Coming in at less than 400 words, Janice Galloway’s short story ‘The Meat’ is a very short story indeed, and like McHugh’s ‘Water’ explored last month this is a story that makes every one of its few words count. Have a read first and then I’ll tell you why I love it so much. (For those unfamiliar with Scottish dialect, “keeking” is looking while a “wee minding” is a small reminder.) Okay, click here and then come back…
Striking, huh? Okay, as horror fans you may have had your suspicions about the meat from the outset, but look at the delivery. Look, in particular, at how the meat is described. There are some wonderfully evocative adjectives, giving us a physical description of the meat that revolts us. By the time we come to the meat it is nine days old, “the edges congested” and it has “turned brown in the air”, providing a sense of disgust that is to permeate the entire story. We understand the meat’s importance because it provides the title, but we can also tell through the amount of attention Galloway gives it in developing its description; “flayed and split down the spinal column”, this “yellowing hulk” turns “leathery and translucent” and though the comparison is made to describe its physical appearance we even get a sense of smell through the simile “like the rind of old cheese”. Indeed, the smell begins to clog the air and even seeps under the door. The meat is a potent lingering presence throughout the story.
The pace helps with this. There’s a distinct lack of urgency to the story, and in fact we don’t even come to the meat until it has been hanging for nine days. The opening sentence lacks any sense of movement, providing a slow, or rather static, starting point. With the arrival of the customers we get a sense of movement, people coming and going, buying and taking from two long lists of goods, only for the story to grind to a halt again with the simple declarative “But no one wanted the meat”. By the tenth day, flies are landing on it.
Although the customers try to ignore the meat, we as readers cannot. And though Galloway’s description of the meat may merely disgust us, we are horrified when we fully understand its significance. The clues are scattered throughout, from the suggestive “carcass” in the opening line to familiar parts like “spinal column”, “neck”, “shoulder” and “ribs”, but it’s “the hair and a strip of tartan ribbon” that really drives the implications home. This meat, it seems, was once a woman. And in being kept “beneath the marital bed” as “a wee minding”, these salvaged remains suggest the woman was once the shopkeeper’s wife. We are given no details regarding her death, and the shop keeper remains a forever distant and anonymous “he” throughout, but we are left to suppose something sinister due to his emotionless dealings with the meat. Though her death occurs outside the narrative boundaries of the story we are left with the wife languishing in an alley as food for strays. Not only has she been objectified throughout the entire story, reduced to mere “meat”, but now we see her heartlessly discarded.
As a ‘twist’ ending, this is perhaps more effective with a general reader than one familiar with horror fiction as it’s a ‘horror’ most of us are likely to have come across before, but there’s a secondary horror to consider here and for me this is where the story has most of its impact. The real horror is this: customers have been seeing this meat for days and nobody has said a thing. I mean, it was “familiar enough in its way”, folk “embarrassed even to be caught keeking in its direction”, and making only “tentative enquiries” about the sausages nearby. Somehow, despite the meat demanding all of the reader’s attention throughout the story, the people in the shop are able to ignore it completely despite being in a position to have a fuller visual understanding of the meat than we are given. Nobody admits to recognising the meat. Nobody mentions the absence of the shopkeeper’s wife.
What we seem to have in Galloway’s ‘The Meat’ is a story that not only implies a man has murdered his wife but that society is complicit in the crime by failing to acknowledge it. For me, their lack of concern provides a stronger sense of disgust than any description of the meat can produce. Their behaviour provides the true source of horror, leaving the reader with real food for thought.
For more information visit the Janice Galloway website.
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