‘The Unspoken’ by David Hayden

David Hayden’s stories are like silences set in a velvet background, like jewels in a display case. This one is chilling, yet there is a strange pull between relaxation and aggression as someone sees what might be their violent actions as being the work of someone else, or something else. It’s like a compressed slasher road novel, but truly it doesn’t quite fit any genre, and that’s partly why I like it. 
I was once told that to write a good short story you must first create an atmosphere that leads the narrative, and this, for me, is a prime example. It feels a bit like how I experience ASMR, pleasant by way of discomfort.

First published online in Granta, October 2018, and available to read here

‘Memory House’ by David Hayden

I stan for David, and will pretty much drop everything whenever new work appears. What I love is his physicist-like degree of observation: precise and unsettling, with much explored in the tension between physical and emotional landscapes. I always feel that I’m a better reader and writer after spending time in his world. This story, in its wandering around the memory of objects and owner of those memories, encapsulates all the qualities that make him such a peerless writer. 

First published in Numéro Cinq, August 2014, and available to read online here. Collected in Darker With The Lights On, Little Island Press 2017

‘Leckerdam of the Golden Hand’ by David Hayden

One of Hayden’s short-short stories of the fabula type. This one is so rich and glorious and terrible it’s like cracking open a cursed treasure chest and being blinded by the dazzling hoard within. The narrator is already dead, killed by his children in revenge for violences he’s done to them, though it takes a little while – and it takes the children beginning to “live outside my hate” – for his narrating consciousness to cease. Deep, dark psychodrama with ground-breaking special effects: always a winning combination.

First published in The Stinging Fly, Summer 2016 and available to subscribers online here. Collected in Darker With The Lights On, Little Island Press, 2017

‘Leckerdam of the Golden Hand’ by David Hayden

This story begins with the narrator describing his own violent death at the hands of his children. It is a marvellous, lurid, and almost beautiful scene, beautiful because of Hayden’s command of language, which is, by turns, precise and fluidly ambiguous. His is the language of a mind that loves poetry and contends with it daily. Allegory comes easy to Hayden, and ‘Leckerdam’ is a very representative story in that it contains many chambers of secret meaning to reward the repeat reader. In fact, the entire book that this story is taken from, Darker With The Lights On, is like a curiosity cabinet where every opened drawer contains an edible with a flavour all of its own. Some are less sweet than others. Some might even be poison.

First published in The Stinging Fly, June 2016. Collected in Darker with the Lights on, 2017, Little Island Press

‘How to Read a Picture Book’ by David Hayden

A cigar-smoking squirrel gives a gang of kids in Central Park a lecture on picture books. Or a man daydreams the same. Whether he’s a figment or real, Sorry the Squirrel exists for the length of time it takes us to read Hayden’s wonderful story, and the wisdom and beauty of what he says persists long after we finish it. Some of the books he talks about – Amos and Boris, Ulysses – are real, and some are tantalisingly not:

how about that book Tiger Night where the baby tiger can’t sleep and the daddy tiger has to keep reading him stories until they both fall asleep at the end. Now, if you take the first letter of each line and put them together it spells: “SAMSAMCALLMEPLEASE”. On the last page there’s the picture of the tigers asleep on the sofa in the living room and on the wall there’s a mirror and in it you can just make out a telephone number.

Sorry moves through words, pictures, point of view, setting and time. “There’s plenty you can’t say with words,” he says. “You can fall through words down into a seething belly world of billions of objects and notions, all shrieking or hiding”. Denis Johnson says something similar, from a writer’s perspective, in his story ‘Triumph Over the Grave’, the narrator of which shares something of his pedagogical delivery with Sorry the Squirrel:

Whatever happens to you, you put it on a page, work it into a shape, cast it in a light. It’s not much different, really, from filming a parade of clouds across the sky and calling it a movie – although it has to be admitted that the clouds can descend, take you up, carry you to all kinds of places, some of them terrible, and you don’t get back where you came from for years and years.

Yes, the writing of words can take years and take you along all manner of strange routes, and the reading of them can contain years, too. In his discussion of time, Hayden gives Sorry some of my favourite lines from the past year of reading:

In Amos and Boris months go by as the mouse sails his homemade boat out into the ocean, hours pass as he floats in the swell slowly drowning. He’s rescued by the whale in an instant and their friendship endures for years. The book takes only ten minutes to read but it has all this time packed inside, and when you remember reading it that time returns to you adding to your own small portion. Reading can slow time to a drip, drip, or push it on in a rushing, sinewy torrent like a snow-fed river in spring. Books let you circle around time, find the root of time, lose time, recover time. People will tell you that reading – especially stories – is a waste of time. Don’t believe them for a second.

The time one story can give back to you can also unlock that of other stories, as the reading of one triggers the memory of another: one door leading to another and another, like the doors in the cement blocks on Traven’s island (“As he walked from the perimeter line into the centre of the massif, line upon line of the small metal doors appeared and receded”). ‘How to Read a Picture Book’, and Hayden’s work generally, teaches us to read more attentively and more thoughtfully. It’s a lesson I often forget and never tire of being retaught, whether by man or by squirrel.

From Darker With the Lights On, Little Island 2017

‘Hay’ by David Hayden

I’ve known David for a long time, which perhaps accounts in part for the profound effect this collection had when I first read it at the fag end of last summer. In part, but not entirely. It’s a wonderful book and this is a wonderful story, which, from its everyday opening — Andy, sitting on a train, looking out of the window — enacts a gradual stepping away from the profane and the usual into a world of such rich invention and beauty that it takes the breath away. The beauty and invention that most beguiles here is not the kind associated with language or phrase – although there is plenty of that too — but the beauty of thought and of execution. It’s a story that both asks everything from us and nothing at all. I’m not joking — or exaggerating — when I say that this story, and this collection more widely, jolted me out of some pretty tired habits of reading. 

In Darker With The Lights On (Little Island Press, 2017)