Things We Say in the Dark: A Sociological Response from Laura Harris

This post is part of The Sociological Review’s exploration of what it means for something to be ‘sociological literature’. In this strand of the work, practice-researchers and sociologists reflect on sociological encounters with contemporary poetry and prose.

Laura Harris

‘Girls are Always Hungry When all the Men are Bite-Size’ is a short story nestled in the middle of Kirsty Logan’s Things We Say in the Dark, an eerie collection that reels in its readers like a spider on her web. A brooding horror seeps throughout the collection, with stories at turns romantic, sweet, horrible and surreal. Things We Say in the Dark sits in the same corner of contemporary fiction as Julia Armfield’s Salt Slow, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, and Eliza Clark’s Boy Parts; in the same linguistic witching hour as Rebecca Tamas’ collection Witch; and the in same crack between reality and fiction as Julia Ducournau’s film Raw.  Taken together, this direction in contemporary horror (or horror-adjacent writing) swaps jump scares for the slow burn of creeping discomfit.

The women in these pages claim a type of agency (not least sexual) that the horror genre usually denies them. The womanhood they exude is fleshy and hungry, although we are yet to see a fully intersectional representation of womanhood (or, indeed, authors). The recent publication of ‘Troubled Blood’ by J.K Rowling under the pen name ‘Robert Galbraith’ shows just what damage can be done when the vectors of gender and horror-adjacent popular literature are defined by those who weaponize their gender politics against the marginalised. This headline grabbing book should not be allowed to overshadow the role that intersectional feminism can (and has) played in representing the broad spectrum of womanhood in the pages of horror, fantasy and speculative fiction.

What is often at stake in the politics of horror is exactly what is being represented as horrible (this is what makes Rowling’s book deeply problematic). ‘Girls are Always Hungry When all the Men are Bite-Size’ unsettles in two ways. The first is through a depiction of male obsession and sexual violence. The second, and entangled, is through a transgression of the safety and sanctity of the home. These two themes are (all too) familiar; cultural touchstones like the 1944 film Gaslight make this clear.

In Logan’s story, the protagonist is made to act as the spirit medium in her mother’s séance business, which operates from the claustrophobic ground-floor room of their shared home. The regular passage of these séances is punctured when a man – whose mission is to debunk such ‘false shows’ – returns again and again, demanding private performances, growing frenzied by his inability to find the source of the ‘illusion’. The man grows violent, sexually so, until the protagonist, bewitched as she is, consumes him.

The story is harrowing for its portrayal of male obsession, and the intensity with which it can be levelled at women’s bodies. It’s horror, however, is compounded by the setting, the descriptions of which make up a lot of the body of the story. The house is cramped, with only three rooms on top of each other: dining room at the bottom, bedroom at the top. The reader is not granted the breath of fresh air of a wide view; the reader is kept, trapped, in the dusty dark confines of the house alongside the characters, until finally granted the satisfaction of the man’s comeuppance.

This blog series is an invitation to respond to works of literature sociologically. Horror (and neighbouring genres) is the perfect place to do so as it’s force often comes from subtle inversions of the everyday – and sociology has much to say about the everyday. While the links between gender, family (mother-daughter relations) and the home are clearly at play in ‘Girls are Always Hungry When all the Men are Bite-Size,’ the short story speaks broadly to the literature on the sociology of the home.

Shelley Mallett schematised this literature in her 2004 paper ‘Understanding Home: A Critical Review of the Literature’ in The Sociological Review. Mallet makes clear that home and the house are interrelated, but cannot be conflated. Indeed, in Logan’s story the house itself seems relatively malignant – window dressing for the affective relationships within it that constitute a ‘home’ under attack. In a The Sociological Review paper from 2018, Lynda Cheshire, Peter Walters and Charlotte ten Have also suggest that a ‘home’ is what offers it’s inhabitants constancy and security. The antagonist in Logan’s story takes aim at exactly the constancy and security of the home. Both Mallet and Cheshire et al make clear that as a site of intimate social relations the home is political, and violations of and in the home often follow the course of power relations that do not stop at the front door. This is exactly so in ‘Girls are Always Hungry When all the Men are Bite-Size.’ The denouement offers a sweet release – the reclamation of the constancy and security of the home through female rage and agency.

In their 1988 paper ‘The Constitution of the Home: Towards a Research Agenda’ by Peter Saunders and Peter Williams, the authors write:

Precisely because the home touches so centrally on our personal lives, any attempt to develop a dispassionate social scientific analysis inevitably stimulates emotional and deeply fierce argument and disagreement.

Indeed, the home is a deeply charged space which demands passion in its ‘social scientific analysis.’ Taking this further, sociological literature on the home does not quite generate the feelings of discomfit and anxiety of a ruptured home nor the warmth of its protective bubble with the same precision as literature. While sociology offers us a way to understand what socio-spatial norms are being broken in Logan’s short story, like explaining a joke, dissecting the source of its horror somewhat blunts its force. As fits this blog series, perhaps, learning from writers like Logan the sociology of the home could stand to be a little more haunted.

Laura Harris is a Digital Engagement Fellow at The Sociological Review. She recently completed a PhD in the Sociology of Art in collaboration with Bluecoat, Liverpool’s centre for the contemporary arts, using a filmmaking-as-fieldwork method. She tweets @LauraMaHarris

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