The Grinding House
By Kaaron Warren
(I read this during the Halloween Super Storm Sandy break, but have been remiss in actually publishing this. Mea culpa!)
First off, I should clarify that this is a review of the novella The Grinding House (available on Kindle). This story also lends it name to a collection of Ms. Warren’s short stories, but I haven’t read that book (or any other stories by her), so my scope is somewhat narrower here.
Amazon estimates that the novella is about 57 pages and the cost is $2.99, which I think is a fair value. It took me about 90 minutes to read it (more of a reflection of my slow going, rather than a density on the novella’s part), so I think money-to-time ratio was perfectly fine. The question you probably want to ask, however, is “How is the bang::buck ratio?”
Well, the title/description is a misnomer. I found it looking for horror stories, but I wouldn’t really qualify this as a horror novella. It’s certainly in the “weird” category, but not horror. There are uneasy parts and, as in good “weird” fiction, there is a sense of some sort of extra-natural (or at least extra-human) order that is slowly grinding humanity away. But the stakes remain relatively low-key and there is no real sense of tension. Well, none on the surface anyway. It’s more of a dream and in the way that a good/bad dream can make us uneasy, this novella is a success, but it didn’t strike me a “full” experience.
What do I mean by that? Well, I probably should discuss some of the plot points. I don’t know that this is really a book with spoilers, to the extent that the plot doesn’t so much drive as it carries, but I thought I’d give you the warning that I’m going to discuss them. There’s a disease, nicknamed Spurs, and it causes a person’s bones to fuse into one giant, smooth, “eternal” bone. The bodies are cremated (for fear of infection) and then sent to the Grinding House for . . . well, you can guess. The protagonists live their lives, then some of them suffer, they all go out to the country, there’s some slow dying, the survivors discuss whether or not they want their friends’ remains to go to the Grinding House.
The reason why its important to get that out of the way is that so I can tell you what the books does do very well. There are lots of passages that remind me of folklore or fairy tales, which I think is intentional. The narrative starts off in the city and in a style that is maybe distractingly realistic. The protagonists shill for the supper, they witness a death, and all seems almost hyper-ly, dystopian-ly real . . . except the birds are walking. And dying as solid bone. And the rats are dying, as solid bone. And the boy the protagonists witness die? Same.
So there are some delightfully sketched characters (modern and partial, but with the most revealing strokes) that make their way to the country. And some moments are incredibly, quaintly sad in the way that only a person who has watched a loved one die can know.
And some moments are creepy in a way that only one who has had to deal with the disposition of the aforementioned can know.
There’s a healthy dose of real, great Lynchian dream logic in the middle. I think these are the strongest pieces: the milk, the naked old people, the admission of the genesis of the “grinding house” sobriquet, the drives to nowhere, the eternal bones. All beautiful and odd and perfectly set apart both narratively and (for the characters) geographically. It draws a line and then delicately escorts you around the other side.
But then . . . the end is . . . good? But also back and forth.
I’ll admit the last part of the novel from maybe the 80% to the 95% mark didn’t really work for me. As the characters made their run, they encountered characters (food sellers, oddly enough) that brought back the hyper-real that I had only now come to realize that I’d missed. So much so that when we retreat back to the mythical and folkloric in the almond grove, I couldn’t help but feel unattached.
It was like facing the world, escaping to a dream but one that reflects those horrors in a soft-light kind of way, waking up to a bracing alarm, (I’m with you so far!!) then falling back asleep for 5 minutes before ending up in a hypnogogic state where something bad happens but you’re neither fully awake or asleep so you can’t be too invested.
All in all, I think its certainly worth a read. I also think my problems might be more of a personal peccadillo as to pacing, since clearly Ms. Warren had something else she was trying to do which is not what I was expecting. I’ll have to go back and give it a re-read on different terms, but given the obvious strengths, doing that (and reading other stories) is something that I look forward to.