There’s a temptation to begin with death. The dark title of A.S. Byatt’s Little Black Book of Stories suggests it; the phrase is also a riposte to D.H. Lawrence’s description of the novel as “the one bright book of life,” which was a tormenting orthodoxy of her youth. All five stories here are intimate with the uncanny, animating it in eerie, fleshly forms.
But this black book, like most of Byatt’s work, is also full of colors, almost obsessively named: blues and golds, russets and purples, “shades of ink and elephant.” The northern sky is “opal and gun-metal, grass-green and crimson, mussel-blue and velvet black,” or “trout-dappled, mackerel-shot, turquoise, sapphire, peridot, hot transparent red.” Exact, vivid descriptions bring the page to life: “They sniffed the air, which was full of a warm mushroom smell, and a damp moss smell, and a sap smell, and a distant hint of dead ashes.” There is no sentiment and little mourning. Death is not so much a human event as a copula–boatman and border guard between animate and inanimate, flesh and memory, life and art.
The stories gravitate toward that boundary, blurring it or reasserting its force, in a prose that remains precise and cool. As Freud pointed out, it’s the blending of the familiar with the inexplicable that sends shivers down our spines; Byatt’s tales of the supernatural depend on an almost hallucinatory precision for their haunting effects. “The Thing in the Forest,” the first story, begins like a fairy tale, but for a crucial, small insertion of doubt–“There were once two little girls who saw, or believed they saw, a thing in a forest”–and goes on to sketch a generic group of children being evacuated from an English city during World War II: “They all had bare legs and scuffed shoes and wrinkled socks. Most had wounds on their knees in varying stages of freshness and scabbiness.” The long description contains only one simile, which refers us both to the war and to the shadowy forests of the Brothers Grimm: “They were like a disorderly dwarf regiment, stomping along the platform.”
The girls, Penny and Primrose, one dark, one fair, are at once fairy-tale sisters and real English children. No one has told them where they’re going, or why; their sense of foreboding is transmitted by the heartbeat of the prose and by the spare and knowing use of metaphor: “the bus bumped along snaking country lanes, under whipping branches, dark leaves on dark wooden arms on a dark sky.” The forest, when they enter it, is a recognizable English wood, vivid and slightly sinister to their urban senses. They hear “the chatter and repeated lilt and alarm of invisible birds, high up, further in.” They admire “the stiff upright fruiting rods of the Lords and Ladies, packed with fat red berries.” Out of these exact observations Byatt conjures up a vile, impossible Thing, which arrives first as a sound and smell and then as a visible worm:
The rest of its very large body appeared to be glued together, like still-wet papier-mâché, or the carapace of stones and straws and twigs worn by caddis-flies underwater. It had a tubular shape, as a turd has a tubular shape, a provisional amalgam. It was made of rank meat, and decaying vegetation, but it also trailed veils and prostheses of manmade materials, bits of wire-netting, foul dishcloths, wire-wool full of pan scrubbings, rusty nuts and bolts…