Horror is a matter of degrees, and Marni Scofidio's Doctor Knife is rooted in fears of an everyday kind, its protagonist hobbled by economic necessity long before the mechanics of the plot add injury to the insult of penury.
Leonora, washed up in a recognisably lived-in London, having cast herself adrift from Los Angeles, finds herself on the sharp end of dropped hints that she is no longer welcome in her temporary berth. Surplus to requirements, she finds herself at the mercy of the market for live-in help. A beggar, she has very little choice other than to accept the first position she is offered, tenured for one year to the unwholesome Dr. Nye and her equally off-key husband. An unrepentant racist, the reader understands immediately that Nye's monstrosity is still wider-ranging. The pair are thick as thieves, and – fatally – thicker than water.
Scofidio imbues her brainchild with a Dorothy Parker dryness, entirely fitting for the fresh Hell she finds herself at the gates of. Leonora keeps her wits about her, weighing up each successive compromise, never imagining the more important scales are the ones over her eyes, preventing her from seeing the whole picture. Eyes, indeed, are a recurring motif, as is the threat of enucleation. With a name befitting a Surrealist, it often seems that the most famous scene from Un Chien Andalou is spooling silently in Leonora's background. The author has a fine eye for the disquieting detail, such as a Barbie doll contorted into an impossible pose, and the telling absence, principally Nye's daughter, Justine. Like Rebecca in Du Maurier's novel, the latter's repeatedly invoked presence is more potent for her non-appearance. Even the newspaper headlines begin to spill over with disappearing bodies.
The sole sunshine in this portentous gloom is Safie, an urchin whose contradictions Leonora is perhaps a little too in love with. Her mannerisms have all the contrivance of adolescence, and a little of its irksomeness. For all that, her returned affections afford Leonora the commodity of hope, someone to cling to like a life jacket far out at sea, someone to lose.
It's one of the plot's ironies that it's Safie whose narration Leonora questions as unreliable, even as the evidence mounts up that it is Nye's triangular family that is not what she claims.
Scofidio's novel ratchets up the terror by increments, so that the threat of winter homelessness is – in the end – the least of Leonora's worries. Its denouement, both viscerally inevitable and bloodily symbolic, has the Grand Guignol flourish of E.C. Comics at their finest. It cuts close to the bone, and right to the heart of matters.
Photographs: Doctor Knife cover designed by PlanetTM of Fiverr from a photograph by Marni Scofidio (also mixer of fake blood!); Pam Simon at Pixabay; Desmond Bullen