I’ve been a fan of watching Jen Campbell’s histories of fairy tales on her YouTube channel for some time. She gives fascinating descriptions of the dark content and themes of these stories which have been passed down through generations and illuminates how the original tale is often far different from a Disney interpretation. So I was incredibly eager to read this series of original modern-day fairy tales she’s written in her first collection of short fiction “The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night”. These are stories about fantastical situations such as purchasing hearts online, capturing ghosts to sell on the black market, a hotel where the guests sleep in coffins and a far away planet that acts as a time capsule. These distorted versions of the world often inventively shed new light on our emotional reality by ruminating on conditions such as love, jealousy, greed and the origin of existence. It makes this book such a richly rewarding and pleasurable reading experience.
Integral to these tales is the compulsion for storytelling itself. Characters read about stories, tell each other stories or make up stories themselves. Some are riffs on established fairy tales, bible tales or mythology that poignantly comment on the central thread of story. So a story about teenage pregnancy recounts a version of ‘Hansel and Gretel’ that creates a powerful connection to ideas about food and nourishment. Another story incorporates aspects of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ to comment upon a lost friend and a sense of freedom. Others invent whole new kinds of tall tales to bring chaotic emotions and unwieldy feelings into some sort of order. These beautifully show the way classic stories can be incorporated into and made relevant to our everyday life and how we can write ourselves into the myths we inherit. Campbell also often incorporates snippets of oddball history like the ritualized consumption of hearts or unusual natural science like an icefish with transparent blood. The real and unreal mingle on the page to show the complex way in which we perceive, interpret and make sense of the world around us.
The visual arts also provide another portal of understanding for some characters. The endearing story ‘Jacob’ is composed in the form of a letter a boy writes to a weather woman looking for special insight and he recounts a trip to a museum where he was overwhelmed by a painting that depicts when God flooded the earth. The deeply moving story 'Margaret and mary and the end of the world' describes how a pregnant girl goes to view Dante Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini and meditates on the condition of womanhood. In that painting the angel Gabriel is strikingly depicted as having his feet on fire and the artist modelled the ambivalent figure of Mary on his own sister, the writer Christina Rossetti whose extended poem ‘Goblin Market’ is such a wondrous joy.
Quite often when artwork is depicted in novels I feel a compulsion to actually go view that piece of art as I did reading Ali Smith’s “How to Be Both” and Neil Hegarty’s “Inch Levels”. So I felt the same in this instance wanting to see Rossetti’s painting in person. I took the bus to Trafalgar Square to see it at the National Gallery (since it’s currently on loan there from the Tate). Something quite randomly wonderful happened on my journey where I was listening to Rebekah Del Rio’s song ‘No Stars’ on a loop. This track has been frequently drifting through my mind since I saw it performed in Twin Peaks The Return. While listening to this I read Campbell’s title story ‘The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night’ about a couple speculating on both the creation of the universe and the start of their relationship at 3AM. When Evelyn asserts that in the beginning there was nothing but stars Julian critiques her by replying that stars aren’t nothing. Evelyn corrects herself saying there were no stars. This fit so perfectly with my listening not only in the repetition of there being “no stars”, but in the way both the song and story solemnly consider the meaning of a relationship. It was a fun little coincidence.
The imaginative exuberance of this collection makes it such an enjoyable and stunningly fascinating book. Some of the stories like ‘Animals’ or ‘Aunt Libby’s Coffin Hotel’ revel in gothic delights and build plots of dramatic tension. Others such as ‘Plum Pie. Zombie Green. Yellow Bee. Purple Monster.’ and ‘Human Satellites’ more abstractly provoke you to consider new ideas and perspectives. Then others make arresting points about the nature of war or the stigma surrounding deformity while immersing the reader in a trip to a gay pride celebration in Brighton or a tour around an aquarium. Jen Campbell’s writing sits snugly alongside such excitingly inventive modern short story writers such as Kirsty Logan, Jackie Kay, Daisy Johnson or Ali Smith.