It’s easy to recall the precise moment when I became a vegetarian. I was laying out a rat at the time, preparing his formaldehyde-perfumed body for dissection in A level Biology, pinning his front limbs into position, splayed out to the sides, so that his pose resembled nothing so much as a rodent Christ, crucified for my sins. From that point on, I could not so much as boil a worm in the name of science, although I wasn’t quite above getting others to do my dirty work for me.
Such empathetic connections form the basis for many of the stories which make up this accomplished collection from David Hartley, one which wears its heart like a badge on its lapel by being dedicated to the volunteers and staff at the Manchester & Salford RSPCA.
As its title Fauna suggests, Hartley has curated a menagerie of tales, each taking a different approach to unpicking the ways in which the human race imposes itself on the rest of the animal kingdom. The creatures here share the indignity of being treated as property, whether disposed of with the ambivalent kindness bestowed upon pets, or with the greater indifference shown to those species whose usefulness is not mitigated by cuteness.
His skill is in attending first of all to the narrative, so that the emergent themes of his subtext rarely seem didactic but linger naturally in the after-taste of his vignettes, their force gathering cumulatively across the collection, being balanced across a variety of genres.
At their best, his stories resist being anatomised, their idiosyncratic power being more than the simple arithmetic of their parts. A Place To Dump Guinea Pigs, for instance, from beginnings that seem vaguely familiar from those, like Neil Gaiman, who find fresh sport in the Greek classics, gradually locates a voice and heart peculiarly its own as Charon, the ferryman of the underworld, discovers a moral conscience about the payload he is asked to dispose of into the Styx. The twist in the tale is all the more satisfying for its mythic aptness.
Equally effective, despite an entirely different perspective, is one owing something to the old Future Shocks of 2000 A.D. whose tails would often sting with the venom of satire. With a conceit as elegant as an algorithm, in Tyson/Dog Hartley gets under the skin of man’s best friend by charting out the parallels between training and programming, as a cybernetically upgraded version of a breed engineered for fighting tries to reconcile the double binds of its contradictory coding. Its denouement snaps shut with the savage finality of a snare set on a hair-trigger,
Perhaps the most disquieting piece, however, is A Panda Appeared In Our Street. Hartley has a keen eye for an evocative image, and a sure hand for honing his phrases to convey them with the sharpest of edges; a double-sided blade with the allusive potency of poetry and the exacting precision of prose. Here, the panda of the title is first seen ‘skewered to the railing’ outside the narrator’s house. It’s the most savage of cruelties inflicted on the most blameless of creatures.
What happens next has the emotional logic of a specifically British response to symbolic tragedy, an unfolding that manages both to ask uncomfortable questions about the beauty pageant priorities by which species are elected as being worth whisking from extinction into the latter-day ark of the zoo, and the substitution of shared gesture (in this case, a candlelit vigil, although it could just as easily have been a choreographed applause) for meaningful action. Hauntingly resistant to definitive interpretation, its final image has the inscrutability of a nightmare too powerful to shrug off.
These are no bedtime stories. Like the opposite of lullabies, the stories in Fauna sing the reader out of their sleep. The very best of them are worth the price of insomnia.
Fauna is published by Fly on the Wall Press