‘Butcher’s Perfume’ by Sarah Hall

Butcher’s Perfume by Sarah Hall, 2010

The magic trick:

Using the plot to reinforce the story’s setting and mood

Such a complete story today.

For much of the text, we have characters, setting, and mood in search of a plot.

The story masterfully establishes its teenaged narrator Kathleen and her friendship with Manda, describing Manda’s entire family along the way. Likewise, the Cumbria Lake District setting vividly comes to life. And the mood? That’s probably my favorite part. Through the characters, the setting, and especially the brilliant section later in the story in which Kathleen describes the 25-minute drives north to Carlisle with a tangible feeling of the region’s terrible and violent history haunting every mile, we feel a very odd mood of adolescent adrenaline, sexual impulse, love, and dread.

Still, we wait for the plot.

Will the action ever take center stage for longer than two consecutive paragraphs?

Yes, finally, it does near the very end. And it is a monster plot twist.

However, and I hope I don’t spoil anything by saying it, the remarkable thing is that the plot twist really only serves to cement the previous feelings of character, setting, and mood.

The plot never really mattered.

And that’s quite a trick on Hall’s part.

The selection:

There were two main roads from town – the old toll road, and the Roman, which was nearly disused and cut past the wither of Lazonby Fell. And there was the M6. It was a deserted piece of motorway – the last run before Scotland, so it felt like everything was petering out.

I’d sit rammed up against the window, my cheek pressed coldly against it, holding the seatbelt tight across my chest. Manda fought for control of the radio dials while one of her brothers drove. Usually it was Aaron, who would shoot the cambers as if he was on a private racetrack. We crossed that hinterland as people still do now, and they always have done, and they likely always will, regardless of police traps and cameras – moving flat out, at reckless speeds, as if being pursued.

I hated all the passages up to the city; that eerie twenty-five-minute slew. Something always seemed to be at our backs along there. These were the original badlands you were taught in school, if you didn’t already know. You wouldn’t want to linger. You wouldn’t want to be caught alone, moving slow and obvious in the lowland. This was where the raiders met, coming south or north. This was burnt-farm, red-river, raping territory. A landscape of torn skirts and hacked throats, where roofs were oiled and fired, and haylofts were used to kipper children. And if you rolled down the window you could just about hear it – the alarms and crackling flames, women split open and screaming as their menfolk choked on sinew pushed down their gullets. The houses in the Borders, if they weren’t fortified, were temporary, made of spit and cattle shit and wattle, easy to dismantle, because when the revers came you either held fast behind eight hewn feet of rock, or you packed up and ran.

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