The Bride
Stripped Bare
 by Rachel Kendall

Dog Horn Publishing 2009
Paperback
First Collection







"In the dream she becomes the horse. Or the horse becomes her. It takes on her form and she is lying on wet cobbles while the beasts feed on her."


Reviewed by Angela Readman

Rachel Kendall’s book isn’t a cozy read; it’s not supposed to be. The stories inhabit motel rooms, seedy boarding houses and dirty apartments that smell of semen, blood and grease. They serve portions of the psyche of rapists, killers, sadomasochists and pregnant girls dressed in school uniforms. It’s not a happy meal; it shouldn’t be. The true contemporary gothic is not the world of TV vampires flashing fangs, falling in love and becoming bloody sex symbols, it's grittier than that. It isn’t pretty. The Bride Stripped Bare doesn’t tug the heart strings, but goes for the gut. The reader is not sitting comfortably, yet keeps reading. The undeniable skill of Kendall’s writing must be given credit for this. The writer nails a character, paints a picture and is undeniably a master of plot.

The subjects of the stories vary, as do their length. Some are no more than two pages, others are longer. Eat Me, Eat Me is a dark twist on Red Riding Hood, but on the whole the collection doesn’t occupy the realm of fairy tale. It is more Chuck Palahniuk than Angela Carter, but grimier. One story, 51 Weeks, is about a group of people who meet in a warehouse to fulfil their dark urges;

I helped a woman who went by the name of Rose (a woman by any other name…) She wanted to live out her rape fantasy. She lived a few hundred miles from me and I offered my services. We made plans. As she walked jauntily through the park near her four-bed, two-car home, I jumped her. I ripped and kicked and tore my way between her legs. Fucked her, pissed on her bloody face, kicked her a couple more times in the ribs and fled. It didn’t fulfil any of my desires. I hope it filled hers.

As chilling as such scenes are, the impact of Kendall’s stories doesn’t lie in the purely physical (though those who enjoy such scenes will not be disappointed), but in engaging with zeitgeist. One of the things that most disturbs in 51 Weeks is the hint of society behind it. The woman with a four-bed, two-car house (a neatly hyphened professional life) somehow cannot find enough in what modern life offers to keep her from the dark side of her nature. The members of the collective are "teachers, officials, artists, and nurses, in blue and white collars," all looking, and engaged in, destruction. Kendal creates an underbelly to our familiar world and holds it up to our eyes.

A recurring theme in the collection is birth. Stories like Axis, Birth Control, The Bride Stripped Bare and The Seedy Underbelly feature women in states of transformation. A woman vomits a creature of nuts and bolts, another mother waits for her husband to return, with gruesome consequences. The female body does not create comfort, but, like the early films of David Cronenburg, gives birth to worrying manifestations of a disturbed psyche. The most interesting story on this theme, for me, is This is not Kansas. Pregnant post-teen girls and women live in a brothel, carrying babies that feel like an extension of their selves, a commodity. The writing conveys the hard edge of the characters, and an underlying vulnerability.
'Pregnant' or 'baby'. Or, 'floozy' - a word my grandmother might have christened me. I am a landscape. I am damp, stretched over rivers and valleys in this month, stepping into the third tri, my belly the only evidence of an import. The girl in the mirror is sixteen, still pert, swollen, elastic and taut. In truth, I feel older. I am growing outwards. Did I even stop growing upwards yet?"
Writing of this caliber was a high for me in a collection that engages with the lowest levels of humanity. At times reading I felt like a dirty voyeur. I’m supposed to. Kendall toys with the spectacle of the body and showmanship. My favourite story in the book, Penny Whistle, handles this theme with real flair;
I’ve been a glamorous girl. Been the envy of the little girls with stars in their eyes. Been the bird gliding through the air, feathers on my rump and in my cap, born to catch the swing in the crook of a knee, an outstretched hand, a muscley thigh.
Yet, beyond the glitter and the horror, Penny Whistle touches on the sad psychology beyond the spectacle. There is a surprising tenderness behind the cruel and sadomasochistic. I felt for the people there;

The clowns make me laugh…And now as a twenty year old woman they come round to my trailer in the dead of night, a response to my weeping, and entertain me with their band of miniature instruments. A tiny toy plastic piano, a broken banjo and penny whistles. Sometimes I sing with them.
The story is the pearl in the collection for me. Though I’m not sure I enjoyed every story in the collection, and if enjoyed is the right word to describe the stories I admired and was fascinated by, Kendall is irrefutably a powerful writer. In the same way I couldn’t eat liver, followed by pate, I couldn’t read the book in one sitting, there was just too much meat, but I’m glad I read it. Buyer beware, The Bride Stripped Bare isn’t for those who are easily disturbed. Don’t buy it for your mother, don’t buy it for your vicar. Buy it for that guy you know who has kind of a dark side, or that slightly scary sort of intense girl in the corner. I guarantee they won’t be disappointed.




Read a story from this collection on KissTheWitch.co.uk


Angela Readman was commended in The Arvon International Poetry Competition. She secretly loves short stories. Her stories have won Inkspill magazine’s competition and appeared in Pank, Metazen, Burner, Southword, Crannog, Fractured West, and Pygmy Giant.

Angela's other Short Reviews: Flannery O'Connor "Complete Stories"

Mary Hamilton "We Know What We Are"

Craig Cliff "A Man Melting"
                     
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Rachel Kendall has had work in a number of anthologies and magazines including Nemonymous, Cabala, Darkness Rising 5, In Blood We Lust and the soon-to-be-published Butcher Knives and Body Counts by Dark Scribe Press. She is the editor of the zine Sein und Werden.

Read an interview with Rachel Kendall