Food is essential to life, yet often harmful. Eating is private, close your mouth, and social. Poison is often sweet.
Anna Vaught’s debut collection Famished reflects all of the above. 17 stories over 92 pages suggests morsels, canapes and petit fours, but there are riches here.
In Vaught’s piquant kitchen find tripe, sherbet, pickled eggs, seaside rock, cucumber sandwiches and lampreys, a surfeit thereof. Her diners, frequently us as she addresses the reader, indulge and suffer, are treated and mistreated.
Take the dangerous delights of the old sweet shop, calling unwary children; the epiphany of a devout churchman’s first taste of a sherbet dab; the subtlest of sugary murders; and the perfect torture of the eternal banquet. Beware the black teeth ‘like a rancid badger’ or the internal ravages of an ingested, well taste for yourself.
Occasionally Vaught’s stories seem sketches, plotless descriptions of an eccentric corner of the world, until a line, literally a ‘killer line’, brings a literary dyspepsia. In at least one story, ‘Bread and Salt’ this occurs in the last 6 words. Others are fabulations, opulent and vivant, souring gradually.
Most effective, for me, are the not-quite-but-almost tempters of an older domesticity where Vaught flavours her tales with hints and details. Fluted glass, hot cross bun recipes. And a twist, of lemon, bitter and unpalatable.
The swallowed laughter as humour darkens, light pellucid prose that sits hard. Anna Vaught offers up sweet and bitter at once. And occasionally stomach churning, horror. Snacks that leave you full, sated yet discomfited.
Some of these stories are delicious like the bitterest chocolate, perfect in the single bite, lingering yet pulling you in. Some are fantasy in the vein (ah yes there maybe a nibble of vampire too), in the vein of Shirley Jackson maybe or a rareified Roald Dahl. A kind of fantastic realism runs through them. There are suitably apt epigraphs by Angela Carter, Poe, Le Guin and Lovecraft. I thought too of Josephine Saxton’s Little Tours of Hell. Some, I should advise you, are stories you probably shouldn’t turn your back on.
My favourite? ‘cave venus et stellas’ makes a delightful amuse bouche, ‘A Tale of Tripe’ the main dish, and ‘Trimalchio Jones’ the luxuriant dessert that you shouldn’t, but can’t resist.
Note: I purchased Famished directly from Influx Press as part of their subscription deal after being highly impressed by Anna Vaught’s 2020 novel Saving Lucia published by Bluemoose Books. Famished is available as an individual purchase too.