To avoid the risk of spending the majority of this post avoiding asking the following question, I’m gonna to open with it at the beginning: how the hell did Morbid Books manage to get the rights to publish highly-acclaimed (rightly!) poet Melissa Lee-Houghton’s debut novel? Because this is fucking phenomenal, and Morbid Books are… well… inconsistent.
Morbid Books, many of whose publications I have read, are a self-consciously dirty, anti-commercial indie press who deliberately seek controversy, sometimes to the detriment of their output.
When the books MB publish work as literature they offer intelligent, but un-pretentious, depictions of the grimier – though not stupider – sides of life. Their first publications, the novelty 100 Haikus… series (one of which – #transparency – I contributed to) are funny, Oulipo-inspired gift books, while their satirical pamphlet Sex With Theresa May And Other Fantasies [I felt] undercut its own satirical validity through taking unrepentant, voyeuristic pleasure in sexualised violence. That said, their follow-up, Takeaway “by Tommy Hazard” (Tommy Hazard does not exist) is a painfully-relevant, thought-provoking and thoughtful picaresque novel about a paramedic who is struggling to do his job amongst the slashed budgets of austerity-era Tory Britain. Takeaway is, honestly, a masterpiece, and the reason why Morbid Books continues to intrigue and excite me is because they knowingly and simultaneously attempt to go low and go high, and though sometimes their lows are lower than I like (and some of their more-experimental pieces higher than I can handle), when they publish texts that beautifully and movingly combine the grim realities of existence with a literary, but unpatronising, tone, Morbid Books publishes wonderful literature.
I didn’t have to question how they’d ended up publishing the superb Takeaway, because one of the real-life writers behind “Tommy Hazard” was Morbid Books’ own Lewis Parker, but with Melissa Lee-Houghton’s That Lonesome Valley I can’t pretend it wasn’t on my mind as I read, often in awe, this renowned writer’s latest work: How the hell did the people who published 100 Haikus About Boris Becker’s Breakfast and Sex With Theresa May and Other Fantasies get ahold of this? Because, to be blunt, to be honest, to be fair, Lee-Houghton’s fiction debut is a phenomenal piece of literature and if you don’t order it soon you may live to regret it, as Morbid Books imply (at least they did a few months ago) they may never reprint it. If they don’t, though, I imagine someone else will, because this is powerful, articulate, emotive, intelligent work that deserves – and I expect will achieve – widespread attention.
This Summer, Morbid Books have launched an intentionally-pornographic edition of their journal, A Void, alongside this novel by by by
Sorry, about two weeks have passed since I finished reading That Lonesome Valley and I’ve been busy. Not in a bad way, don’t be concerned, reader: I’ve only hit the booze hard once in that time, all the rest of my hours have been spent working for money, working on my writing, doing exercise (while watching True Blood) and walking my cheeky little dog. The positive thoughts I was associating with That Lonesome Valley, however, have persisted.
The novel is split into two halves, each one narrated by the perspective of a person within the same romantic couple. Though there are flashbacks within both, the text tells a chronological narrative of people struggling with addiction (and other health and personal problems) as they try to move forwards/sideways with their lives. Lee-Houghton’s personal life has not been without its own tragedies, and these are directly referred to in the blurbs at the start of this book. But this isn’t autobiography: this is fiction, and the overlaps or similarities between Lee-Houghton’s own experiences and the story she tells here are fucking irrelevant. What her own life gives is the justification for telling this story, because it’s about poverty and addiction and mental illness and trauma, all of which are topics regularly fictionalised by people who’ve had barely any fucking connection to any of these things. This story isn’t Lee-Houghton’s because [things like] it happened to her, it is her story because she wrote it and it’s very well written.
Lee-Houghton is an incredibly talented writer and able to evoke pain and horror and addiction as well as she can write joy and excitement and pleasure and love. This is a dark novel, but it is dark because it speaks honestly to the world in which we live: quite often the bad bits of life outweigh the good bits, and a less skilled/nuanced/talented writer would have rendered this narrative as far darker than it has ended up. Life is not an unrelenting torrent of terrible things, and most of us (not all of us) can easily make our lives sound like they are if want to. A weaker writer would have written about a romantic relationship with mutually-perpetuating cycles of substance use and substance addiction as an unequivocally negative thing. Of course, though, this isn’t the case in reality.
Traditionally, people would fall in love because of a shared interest in status and money, whereas more recently a shared interest in the same holiday destinations, in binge-watching the same TV shows, in reading the same books, in listening to the same music, in eating the same food, whatever, are considered good, solid, things to initially bond in a relationship over: why shouldn’t a shared interest in intoxication be equally as valid? Yes, a relationship that is entirely reliant on this is maybe not likely to last, but nor is a relationship entirely reliant on Game of Thrones (it’s over) or anything else external. Sometimes we can be brought together by things that do not sustain us: sometimes we find friends or lovers when we are together in bad places, bad spaces, but we are able to walk out of them together.
Falling in love and being in love is a wonderful thing, but this can happen in the midst of all manner of other personal tragedies. We do not lose the ability to love when we are sick, when we are addicted, when we are depressed, when we are grieving: life is more complicated than that. If you still have any friends in adulthood who you met when you were a child you are definitely not enjoying each other’s company in the same way now as you used to: likewise friends you met in fresher’s week or other fucking party scenes. And in long-term relationships, too – for most of us – every night isn’t like the first date. And if it’s a good relationship, then that isn’t a bad thing.
Lee-Houghton’s writing explores what it is like to live with addiction, to feel abandoned and abused, to grieve, to hurt, but also to not lose the capacity for pleasure in life that comes from places other than the immediate and visceral.
The comfort of heroin – which, like in Trainspotting, comes across as overwhelmingly pleasureable – is a comfort that prevents the existence of other comforts. As the protagonists make clear, you can sustain the comfort of a relationship while both are addicted to heroin, but other potential comforts of life – creativity, health, a social life, a career, a family – are of necessity shed.
That Lonesome Valley is a novel about the choices we make and the things we must sacrifice to make ourselves content, especially the coping mechanisms that we use that threaten to overwhelm us. I’ve been on a heavy dose of SSRIs for two years now, and my emotional responses are inevitably dulled, but I wept at this novel, at several points. It is not only beautiful in its tragedy, but in its hope.
Why do we push on with living, with engaging with society, with speaking to other people and trying to create when we’re all just going to die eventually and intoxication can be such a perfect pleasure? Maybe there’s no truly right answer, but there are plenty of murky ones that offer something towards one. Getting to read beautiful prose in beautiful novels about love and the challenges we face as real humans is very much one of them. For me.
This is more discursive than I’d meant it to be, but fuck it. I had a deeply inappropriate rejection from a minor poetry magazine today that basically told me they thought I had no business writing anything. As a result of that, I’m feeling unapologetic for my creative output, which upwards of twenty people seem to enjoy at least a little bit, lol.
Anyway, this novel is wonderful and sad and happy and human. This is a strong recommend from me.
NB: While you’re there, I’d advise getting a copy of Takeaway, too.
Send free money to Scott Manley Hadley.