Sarah Hall should probably stop publishing short stories for a while to give other writers a chance. If she’s not the best short story writer in Britain, then — but why even finish that sentence? Her novels are good, but it’s in the short form that she excels, with strange, unsettling tales that have made her the only author to be shortlisted three times for the BBC National Short Story Award. (She won it once.)
Her greatest gift is, through a blend of the carnal and the cerebral, to invoke a physical response, something atavistic, in the reader. This response could be close to disgust — as when someone’s ‘tongue was oversized, a giant grub inside his mouth’ — or something more hot-cheeked, even when the character is doing nothing more than having a cream tea: ‘She pushed her thumbs into the body of the scone and split it open.’
In Hall’s stories, life is appetite. This sense is on display in the opener here, ‘M’, which reads like a companion piece to ‘Mrs Fox’ and ‘Evie’, exceptional fictions of female transformation that bookended Hall’s previous collection, Madame Zero. But it is not a retread: ‘M’ goes further, and is weirder, like a feverish cross between J.G. Ballard’s The Unlimited Dream Company and Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle. You know you’re in safe hands from the opening lines of the story, where ‘darkness moves like an ocean above the roofs and streetlights’ as an unnamed woman feels pain in her body like ‘a hot zipping feeling under the skin, moving from hip to belly’. Each night it gets worse — ‘violent alteration, acceptance, discarding’ — until her human form is disrupted, and the story bends into a new shape with one foot on solid land and one in myth, where sex is both disease and cure. To say more than that would spoil the story’s many surprises, though even when it’s over it leaves a trail of questions.
For Hall, sex is the area where we are most easily reminded of the animalism and primitivism of humanity. ‘Both of them unable to stop, as if dragged into a beautiful slaughtering machine,’ she writes in ‘Orton’, where a woman fitted with an artificial heart goes on a sentimental final journey to the Cumbrian village of the title. Place is important: people are territorial, using all their senses to return to familiar spots: ‘All that bog and bark, the game of animals and wet feathers, flowers scented like discharge, mineral rain, and a cold black peaty sweat.’ You can hear it, smell it, feel it in your bones.
This is not a perfect collection. Two stories, ‘Who Pays?’ and ‘Live That You May Live’, are very short and more directly mythic in form, whereas Hall writes best when she is straddling realism and the uncanny. And the most surprising story is the funniest — ‘The Grotesques’, a sort of horror comedy where a young woman, Dilly, spends time with her terrible family, who are specialists in self-regard and passive-aggression. ‘Goodness, you do look beautiful, Dilly, what a fabulous combination, very laissez-faire.’
There’s a common theme in the critical praise for Hall’s earlier story collections: ‘sexy’, ‘sensual’, ‘erotic’, ‘sensuous’. It applies to Sudden Traveller too. It is by no means all of her talent but it’s right to single out this aspect, because she does write exceptionally well about sex. However, it is a means rather than an end, and the erotic charge in her best stories is always connected to a subcutaneous darkness and sense of danger. If the pages in Sudden Traveller end up stuck together, it will be with sweat.