It’s hard to say exactly why the illustrations in Kristine Ong Muslim’s recent short story collection Age Of Blight (published by The Unnamed Press) evoke such a strong sense of discomfort and dread. They are, after all, rather mundane. There’s nothing horrifying about a vintage photograph of a man feeding an elephant seal, for example, and yet in context it’s all rather unsettling: the swollen body of the creature, perched at what surely must be an uncomfortable angle. The stiffly-upright man. The mottled dryness of the seal’s body. There’s something not quite right here – a feeling only compounded by the sketches of hybrid monsters that head each story. A mere glance through the book produces a cocktail of feelings: sadness, otherness, even discomfort – all feelings which the stories themselves go on to concentrate and refine to almost overpowering effect.
The text itself begins with an introductory note that describes some of the places which will feature in the stories to come. There’s the suburb of Bardenstan, where something terrible is fated to take place in the year 2115. There’s the town of Outerbridge, the very last place where crops are actually grown on American soil. And in between the two is Station Tower, a nine-storey apartment building that serves as an architectural embodiment of hell. These places are, of course, fictional, but Muslim insists that they could be real, that they may exist in this timeline or another. It’s a spectacularly well-crafted piece, which sets up nicely a certain level of doubt about reality, about fiction and about the world in which – having opened the book – we now find ourselves.
That said, one of the very first stories takes place in a world that is recognisably our own. “The Wire Mother” is the gruesome tale of Harry Harlow, an American psychologist who conducted a series of controversial (and, some argue, unnecessarily cruel) social isolation experiments on monkeys. The details revealed in the story are almost too far-fetched to be believed, but all are verifiable. The result is a story that feels as though it couldn’t possibly be based in the world as we know it, but very certainly is.
Indeed, most of the stories in the first chunk of the collection could be considered historical rather than speculative. It is only with “No Little Bobos”, the début story of the second section of her collection, that Muslim begins to step off into the entirely speculative. It’s a trick she pulls off with admirable flair. The story begins with a description of the “Bobo doll experiments” conducted by social scientist Albert Bandura in 1961 and 1963 – a series of tests in which children were shown footage of an adult attacking a doll, then later exposed to a similar-looking doll to see what their reaction would be. Muslim’s story leaps a hundred years into the future to explore a strange, regimented extension of the same experiments.
“No Little Bobos” seems to mark a step away from the historical and into the purely speculative. Several excellent and slightly-horrifying stories follow, from the short but spine-tingling “Playground” to the much more involved, but equally creepy “Dominic And Dominic” – a story in which a young boy’s fingernail clippings, once planted in the garden, grow into another version of himself. The overall effect of this shift from the real to the not-real is a marvellous one – by beginning with historical fact, and then stepping off into the unfamiliar, Muslim brings the two uncomfortably close together.
The four sections of Age Of Blight are titled “Animals”, “Children”, “Instead Of Human” and “The Age Of Blight”. With each one the stakes seem to rise a little. The atmosphere becomes increasingly bleak and apocalyptic, and we are edged further and further away from a perspective that is known or recognisable. This gives the book a wonderful sense of gathering momentum – what was an uneasy creeping sensation in the first few stories is now a ball of raging anxiety, panic, chaos.
The final few stories paint pictures of sickeningly nightmarish worlds. In “The Quarantine Tank” the narrator and his tribe live in fear of a beast that makes its home inside a tank on the grounds of a nearby chemical plant. Though the protagonist is clearly human, he lives in a world that is cruelly alien and deeply segregated, but one that feels every bit as authentic as that of the lab in “The Wire Mother”. The final story “History Of The World” offers a vision of two climbers stranded on opposing cliff faces, clinging on with the last of their strength, each waiting to see the other plummet and die. It is without much context, but in tone and feel it makes a perfect ending – it is just as cruel and compelling and unusual as the stories that opened the set. The age of blight has, it seems, finally arrived.
This is a collection that should be read as a whole – each story builds on those that came before, the atmosphere thickening with each tale until it’s so heavy it’s almost oppressive. The stories themselves sometimes seem incomplete, but they’re definitely intended to be part of a wider vision – little by little we are edged from our comfortable lives into the dream-like world described in the introduction. Age Of Blight is far from being a happy read, but it is unendingly fascinating.