that soon becomes stifling.
Before reading Mercy I’d not considered quite how illuminating a look inside a person’s house might be. But indeed, the settings in which these stories takes place truly are reflective of the interior worlds of the characters, and nowhere is this more evident than in the surprisingly-poignant tale “The Careless Hour”. Here our narrator listens in on his (we suspect) fragile and confused neighbour as he tries to form a tentative bond with a woman. The scenes inside the neighbour’s house are alternately heartbreaking and terrifying – he lives in filth, with food and mess strewn about his kitchen, unable or unwilling to keep his living space in order. But there’s something else too, lurking in one of the upstairs rooms… something which suggests that he is not at all what he superficially seems.
The collection is not simply a street of houses, of course. Lloyd also travels beyond the home, with tales like “The Lover”, about a man who runs away to join the circus. It’s oddly coy at first, refusing to reveal the exact nature of the man’s greatest obsession. When the reveal does happen it comes across as a bit of a joke. For a while it seems as though the story is destined to be a twist-in-the-tail affair, designed to give the reader a quick laugh and nothing more. Lloyd sticks doggedly to the idea though, keeps a straight face, and manages to bring it to a surprisingly moving end.
Quite often, I found, the denouement of the various stories was my favourite part. Lloyd weaves complex mysteries which we think it will be impossible to resolve, and then manages to bring each one to a satisfying conclusion. Her control of the form is obvious, and it’s a joy to read the work of such a talented short story writer. Or maybe joy is the wrong word, since it seems to be Lloyd’s mission to craft tales loaded with creepy and uncanny details that will stick with you long after the close of any single story.
Although it wasn’t perfect (it goes on slightly too long, and drags in the first half) the final story was one of my favourites. In it, Lloyd seems to bring her theme of houses to its extreme conclusion, with the fantastic rendering of a sprawling gothic mansion, inhabited by the narrator’s shut-in parents. The story takes off when they leave the house, which they do in a fashion that is both appropriate and endearing. The ultimate end is an unexpected, yet truly satisfying conclusion to the collection.
Christopher Frost is a writer from the North of England. He works as a copywriter for a charity, and in his spare time writes book reviews.