The prospective reader may be forgiven for expecting Seven Sins, Karen Runge’s debut short fiction collection, to touch upon the religious. However, the tales she weaves are not connected with the famous set of misdemeanours. They are instead a septet of stories dealing with sin generally and, more specifically, how ordinary people can end up doing extraordinarily awful things.
The collection begins with ‘Sweet Old Men’, one of the shorter pieces and the most formulaic, loyal to the short story standard of introducing three elements and gathering them together for a shock ending. However, it does set the tone for the rest of the book in terms of vivid bodily imagery: “He’d grab your hand […] pulling your plump, pink fist toward that gaping black hole of pale white gums and cracked red tongue; that open maw lined with long, yellow teeth.” It also introduces the gently building sense of foreboding that Runge is so adept at injecting into any scenario.
This quiet but ever-present feeling of doom is really allowed room to blossom in the second tale, ‘The Philosopher’, which is considerably longer and freer from convention than its predecessor. It is perhaps the best of the seven when it comes to subtle horror, as from the third story onwards the proceedings become considerably more graphic and violent. ‘The Philosopher’ also contains the collection’s most thorough examination of human relationships. The other stories feel a tad shallow in comparison to this one, and its couple with many layers and problems so simple yet so unsolvable.
The setting of a cramped caravan in the middle of nowhere is used to its full potential: “I sometimes think life in a caravan is like living in a centipede. Everything segmented, everything squeezed into the same narrow space, compartment linked to compartment leading on; moving through it is like being digested, or maybe like being spat out.” The use of light is also impressive: the caravan’s red tarpaulin awning creates an ambience that becomes progressively more suffocating, for the reader as much as for the protagonist. The ending, however, is rather unsatisfactory: Runge leaves us with a striking image, but without any real explanation or resolution.
The third and fourth stories are slightly weaker. ‘My Son, My Son’ has an interesting premise – how do incestuous feelings develop? – but dips into kitchen-sink territory and drags on longer than necessary. The final few sentences are clearly designed to make the reader recoil, and they do. However, they also nullify much of the previous action, and turn what could have been something insightful, though disturbing, into something that feels slightly lazy and sensationalist. The reader is left unsure as to how seriously the writer takes the topic of incest, which is one well worth exploring in fiction.
“the gently building sense of foreboding that Runge is so adept at injecting into any scenario”
‘The Orphanage’ is another tale of unhappy motherhood, and incorporates the somewhat tired trope of a woman who has lost her own children going insane and doing unspeakable things to other people’s. Not only is this trope old and potentially harmful, but the story also feels less believable than its neighbours. Most of the others could conceivably take place in the real world, which is part of their power. ‘The Orphanage’, on the other hand, delves into gothic melodrama, which distances the reader. Nevertheless, it does contain perhaps the most horrible and memorable images of the lot, and these flashes of horror refuse to leave the mind for some time – it is up to the reader to judge whether that is an achievement or exploitative.
The fifth and six tales blur together: both involve rather tedious doomed relationships between teenagers. Both also suffer from their late position in the collection – read in isolation, either would no doubt provide a shock, but after four accounts of equally intense pain and suffering the reader starts to become desensitised. ‘Lake Seasons’ is the stronger of the two; here foreshadowing is handled particularly well: a mouth smeared with berries gives a soft but sinister hint as to what may come. ‘Faces’, to its credit, deals with a very different narrator to the previous tales; instead of another unhappy mother we meet Joe, a troubled young man. His relationship with pornography and its effect on his actions are interesting. Unfortunately, instead of pursuing this angle, ‘Faces’ ultimately morphs into a darker and less developed version of ‘Lake Seasons’. Perhaps by combining the two stories Runge could create something more thorough and potent.
Then there is the seventh and final Sin of the collection, ‘The Killing Machine.’ This is a very different kind of story, and is possibly the book’s finest. Short and sour, it gives a brief insight into a dystopian prison: dystopian, but scarily believable. It is told principally through announcements, with the emotionless instructions hitting hard against the sadness of the situation. ‘The Killing Machine’ is clean, cold and clinical. There is no blood or guts until the very end, and its inclusion is somewhat of a shame; without the mention of a “fine mist of blood” the story would have been almost unbearably powerful.
Seven Sins is a very promising collection. The author certainly has something unique and, if she can go on to rely less on shock value and gore, she will really be a force to be reckoned with, not only in the arena of dark literature but in the wider world of short fiction. Seven Sins will affect you – maybe for good, maybe for bad (and there can never be enough trigger warnings for this in terms of violence and harm to children). But it certainly cuts deep.
Elizabeth Gibson is a Masters student in languages at the University of Manchester. She is also a Digital Reporter for Manchester Literature Festival and a member of The Writing Squad. Her writing/translation has appeared in Far Off Places, London Journal of Fiction, Severine, Octavius, Ink, Sweat & Tears, and Gigantic Sequins, among other journals. She edits Foxglove Journal and the Word Life section of Now Then Manchester, and is a writer for The Mancunion. She tweets @Grizonne and blogs at http://elizabethgibsonwriter.