Magnus Mills first novel, The Restraint of Beasts (1998) was a wondrous creation, comic and tragic at the same time, portraying an episode in the life of two fencing contractors Tam and Richie and their un-named supervisor. A deceptively simple read, it addressed issues of crime and punishment in a setting quite unlike anything I have read before and I was not alone in finding it stayed in my mind long after I’d finished it. I have since reread it several times and find it equally beguiling every time. Other books and short story collections have followed, but nothing has quite equalled The Restraint of Beasts, but I continue to read everything by Mills in order to capture something of the magic of The Restraint of Beasts – and there is usually just enough there to keep me reading him.
Mills has the ability to create dysmporphic scenarios from everyday narratives – ordinary things happen to ordinary people, but the effect is sinister and unsettling. He uses cliché and colloquial expressions but there is something of parody in the way he uses them. His characters’ over-prosaic conversational style suggests that they live stilted emotional lives with a preference for home and the routines of a boring job. Humour is never far from the surface, but the reader laughs in an uneasy way, never quite short whether he is on safe territory or not. His characters love the everyday and the routines that support them, but they seem to be locked into situations that ultimately do them no good and from which they would best advised to get out of as quickly as they can.
Magnus Mills’ new short story collection, Screwtop Thompson is as usual a bit of a disappointment – not least because only three of the stories are new, the other eight having been published before (although probably out of print). But here and there we catch enough of Mills’ sideways-on humour to keep us reading on – and waiting in hope for the next offering.
I will just take one story to try to capture a little of the flavour of this collection. “They Drive By Night” opens with the phrase, “It was a dark and stormy night, with the threat of rain moving rapidly in from the west”. A hitch hiker waits by the side of the road, but there is little traffic. He has a hundred miles yet to travel and has been on the road since early morning. He hears a faint roar in the distance, “like a great beast labouring under an enormous burden”.
A huge eight-wheeler truck emerges from the darkness and pulls up and a face appears at the window to offer a lift, “the whole cab seemed to be shaking with the motion of the engine”. The traveller gets in and has to climb over the driver’s mate in order to sit in the middle of the bench seat, his leg crushed against the gear stick. He is expected to converse, but the noise in the cab is so great he can only hear snatches of what the other two men are saying and when they ask him a question he is uncertain how to reply. The weather worsen and the wind-screen wipers don’t work properly but the lorry hurtles on through the atrocious conditions. The traveller has never said where he is going and seems to have no idea where the truck is headed to. It all seems very sinister and not a little threatening.
The conversation seems to turn to a discussion of where to stop for a meal but its almost impossible to fully understand the conversation because of the racket from the engine and the road. There are two options, a lorry drivers’ cafe called The Tiger Lily, or a restaurant called Joys which is run by a fierce woman who the customers are in awe of. It turns out Joy’s is closed that night, so the driver pulls up at The Tiger Lily and soon the traveller finds himself sitting at a table with the lorry driver and his mate. They eat their pie and chips in total silence and the story ends. We have not gone anywhere at all with this story, but Mills’ flat style of writing has created a strong impression of something unfinished. Is the traveller going to resume his journey with the two men? Will it get him to his destination? This seems like an endless night and we feel that he has perhaps slipped into a hellish world where there is no destination and no way of getting home.
There is plenty more of the same in this little book. With eleven stories spread over 114 pages, it takes very little time to read this book, but despite its brevity, it sticks in the mind and is a must-read for those who Mills first entranced with The Restraint of Beasts. Perhaps its better to order it from the library than to buy it. You won’t suffer through waiting for it and it will only take you a couple of hours to read it.
Alice Fisher in The Guardian seemed to like this book commenting that “Magnus Mills’s gift has always been his ability to create the weird from the workaday” and goes on to say, “These are stories you marvel at for their precision rather than narratives to lose yourself in. You certainly wouldn’t take this book on a long train journey”.
Leyla Sanai in The Independent writes that “Magnus Mills unerringly sharp eye for human foibles combines with a dry, deadpan wit to create comic genius”.
I just hope that Screwtop Thompson is followed by a longer novel which I can spread over a few days rather than this too-short reminder of what Mills is capable of.
Title: Screwtop Thompson
Author: Magnus Mills
Publication: Bloomsbury Publishing (October 2010) Hardback, 128 pages