Books

Chloe Wilson
Hold Your Fire

“They said: ‘Keep that boy at arm’s length’. But whose arm? The arm of an orangutan, a giant squid, a Tyrannosaurus rex?” These lines from Chloe Wilson’s short story collection Hold Your Fire could be a response to the standard advice given to girls on how to ward off unwanted sexual advances. It’s the kind of advice that puts the onus on victims, so that the body they’re trying to protect – their own – somehow, monstrously, becomes both predator and prey, a hostile, turbulent force that they must spend their entire lives keeping under tight control.

The most deliciously unsettling kind of horror – the creepy, hackle-raising kind – often isn’t found in the classic monsters of the genre but in everyday life. Those old stand-ins for society’s collective fears around nuclear weapons (Godzilla) or contagion (Dracula) now seem either quaint or, with CGI, leave no room for imagination. The horror that arises from all-too-worldly pressures – to be successful, to be beautiful, to push yourself to the brink – exert themselves on us slowly and systematically, like something burrowing away in the gut, until they eventually eat us alive.

This is the stuff of Wilson’s suspenseful horror, which hints at secret thoughts and unspoken hatreds: the things that, unlike nuclear warfare, occur in our intimate relationships or the deepest recesses of our minds. The stories that shine most in this collection are those that deal with the constant “small” horrors in the lives of women, and their warped experiences of their own and others’ bodies, whether it be a PE teacher repulsed by her student’s ungainly, undisciplined body, or two sisters determined to detoxify themselves into oblivion. 

The writing is infused with wry humour. While the title story’s corporate protagonist harbours a hideous disdain for other women that might be born of having overcome gendered barriers herself, the reader can’t help but revel in her lack of affection towards her boring son and piteous, enema-obsessed husband.

Relationships with men are riven with cynicism and mistrust. Several female characters end up in the service of men to whom standards of beauty and decorum don’t apply. And the rivalry between two sisters for the attentions of a ruthless coach threatens their enduring love for each other.

Wilson’s tense, eerie stories mark an exciting fiction debut that speaks to the weird horror that permeates our everyday lives.

Caitlin Doyle-Markwick

Scribner, 240pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 1, 2021 as "Chloe Wilson, Hold Your Fire".

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Reviewer: Caitlin Doyle-Markwick