The growth of social media seems to have generated a huge increase in madness. Not real madness, of course. Rather, it’s the condition affected by so many TikTokers and Instagrammers, who will caption some banal jape with the words “I’m mad, me!”, often followed by far too many exclamation marks. Madness as a desirable status, however jokily claimed, suggests some kind of malaise in society. In this inventive and original collection of short stories, Charlie Hill explores manifestations of modern madness in all its varieties.
This slim volume contains sixteen stories, some of them very brief indeed; a couple of them are no more than a paragraph. All of them are set in our contemporary world, often very specifically in Charlie Hill’s home city of Birmingham. But there is no sense of sameness. The stories – it seems inadequate to call them stories, really – are sharply differentiated, by tone, perspective, mood, voice. The longest piece, “Stuff”, begins like the diary of a rather dull worker in a dead-end job, who is, we infer, maybe somewhere “on the spectrum”: he observes and comments on everything he encounters, even the most trivial thing. His outlook is, the reader thinks, a little odd, but nothing more. Then the narrative builds subtly, as the days of the week pass, hinting at some deep internal conflict, and culminating in frightening fashion. The layers of meaning are so carefully inserted that I felt it necessary to re-read it immediately on finishing it, so as to observe the stages by which the narrator’s world folds in upon himself.
In one of the shorter pieces, “The man in the churchyard”, the eponymous man is perhaps homeless, and has ritualised his day so that he must repeat the same actions each time. Some unknown event in his past has pushed him to this obsessive behaviour, and he can’t break the habit, and he can’t consider why: “He can’t because why leads to because and there is no because, because because leads to what was, and there is no what was, there is only is: he is only is, beyond is, he can’t go.” This beautifully captures that see-saw sense of the illogical logical, the certain conviction of the mind that is capable of normalising the abnormal. What strikes the reader again and again in this collection is how the characters accept, suddenly or gradually, the mental contortions that madness, however defined, imposes on them.
Charlie Hill is bold in his use of the printed page, sometimes showing a poet’s use of the line, and sometimes using typography to startling effect. For example, one story, “The school run” finishes with a single word centred on an otherwise blank page. And that word speaks volumes in the context. That story is also original in its presentation of speech, with fragments of parental conversation at the school gate presented free from attribution, hanging in the air.
The sorts of behaviours that are explored here vary from conditions that most of us would see as constituting madness (for example in the stories “Paranoia” and “An Obsession”) to much more elusive instances of a kind of crowd madness; the story “Temping”, which deals with the effects of the Covid lockdown on a bunch of workers is, on the face of it, not about madness at all, but invites the reader to consider the unsettling effects of an external force on ordinary people.
That ordinariness is at the heart of this volume. The title of the collection uses “everyday” as the adjective qualifying “madness” and it is noticeable that the situations and characters we encounter here are all from “normal” backgrounds in normal situations: a mother on a day trip, a man at a bus stop, a group of parents dropping off their kids, a husband tempted by a woman at a party. But in each case something, some unexpected catalyst, has upset the quotidian ordinariness of their lives, and a sliver of madness has entered it.
By turns disturbing, playful, witty, inventive, these stories conjure vivid images out of the unpromising material of suburban life, and engage the reader in the contemplation of the extraordinary nature of the ordinary. Charlie Hill leads the reader into some dark places, and forces us to reflect on the thin line between our notions of sanity and madness.
Rob Spence’s home on the web is at robspence.org.uk. He is also on Bluesky: @spencro.bsky.social
Charlie Hill, Encounters With Everyday Madness (Roman Books, 2023), 978-9383868636, 96pp., paperback.
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