‘Machines in the Head’, by Anna Kavan – Harrowing Stories


‘Machines in the Head’, selected stories by Anna Kavan   (2019) – 170 pages


As a writer, Anna Kavan was a one-off. Kavan is known for her freely admitted heroin addiction, her asylum incarcerations, and her numerous suicide attempts. Her fiction, especially her early stories, is taken from her shocking life.

Most of Kavan’s stories are in the first person. One story is about someone waiting to be institutionalized against her or his will. Another story is about lying on a psychiatrist’s couch being forced to remember what he or she did during a blackout of memory. Sadly these profoundly upsetting stories seem to come directly from Kavan’s own experiences.

They do not know what it means to be sad and alone in a cold room where the sun never shines.” – “Going Up in the World”

Anna Kavan did not become Anna Kavan until her mid-thirties, Up until then she had been Helen Ferguson who had already written 5 novels, all of which rarely get mentioned or read today. In 1940, she published a story collection called ‘Asylum Piece’ as Anna Kavan, tales about breakdown and forced institutionalization, which brought her to the world’s attention.

If the jailer looks into my mind now, I think he cannot raise any objection to what is going on there.” – “At Night”

These early Kavan stories are choppy, rough, and painful to read. It is difficult to get through more than a few pages at a time.

A later story, “The Fog”, is an outstanding story. “The Fog” is a first person story about someone driving a car who apparently runs over a teenager with their car in the fog. The driver freely admits to being a drug user:

I felt calmly contented and peaceful, and there was no need to rush. The feeling was injected of course. But it also seemed to have something to do with the fog and the windscreen wipers.” – “The Fog”

The driver says of the policeman who stops the speeding car, “I looked indifferently at his mass-produced nonentity’s face.”

Some of the later stories go beyond the limits of realism. In “The Visit”, a leopard appears one night and sleeps in her bed. The leopard shows up each night. Then one night the leopard leads her out of her house to show her something. That night there is a torrential rain and she hesitates to follow him. After that the leopard does not show up although she waits for him. What or who does the leopard represent?

One of Kavan’s main influences is Franz Kafka. My experience with reading Kafka has been that the main protagonists face ominous abstract amorphous threats to their existence. I find this quality also in Kavan’s work. I must admit that I prefer more definite, clear, and straightforward writing. I found the writing in these stories choppy without smooth transitions.

Anna Kavan stories often contain lucid descriptions of the trees, the plants and animals, the weather. Kavan got along fine with the natural world. It was only the human world that was fearful to her.


Grade:   B



8 responses to this post.

  1. I’ve read Ice and really enjoyed it, although these stories don’t sound as cohesive? She was certainly an interesting writer though.

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Cathy,
      Yes, Anna Kavan turned to science fiction later in her career, and a lot of people, like you, enjoyed ‘Ice’ which I have not read. Most of these stories are from her earlier work which was quite autobiographical and, thus in her case, quite disturbing.



  2. I found her stories uneven as well. At their best they’re superb – Kafkaesque as you say

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Tredynas
      Yes, I suppose my opinion of these stories suffered somewhat against another collection of selected stories I alternated reading with this collection, something I often due with short story collections. I will be reviewing this other collection of stories in my next post.

      Liked by 1 person


  3. I’m a great fan of Kavan, but she is uneven. I loved her last collection of stories, Julia and the Bazooka, but it was edited by her friend Rhys Davies, and I wonder if he was able to fix the problems.

    Liked by 1 person


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