In The Sprawl Of The Outer City The Stench Became Narcotic (China Miéville, ‘Looking For Jake and Other Stories)

china mievilleIn China Miéville’s London there are shadows, and there are shadows. There are the shadows thrown by what we see and what we assume, and what we’re familiar with enough to no longer notice. The long stretch of non-sunlight cast from St Paul’s, or the huddled shadows formed between huddled smokers outside Caledonian Road tube. There’s the shadow alertly following a conspicuous figure, face obscured, hurrying down an alleyway off Oxford Street with a bag, and there’s the shadow from a double decker spilling over the side of Lambeth Bridge and plunging momentarily into the Thames.

And then there are the shadows cast by other things. The unreliable, unidentifiable things that become corporeal only fleetingly but long enough to make an impression – long enough to cast a shadow. Creatures, traumatic events; rupturing from beneath or between the asphalt, concrete and glass. New flesh and bone and other – less recognisable – forms of matter shift forward, casting a shadow where no shadow should rightly be cast. And what if it’s the asphalt or glass itself that’s come awake? Or what if there’s a new corner at the end of the road, one we’ve never noticed before? Within the things casting these shadows comes a sense of destabilization, as if we can no longer trust the light which must have cast them. As if what London actually is can’t be understood anymore, or at the very worst can’t be trusted.

Miéville ushers us down these newly-shadowed streets, overlayed meticulously onto familiar ones, but with no clear direction of how to get back once we’ve seen what we see on them. A self-confessed exponent of the Weird, Miéville’s stylistic roots lie with William Hope Hodson as much as H. P. Lovecraft, and as much with Jules Verne as Ursula Le Guin. As well as heavy-on-the-tenticular complexity of the fantastic or horrifying, Miéville’s socialist politics – intellectual light years away from the elitist xenophobia of Lovecraft – often influence his fictions, giving them an ecologically aware intelligence, without every becoming preachy.

With a new collection of short stories due in June this year, this would be an apt time to walk once again down the streets of Miéville’s first collection of shorter fiction, Looking For Jake and Other Stories (2005). Written between 1998 and 2005, these stories are an excellent introduction to Miéville’s worlds. They also provide comprehensive keyhole demonstrations a writer flexing ideas. Here’s five of the best from the collection:


Perhaps the most ‘straightforward’ tale in the collection, The Ball Room (written in 2005, and co-written with Emma Bircham and Max Schaefer) is almost a traditional English ghost story on the surface. And yet, absent are the travelling academic, the haunted lodgings, or the vengeful spirit of the repressed; instead the story is populated by job-weary consumers paying their weekend pilgrimage to an Ikea-esque furniture warehouse, where a perpetually busy childrens’ play area offers the pine wardrobe-seeking parents a few minutes of respite. But by night, and from time to time, there exists another, shrouded aspect to the warehouse. Told through the narrative of the store security guard,  The Ball Room is a chilling experiment in summoning the ghostly out of that most sanitized, public, and consumer-lead situation; Saturday afternoon furniture shopping.

“Not even my memories are left”

Playing upon the limits of visual conception, Details (2002) is the story of Mrs Miller, an old woman who has chosen to stay within her apartment indefinitely due to what she believes is ‘hunting’ her outside the plain confines of her walls. Never quite revealing whether Mrs Miller is a victim of an all-consuming agoraphobic stupour, or if she really is being pursued by some infinitely ancient presence which lives within a “million million little edges, a million little lines” of everything – from the uniformity of brick walls, to the definite but sporadic edges of broccoli or spaghetti –  Details is a disturbing, displacing tale, addressing the fight for survival against attackers seen (like the aggressive, alcohol-fuelled men who haunt the hallways beyond her front door) and unseen.

“They have not yet had blood”

Echoing the reported epistolary descent into madness of gothic texts like Le Fanu’s Le Horla, the narrator of Different Skies (1999) is an elderly academic who finds himself inexplicably ushered into the realms of the fantastic. After purchasing a vibrant piece of red stained glass to replace a cracked plain window in his study, the man soon believes the red window to actually be a port-hole to another place, accessible and visible only through the glass. When the old man begins to interact with the others he perceives beyond the red pane, he becomes engaged in a battle of wits spanning unknown geographical regions, and also the perceived limits of his own cognitive reliability.

“He supposed he had helped bring in a better world”

Continuing the theme of paranoia and the disintegration of one’s own grasp of contemporary life, Go Between follows the steps taken by Morley; a man who believes he is receiving instructions regarding the placement and positioning of packages of random items sent to him by persons unknown. The small, inconsequential-ness of Morley’s life seems to become intrinsically linked to what he sees on the news. He begins to wonder if his silent compliance with his invisible masters is resulting in the famines, wars and other significant world events constantly fired at him by news channels in a barrage of up-to-date abstract reporting. Then one day he chooses to not follow his instructions…

“Brittle fingertips, made of dog’s teeth”

Probably the best story of the collection (that’s it we’re not counting the astonishingly good Reports of Certain Events in London once again), Familiar (2002) is an up-to-date realisation of the traditions of witchcraft, and a perfect example of Miéville’s capacity for transplanting the supernatural and ancient into the modern world, and seeing what happens. A witch abandons their supposedly failed attempt at acquiring a familiar. The resultant organism – a vermicular, shapeless combination of the witch’s own flesh and effluence – is discarded into the Grand Union canal. There the familiar, rather than dying, does only what it can do: it learns how things work, it absorbs them. It grows. Along with the familiar’s meticulous acclimatization to its ever-less strange surroundings, Miéville’s use of description is engrossingly anatomical:

“When the familiar emerged from the water with the dawn, it was poured into a milk-bottle carapace. Its clutch of eyes poked from the bottleneck. It nibbled with a nail clipper. With precise little bullets of stone it had punctured holes in its glass sides, from which legs of waterlogged twig-wood and broken pens emerged. To stop it sinking into wet earth its feet were coins and flat stones. They looked insecurely attached. The familiar dragged the brown sack that had contained it. Though it had not found a use for it, and though it had no words for the emotion, it felt something like sentiment for the hessian.”

Familiar is a perfect example of Miéville’s ability to make horror and astonishment out of not only the ordinary, but the discarded and ordinary. The titular familiar of this tale collects objects – collects London – as Miéville himself does; shaping it for his own needs, learning contexts and using them, making spectacular use of the otherwise arbitrary. And the result is a new object casting a new shadow, and once we’ve witnessed it, the light behind it will never seem the same again.


About rpfox

Writer of short, strange fiction. Dabbles in graphic design a bit. Enjoys walking. Does not enjoy sea food.
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