• March 5, 2012

Today’s Snapshots feature short stories: two debut collections, each with stories that shouldn’t be missed, and one collection by a master of the form, Melissa Pritchard, with some new takes on the “Gothic themes of madness, tragic and unavoidable fate, scientific hubris.”

Today’s Snapshots feature short stories: two debut collections, each with stories that shouldn’t be missed, and one collection by a master of the form, Melissa Pritchard, with some new takes on the “Gothic themes of madness, tragic and unavoidable fate, scientific hubris.”

So There!
by Nicole Louise Reid
Stephen F. Austin University Press
176 pp.

Nicole Louise Reid’s stories are packed with powerful images, mostly of girls, women and the harsher side of reproduction. I won’t soon forget the image of a young girl faced with the task of disposing of the products of her mother’s miscarriages at night in the Pearl River, and of mama herself giving birth in a nest of limbs in a swamp hickory tree hanging over that river.  (The narrator speaks of “hoping to God she’d catch the thing when it came out. And she always did.”). Or the image of a mentally disturbed 8-year old, in an agony of tragic confusion, hurling insults at the only friend she’s ever had. Or the mother lovingly bathing twin babies in her kitchen sink, though we come to see that the sink holds only soapy water and the mothers’ soft, caressing hands because the babies were dead at birth. As gripped as I was by these images I had a hard time keeping track of where I was. Might some of this be the product of the girls’ imaginations? The incidents seemed like broken shards of a beautiful vase, glinting in colors (especially red) in splintered light. Wouldn’t it be something, I thought, if Reid could put such powerful images into a plot line I could more easily follow? Then, in her final, title story she does just that, and it is so gut-wrenching I almost wished she hadn’t. “So There,” the first-person story of an 8-year old girl becoming 15, is so frightening, the girl’s terrors so palpable, her parents so dangerously, ominously awful, that it is truly hard to take. Reid has the capacity to get us imagining the dreadful things that might happen, things that won’t happen, things that will. When we spin down the highway with that girl and her mother driving recklessly at 80 miles per hour, the girl’s fingers teasing out the window in the rushing air, letting go (or not!) of the one symbol that matters in her life, we are scared and we are moved. Don’t miss this story.
~Phil Harvey

Three Ways of the Saw
by Matt Mullins
Atticus Books
216 pp.

There are pleasant surprises in this debut story collection. Before I could get too inured to the 30-something male protagonists who dominate, some fresh characters emerged. Rachel is an engaging 14-year old waiting for her first menstrual period. And Mr. Ashland is a dying man who mourns the loss of his favorite tree — a honey locust he planted 30 years before. These are among the best stories here. Rachel is getting cramps on a canoe trip supervised by a priest from her school. Mildly rebellious in her awkward sexual chats with a new friend, she finally welcomes her Aunt Flow in mid-trip as dawn creeps over the edge of the river, and a ranger-guide checks for alligators downstream. She is satisfied. Mullins seems more comfortable with this character than with many of his 30ish males. The title story, “Three Ways of the Saw,” is a poignant tale of a dying man whose favorite tree is wrecked in a storm. JW, from JW’s Tree Service, carefully dismantles what’s left of the tree with a chainsaw, vainly trying to convince his young helper that a tree is more than just a thing, something the dying man knows full well.  While a chainsaw (a Husqvarna) plays an important role in this story, it hardly seems to justify the curious cover of Mullins’ book, an exploded view of chainsaw parts linking various components — screws, nuts, wires, cogs — to the titles of all the other stories, to which the saw is irrelevant. Many of Mullins’ characters are adolescent males of various ages, from 14 to 40, trying desultorily to grow up. A pothead goes crazy over an Orkin man he’s sure is an undercover cop; delinquent boys steal things and cause a car accident, then exchange a violent kiss; a heavy drinker struggles to grow into his girlfriend’s image of him but fails. These stories are well crafted, often engaging but not deeply moving. Mullins seems to do better when he embraces altogether different types. One such is a morbidly obese woman in “I Am and Always Will Be.” She lives downstairs from the narrator, who has always avoided her, repulsed by “the wet hackings of her obnoxious, cackling friends rising up to my open windows on the smoke of their Virginia Slims.” Unexpectedly, she shames him with her erudition, reminding him how wrong he is about this and so much else in his life. Such moments make this collection well worth the read.
~Phil Harvey

The Odditorium
by Melissa Pritchard
Bellevue Literary Press
252 pp.

First, a warning: This book is not about authors of classic Victorian novels who solve crimes, nor about conspiracies hatched by cloaked figures, or any other favorite themes of Gothic-revival literature. Instead, Pritchard takes Gothic themes — madness, tragic and unavoidable fate, scientific hubris — and views them through a different lens. In keeping with the title and cover art, suggestive of a Victorian sideshow, she leads us into something beyond the conventional, exploring the outermost edges of our comfort zone. Pritchard’s collection includes a story of a haunted house, but she is more interested in the terrible consequences of a present-day decision than in the history of the grey lady who walks the halls. In a story about “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!” Pritchard takes less interest in Ripley’s adventurous travels than she does in the quiet life of the man who researched strange facts for him. Part of what makes this collection rewarding is Pritchard’s ability to play with literary form. Throughout, she intersperses light-footed prose with poems, songs and historical documents. In one of the book’s best moments, excerpts from a guide to Britain’s flora and fauna contrast with the horror of treating injured soldiers. In the same story, a British officer finds that the only way he can communicate with the SS officer whose secrets he must discover is by reciting a Goethe poem with him. Yet playing with Gothic themes doesn’t keep Pritchard from harnessing the genre’s power to surprise her reader. Her fiction, like the best Gothic classics, makes us feel like we are traveling on a pleasant, meandering river — until we round the last bend and find ourselves on the edge of a waterfall, looking down into the darkest depths of the human soul.
~Tina Irgang

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