‘Defending the Pencil Factory’ by Adam Marek

Adam Marek’s stories are very approachable, but there’s also an odd quality to them that makes you not entirely sure what you’ve just read. ‘Defending the Pencil Factory’, a one-off chapbook, is a good example of his work. The situation is that a small group of martial artists are holed up in a pencil factory. They are under constant attack by an army of monsters, but it turns out that they have accidentally discovered that the monsters’ only weak point is their skulls, which can be pierced by something sharp – say, a pencil.

Suddenly our situation changed. We were no longer in a pencil factory, but in a weapons store.

The only problem is that the gang only have one pencil sharpener and it takes 32 turns to make it sharp enough to kill. So when the next wave arrives, will they be ready or will they finally be overrun?

I have absolutely no idea whether this is a martial arts story or if it’s a story about metaphorical monsters being slain with writing implements, or even – given that there is a long sequence at the end describing the controversial finale of a martial arts film that their leader is particular fond of – if it’s a story about how we tell stories. I don’t think it actually matters, because it’s massively entertaining either way.

Published as a Guillemot Press chapbook 2018

‘The Centipede’s Wife’ by Adam Marek

Story premises don’t get better than this: a wounded man is trapped in a cabin with a giant centipede that won’t eat him because he smells like the centipede’s dead wife.

The centipede had been marching through the forest when he heard a scream and went to investigate. A man was caught in a bear trap. The metal jaws had made a mess of his right leg, biting in deep with rusted teeth and dead leaves. The man had forgotten his agony for a second when he saw the centipede, then redoubled his efforts to prize the trap open to escape. The centipede was joyous. This much meat would provide food for a week, but as he leaned in close to paralyse the man with a nip from his toxic pincers, he smelled something familiar. Something in the man’s sweat and fear reminded him of his wife. 

This brutal, heartbreaking story is so cleverly constructed, and such a great example of Marek’s technique of fusing the incompatible – in his words ‘making mayonnaise’ – that it really sinks its teeth into you (sorry, I couldn’t resist). Plus Marek makes it all feel so effortless, like this kind of starting point is the most natural and obvious thing in the world.  

Published in Instruction Manual for Swallowing, Comma Press, 2007

‘The 40-Litre Monkey’ by Adam Marek

‘I once met a man with a 40-litre monkey.’

Those nine words, perhaps the best opening sentence of any collection, were life-changing for me. I had been writing, badly, and then I picked up Marek’s Instruction Manual and read the first story in one gulp in the bookshop and thought: “Stories can be like that?” Smart, funny, spawned from Marek’s characteristically wicked imagination and his preoccupation with weird science, the story takes us to a pet shop with a greasy, over-fed, award-winning secret in the cellar. We are taken downstairs to meet Cooper the baboon (the only character with a name) and forced to bear witness to his sinister weighing, colluding with the atmosphere of simmering abuse and controlled threat that Marek conveys so well. I like stories that irrevocably change an otherwise normal life experience and this one certainly changed pet shops (and Vaseline) for me forever.

 in Instruction Manual for Swallowing (Comma Press, 2007)