“Sometimes you just do anything to try and belong… Like one of your grandmother’s jigsaws. You take out a knife and cut off the parts that don’t fit. It’ll never be comfortable, it’ll never really match whatever’s around, but sometimes it’s just so much easier to make do.”
Malcolm Devlin’s debut short story collection You Will Grow Into Them (2017) demonstrated his talent for the uncanny, his ability to find the Weird in the mundane. Much of the power of these stories came from the way he uses the Weird to explore the alienation at the heart of a very recognisable Northern British working class experience. Engines Beneath Us (2020) is another striking and unsettling exploration of this space, a meditation on city life, growing up on an estate, and that elusive sense of belonging. Once again Devlin’s well drawn characters and exploration of mundane life suddenly transformed by the nightmarish and strange creates a compelling and haunting narrative that packs a surprising emotional punch. It is a beautifully told and deeply troubling story that confirms Devlin’s place at the forefront of Weird fiction.
Rob lives in the Crescent, a council estate with a bad reputation where the families of the employees of the Works live under the watch of the mysterious Mr Olhouser. During the summer he turns 13, he befriends Lee Wrexler, whose family have moved to the Crescent from outside, despite warnings from his parents. Lee’s perspective as an outsider causes Rob to slowly realise that everything he assumed to be normal about life in the Crescent is strange and unsettling. Engines Beneath Us is a coming of age story, one told from the point of view of a much older, jaded and cynical Rob. Devlin nails the tone beautifully, the novella is told in a perfect mixture of nostalgia for lost youth coloured by the weariness and cynicism of age and experience. This is what is at the heart of the story – that moment of realisation about one’s own perspective, that your worldview is shaped by your upbringing and your surroundings, and as a result different people from different circumstances may see the world radically different from you. Rob is both envious of the blissful obliviousness of youth, the way that allows one to not engage with the complexities and difficulties of the real world, but also all too aware that to deny this knowledge is to hide from reality, which ultimately only causes pain to oneself and the people one cares about.
Engines Beneath Us is a slow burn, with the elements of the uncanny sneaking up on the reader particularly subtly. It is only through Lee’s perspective as an outsider that we begin to realise that there is something thoroughly strange about the community of the Crescent, and multiple reads reveal how Devlin expertly plants little clues and hints that one elides the first read through because, told from Rob’s perspective, they are utterly part of his normal every day life growing up, so they don’t trigger the alarm bells in the reader’s head that they otherwise would. Devlin is such an astute portrayer of character and place that one believes entirely in the fabric of this story’s reality, which is necessary for the strangeness to take its effect. The uneasy friendship between Lee and Rob could be any teenagers’, reminiscent as it is of the strange intensity of those childhood connections we make, especially between misfits. The granular details of the Crescent, with its tight knit community and shabby identikit council houses could be any inner city in the UK, whilst Lee and Rob bonding over reading old issues of 2000 AD and Swamp Thing is sure to resonate with many. The novella is concerned with that perennial teenage question of where do you fit in. Lee is inevitably an outsider, as is Rob’s mother, having married into the Crescent by marrying Rob’s father, and the hints of life outside the Crescent make Rob begin to question the accepted narrative that he will, like his father before him, leave school at 16 and get a job in the Works. As Lee and his father find out, the subtle differences between an outsider and an insider, the secret knowledge seemingly shared by those who are a part of a place, have deep and lasting consequences in how we experience the world. Conversely for all that he does escape life in the Works, Rob can never escape the sound of it calling him back.
Engines Beneath Us is also about ideas around community justice and the price we pay to fit in somewhere. Like Shirley Jackson’s classic short story ‘The Lottery’ (1948), the community in Engines Beneath Us is bound by its own code of justice, ritual and retribution, one that Lee and his father unwittingly discover when they transgress the community’s unwritten rules. Rob, as part of his punishment for his involvement with Lee, is forced to witness this, and his complicity in the fate of his friend and the justice meted out by the community is a key part of what ultimately binds him to the Crescent, even as it forever marks him as stained by outside influence. The people of the Crescent do look after their own, which is where their community spirit comes from, but ultimately it means they are judge, jury and executioners of their own as well. It is this aspect of the story that connects it to one of Devlin’s most powerful stories, ‘The End Of Hope Street’ (2016), which is also about community, and how fear and paranoia interact when that community is put under perceived threat from the outside. Similarly, Engines Beneath Us holds a dark mirror to our own desires to fit in and be part of something, showing us uncomfortable truths about how we act under pressure. It is this that makes it such a powerful and unsettling read.