Death is often present in fantasy, science fiction, and horror, but usually as a dramatic element that advances or provides the climax to the plot, as a condition to be overcome by an individual or species, as the focus of mourning, as a state of abject otherness, or even as a personification the protagonist engages with. Seldom, though, does fiction (of any sort) offer a prosaic awareness of death as constantly present in human lives and thus requiring a set of cultural and social customs for accommodating that presence. Kaaron Warren's The Grinding House offers a fresh and interesting exception.
I came to The Grinding House without previous acquaintance with Warren's work. Only after reading the volume did I discover that she tends to be classified as a "horror" writer, which surprised me. Although a few of the stories in the volume might be considered horror (i.e., they involve defeating or being defeated by otherness) and some of them build on dark fantasy premises, her approach to narrative here is science-fictional and her greatest strength world-building. Several of these tales undertake a nearly anthropological examination of the social customs surrounding death; some explicitly involve characters dying or mourning the dead, while others culminate in death or dying. And a morality tale like "The Hanging People" evokes powerful images of death without material existence that only the protagonist can perceive ("Meg could not eat because each bite was flavored with rotting flesh"); perceiving images of death is a family gift conferred only on those who are in the direct family line. Although the images of corpses decaying are horrific, the story's true horror has to do not with Meg's perception of rotting flesh all around her but with the history Meg chooses to continue.
The opening tale, "Fresh Young Widow," tells the story of Marla, widowed after only a few days of marriage. Marla must, as the town's Clay-Maker, coat each dead person brought to her in layers of clay that will bake without cracking so that the dead person, placed with the town's "clay people" in an accumulation that has gradually formed a wall enclosing the town, will rise at the Resurrection and go on the Great Clay Walk. The concreteness of Warren's evocation of the process of "clay-making" makes what might be mistaken for mere metaphor powerfully material:
She had three buckets of clay ready, collected as the sun rose. Soft and slippery. She took up a handful and squeezed, loving the squelch between her fingers. The fresh young widow worked the clay. Picked out stones and sticks, any small impurities. She dropped handfuls of clay into a large bucket of water, where small motes drifted to the top. These she skimmed off. She sifted the sludge through her fingers and when it was silky smooth she poured it onto a long flat sieve outside. Cloudy water dripped onto the ground and she left the clay to dry. When it was no longer sticky to the touch she could work it, kneading it until the smoothness of it satisfied her. (6)That is only the beginning of the process of "clay-making." A sense of the toil and meticulous craft of the process seeps through the story's narrative, mixing with the freshness of the Clay-Maker's grief. And as Marla performs the emotionally fraught task of covering the body of her husband with clay, gradually the unusual properties of the town and its clay emerge. Later, when the corpse of her husband's murderer is handed over to her for another kind of Clay-Making, her outrage takes physical form, showing us the flip side of the funerary rituals of this alien human society. As with several of the tales in The Grinding House, the narrative here conveys the inextricability of birth and death for the human condition. Importantly, Warren's understanding of death includes its relation to the on-going processes of life, reminding us that death may bring pain, but it is part of who we are and thus entails customs and mores that accomplish its cultural and social integration and provide the forms in which grief, mourning, and generational continuity can be expressed.
The longest story in the book, "The Grinding House," shows a future sfnal society facing a disease called "Spurs" that is well on its way to extinguishing all human life. The narrative does not follow the usual arc of dramatic conflict, but takes a bipartite form. The novella opens with the massive death of birds of all varieties and shows us four young people—Sasha, Bevan, and two brothers, Nick and Rab—struggling to keep a healthy enough balance in their bank accounts to stay above the "poverty line," a designation that marks the border of social viability in public space. Sasha, Nick, and Rab sell "Slenderize" on commission. "Slenderize" is billed as "a complete-weight-loss-mental- health programme" that's "even got an anti-cancer agent in there"; it also contains lithium, which apparently "everyone" takes. Because Warren intertwines the image of animals and a child dying when their skeletons fuse into a single bone with a continual focus on "Slenderize," we can't help but wonder if Spurs might be related to the "health program" the characters hawk. Later, the narrative discloses that the Grinding House is the place where "Slenderize" is manufactured.
By the time Nick and his father come down with Spurs and are literally immobilized, it has become clear that humans will go the way of the birds, rabbits, and rats that are dying of Spurs, and the narrative becomes an end-of-the-world story. Suspecting that they will eventually die of the disease too, Sasha, Rab, and Bevan set out to live their deaths as best they can. But even accepting the inevitable, they wage a fierce struggle with a sinister undertaker named Jeremiah over the disposition of their dead. Jeremiah, who has been hired by the Pathology Department to keep a record of everyone who dies of Spurs, which includes jars containing the ashes of their cremated bodies, burns the bodies and grinds the bones that do not burn, in what he calls (in knowing imitation of the makers of "Slenderize") his "Grinding House." But not all the deaths from Spurs are recorded. Fields covered with disgusting flowers are the sites of mass graves, where victims of the disease have been buried without ceremony. For the story's main characters, how the remains of themselves and those they care for are disposed matters tremendously, even as life itself is slipping away from them.
Several of the stories are, like "The Hanging People," moral fables: "Blue Stream" strikingly depicts a world in which children are put away during their adolescent years and programmed to become docile, unquestioning adults; in the harsh "A-Positive," which begins "Not long after my father killed my mother, I removed him to a special home," adult children send their aging parents to a retirement home for abusive parents; while in "Tiger Kill," a hunter informs some particularly repulsive gourmands that the easiest way to a trap a tiger is to catch him with a full stomach. The most unusual (albeit Wellsian) story, "Left Behind," explores the development of an alternative morality when the definition of "normal" and "perfect" shifts after the supposedly normal and perfect have evacuated earth and left the disabled behind.
The Grinding House has a few minor flaws. Commentary by the author that followed each story (presumably demanded by the editor) is distracting and annoying, and the text's font is reader-unfriendly. The collection's weakest stories rely on narrative gimmicks that assume a na´ve reader. But even these are carried by the imaginativeness of Warren's meticulous world-building. In all, it's an interesting first collection.
This review first appeared in the New York Review of Science Fiction, August, 2007.