I first came across Maura McHugh’s work in Black Static from TTA Press. That story was ‘Vic’ in issue 10, and as well as being one of my favourites of that issue, it’s one of my favourites of all Black Static’s offerings. ‘Water’, which came along in issue 21, is another favourite. This one I love so much that I use it to show my students what can be done with metaphor as well as how much you can achieve with only a few hundred words. You can read Water by Maura McHugh here.
Great, isn’t it?
This is the story I’m going to dive into for ‘Less is More’ this month, and by ‘less is more’ I’m not just talking about story length; I’m also talking about the subtlety with which McHugh makes some strong social comment.
The focus of the story is Mark’s mother. She apparently drowns herself in the river that flows past their house, but note that it’s only through Mark we learn this. It’s Mark who “figured out what happened”, a conclusion he reaches when she “sloshes back into the room”. Combined with McHugh’s description of the mother it’s a sensible conclusion (especially with that “curl of fern”) but this is a story that can be read in a different way – as is true of so many of the good ones, in my opinion. Yes, Mark’s mother might simply be back from the dead, and ‘Water’ remains an enjoyable story if you want to keep it this way, but there’s a metaphor going on here suggesting she wasn’t exactly alive before. “I needed some air” she tells us in a notable past tense before releasing a “shrill, staccato laughter” in bitter recognition of the full truth of it: Mark’s mother is a woman who had been drowning for quite some time.
The “brusque clatter” of Dad’s keys and his first lines of dialogue, “Did you burn dinner again, Liz…Hardly a homecoming treat”, give some indication why Mark’s mother might feel like she’s struggling for air. What we seem to have here is an oppressive man with old-fashioned ideas as to a woman’s role in the house, especially as he snatches the spatula from his son’s hands and tosses it aside as if offended by the boy’s attempts to help his mother in the kitchen. Tellingly, it seems Mark is the only one aware that anything is wrong with the scenario McHugh has presented; Dad doesn’t mention the soaked state of his wife, nor does he seem to notice the frog that emerges from her cardigan to flop onto his arm. When Mark attempts to point it out, Dad’s reply is merely “What?”
It’s a question Mark finds difficult to answer. He feels “as if the air was made of water, and he was suspended, breathless, unable to swim” but for Mark this watery state is significantly only a simile. There’s still a chance for Mark to escape old-fashioned gender roles, or at least the domestic setting in which his father dominates. This, for me, is another of the story’s strengths; rather than merely focus on the oppression of the female character, McHugh shows us how the boy is also threatened. Mark faces the loss of his parents here but, worse, also faces the threat of perhaps becoming them, accepting their values as his own. Even the father is presented as something of a victim as if to highlight this idea, for when Mark’s parents kiss “the river gushed into Dad”. This gender-based allocation of roles is perhaps just as suffocating for the men as the women.
Emphasising this interpretation is the use of Mark as the story’s observer. To him the adults are only ever Mum and Dad, reducing the adults to roles they may resent. The mother is referred to as Liz but for the most part neither parent has an individual identity. Mark has a name, an identity, but it’s a rather telling name when you consider its definition: he’s different to his surroundings, or he’s a sign of damage, or he’s a symbol used to indicate or record something. Or he’s all three.
“What’s wrong?” Dad asks Mark, and as one of the final lines of the story it’s as if McHugh is asking us, too. I like to think most of us know what’s wrong, and while Mark might not fully understand yet – hence his conclusion that Mum must have drowned herself in the river – he knows enough to bolt from the room, “gulping for air”. ‘Water’ seems to be a story about the roles in which people find themselves trapped, be it as women, wives, and mothers, or as men, husbands, and fathers, even as sons, for Mark’s identity is also threatened in this story. McHugh leaves it to us to decide whether he manages to escape or not and it makes for another of the story’s strengths in my opinion, an ending that’s open not in any lazy or frustrating way but rather in a way that depends on the reader’s own world view, their interpretation of the story governed by their interpretation of the world in which they live. Me, I like to see some hope in this horror. I like to think that in witnessing the behaviour of his parents in a patriarchal household, Mark manages to flee rather than succumb to the same water that drowns them.
Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but as I often tell my students, it doesn’t matter. Reading is an active process of interpretation and it can often differ to what the author intended (just ask Jack Finney – some will tell you his Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an exploration of the fear of communism, but to Finney it was just a cool story with aliens in it). That said, let’s hear what Maura McHugh has to say about ‘Water’…
Maura McHugh on ‘Water’
I wrote this flash fiction in a rush. The opening line came into my head, and the story proceeded from that, weird and uncomfortable, which meant I liked it a great deal. It can be hard to summon that tone at will.
It was published in Black Static after Chris Fowler and I had selected the finalists for the Campaign for Real Fear competition. At the time we’d said that if you couldn’t disturb people in 500 words then perhaps you’d find it just as hard with 5,000. So, I felt quite a bit of (self-inflicted) pressure to produce the goods.
Flash, for me, is an exercise in precision and efficiency. Every word must ring true. The trick is to carry this meticulous selection into your longer work. The benefit of writing flash is that it can tune your ear to the filler terms and loose phrases that bedevil even the experienced writer.
In ‘Water’ I wanted to evoke that childhood threshold moment when you suddenly become acutely aware of the adult world and its complications. It’s the painful realisation that there has been an entire nuanced conversation happening around you all the time, but you were incapable of apprehending it beforehand.
That’s why the water, suffocation, and odd elements like the frog (a symbol of transformation, and a creature that lives between two worlds) work well in this instance, because they simulate the strangled breath of horrified realisation that precedes a dazed realignment.
It’s the tragic epiphany of childhood that announces nothing will ever be the same again.
Maura McHugh lives in Galway, Ireland and has two collections published in the USA: Twisted Fairy Tales, and Twisted Myths. She’s written the comic book series Jennifer Wilde and Róisín Dubh for Atomic Diner in Ireland, and was one of the writers of the anthology horror play produced in London in October 2012, called The Hallowe’en Sessions. Her short fiction has appeared in many venues, including The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror. You can read her latest piece, ‘The Hanging Tree’, in Black Static #38. Visit Maura’s website and follow her on Twitter @splinister.
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