The Otherworldly Intrigue of Daisy Johnson’s Fen

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I woke up at 3 a.m. to pee the other night. This was not unusual. I like to drink tea before bed, and I usually wake up at least once in the night to relieve myself. What was unusual was that before falling asleep, I read a story by Daisy Johnson. I dreamt of deep pools thick with eels, of lips dripping with human blood, of an albatross standing on the kitchen table. This time, when I got up to use the bathroom, I was not fully awake, so heavy pressed the dreams. My shadow seemed to move on its own; the walls of my apartment appeared to be breathing. And when I heard a rustling on the other side of the bedroom door, never did it occur to me that it was just my boyfriend, puttering around the apartment after a late bartending shift. I stared at the door certain that a pack of violent foxes was clawing at the other side. I gasped and screamed and, finally, woke myself from the dreams.

At night she couldn’t sleep for the whales that came breaching up through the house’s watery foundations, rent apart the floorboards to flip through, circled the bed in sharkish lines until that is what they were: sharks made from all the letters he’d used to describe them, right up to the tottering S that made up the apex of each fin.

It was harder being left behind.

It’s not easy to break free from the world that Johnson creates in her debut collection of short stories, Fen. Each of the collection’s twelve stories take place in the fens—a region of marshland in eastern England. The fens have provided otherworldly intrigue for many writers before Johnson, including supernatural fantasies by John Gordon, science fiction tales by Peter F. Hamilton, paranormal mysteries by Gladys Mitchell, and ghost stories by M.R. James. J.K. Rowling wrote in her Harry Potter series that Salazar Slytherin, the serpent-tongue-speaking co-founder of Hogwarts, hailed from the fens. Johnson falls into the tradition of these writers, celebrating the place’s mystery and magic, and the fens themselves are a character in each of her stories, like Emily Brontë’s moors. The deep canals, the drained marshes, and the dark mud pervade every page. Her stories are rooted in the dark mystery, natural beauty, and potential for magic that permeates the fens.

The fox sat on its haunches on the floor of the hall and looked up at her. There was a moment, less than that, when she thought she would break it between the ribs or at the neckline. The words she’d given it, his words, would come out easy, as easy as making a baby from clay, easy as swimming to the sea when you had fins rather than legs.

The creature, rusted across the chest, put its head on one side and cracked its mouth an inch or so, panted. She waits for what it would say. A farewell or thank you or promise of return.

While Johnson should not necessarily be classified as a horror writer, her gothic fiction embraces some of the most terrifying elements of the real world and mixes them with the stuff of nightmares. Roald Dahl, another British writer who made the supernatural commonplace, took the greatest fears of childhood and transformed them into witches, giants, and children who morph into blueberries if they misbehave. Johnson is the Dahl of the teenage years. Many of her characters are young and working their way through adolescence. They experience heartbreak, confusion, isolation, and a desperate desire to fit in. They experiment with drugs, alcohol, and sex. They are doing the work of growing up. One of Johnson’s characters thinks, “there must be moments which were the beginnings of ends.”

Johnson’s stories embrace the beginning-of-the-end feeling of being a teenager—the end of childhood, the beginning of adulthood, moving away from birth and closer to death. But those commonplace feelings are cloaked in the surreal elements of Johnson’s world. A teenager struggling with an eating disorder starves herself into an eel. A boy who likes to get drunk and pick fights morphs into a bloodthirsty fox. A girl falls in love with another girl, and the house she lives in becomes jealous. A young woman, who goes on Internet blind dates at a local restaurant, is actually a golem sculpted from fen mud.

Fen mud was not like the mud forced to yield crops in other places. Darker than that and wetter and the first child formed on the kitchen table was something of the same, a hunched figure leaking away. She made two of them. Slapping heads onto shoulders, rolling legs thin, fixing bulbous hands into place. Their heads were heavy blocks, features done quickly in the last seconds before she gave up, ears lopsided, eyes slitted with the end of her key, mouths a studious line.

Some stories are stronger than others. The ones heavily charged with surrealism—where magic is accepted as part of everyday life, where souls move between people and animals—stayed with me the longest. But Johnson’s stories are all connected. In the fens, everyone knows each other. Everyone hangs out at the one local bar—the Fox and Hound. A pregnant bartender keeps showing up. Everyone talks about the foxes overrunning the fens, being gassed in their holes in the earth. A brother comes home drunk, raving about a girl who starved herself into a fish and a house that fell in love with a girl. Everyone talks about the draining and flooding of the land. Johnson’s world is a magical place, but it is also rooted in the painful realism of a small, gossipy town. Characters overlap, and their fates passed on from one to the next. As Johnson writes, “This was a place where people understood the possibility of bad luck being passed on and kept clear.” But it seems impossible to keep clear. The small town can be oppressive, and many of Johnson’s characters are intent on finding an escape.

She pulled her socks off, stood somehow serenely balanced to remove trousers and T-shirt. She swam down, breath potent between her ribs. She lost light all the way down until it was dark enough only to feel the motion of something brushing at her leg.

As a reader, the world of Fen won’t leave you. That is Johnson’s power as a writer—she creates a dark, self-aware world that feels heavy and gray and covered in mist. In her universe, if you’re lonely, you can befriend a fish. Words don’t just cause emotional pain, but they form burns and welts. The ones you love can come back from the dead. To read Johnson’s stories is to live in dreams, at once both disturbing and comforting.

E.B. Bartels is the author of Good Grief: On Loving Pets, Here and Hereafter, forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in spring 2021. For more about E.B., visit her website or follow her on Twitter at @eb_bartels. More from this author →