The author of Peculiar Ground (2018) reimagines familiar stories in the contemporary United Kingdom.
The Pied Piper of Hamelin, Orpheus, and Mary’s husband, Joseph, are among the figures Hughes-Hallett lifts from mythology, fairy tales, and other traditional forms for this collection. In reimagining these characters, the author is participating in a tradition as old as storytelling itself. Much of the appeal of borrowing well-known characters and time-honored tropes lies in making the familiar fresh again. Writers from Ovid to William Shakespeare to Angela Carter show readers why particular narratives and narrative types endure by making them newly relevant. Hughes-Hallett’s efforts to perform this same magic are mixed. Here, Mary Magdalen is a prostitute—not asserted in the New Testament but definitely an element of her legend—as well as an aesthetician who performs intimate waxes on clients. Psyche is a young woman so self-possessed and beautiful that she terrifies and enrages men. Actaeon is a wildly successful real estate agent and committed voyeur. Each of these stories has its charms, but none is particularly successful. Hughes-Hallett doesn’t seem to grasp that her Mary Magdalen is so much more interesting than the Jesus figure who beguiles her; indeed, Mary Magdalen’s attraction to this charismatic cypher is her least compelling feature. At the end of Psyche’s tale, the author switches to a sort of postmodern voice that doesn’t feel so much like an intriguing stylistic choice as like the author has lost interest in the story. And “Actaeon” suffers from two issues that are endemic in this collection. There is a heavy reliance on exposition, to the point that these tales read more like outlines for novels than short fictions. And these stories only come to life when knowledge of the source material isn’t necessary to find the story compelling. “Orpheus” is a fantastic piece of short fiction even if you don’t know anything about this musician as he appears in Greek poetry and multiple modern iterations. Hughes-Hallett’s Oz is an old man among many old men hanging around a hospital ward. “Some of them had big trainers, shiny white shoes made for athletes, but here nobody sprang, nobody leapt.” That’s excellent anyway, and it’s gorgeous if you know Oz’s Greek antecedent.
A writer adept at long-form narrative delivers an uneven collection of short stories.