photo: Paul Crisanti
Disease and unease permeate the stories of Brian Booker’s Are You Here For What I’m Here For? in equal measure. Sometimes, like in “A Drowning Accident” or “The Sleeping Sickness,” the two come together in eerie, unnerving ways, and even the stories where disease and illness don’t play a dominant role, like “Here to Watch Over Me,” take place in an atmosphere where the world feels just a little bit… off. In this guest essay, Booker talks about another short story where a long-buried secret continues to weigh on the present world, with increasingly disturbing results.
I like stories that make me complicit in their characters’ secrets. We often discover our characters’ deepest vulnerabilities by figuring out what they can’t or won’t say (or what others won’t say in their presence). We’re talking about the unspeakable, which means we’re talking about shame. Shame narratives concern trauma; the unspeakable revolves around a knot in the past, a piece of unfinished business that keeps us somehow stuck, dislocated, stumbling into the realms of the uncanny.
I feel I know the narrator in Dan Chaon’s story “Here’s a Little Something to Remember Me By.” Tom is thirty-six, married with two sons, and home for the holidays. His father has recently died and his mother now lives alone. This scenario is filled with precise evocations of the aches and recognitions of returning home, where the things you left behind are always still waiting for you. But what is really nagging at Tom about this visit are Mr. and Mrs. Ormson. The Ormsons want to see Tom, “just like always.” A worried curiosity has its claws in me.
Tom was the last person to see Ricky Ormson, his childhood friend, who went missing when they were fourteen. The case went cold decades ago. But the Ormsons, Ricky’s parents, “never gave up hope.” They adopted Tom as a kind of surrogate son, and have never let him out of the morbidly sentimental role they’ve curated for him. Obliged to spend an evening making small talk under “their soft magnetic gaze,” Tom senses “their sorrow, their rage, their anguish, all of it glided by murkily, like a shadow of something underwater.” They have decided, this particular year, to present Tom with a box of Ricky’s things. They are giving him something—another piece of the burden—but they also seem desperately to need something from Tom. What?
7 August 2016 | selling shorts |
photo: Danielle Meijer
Maryse Meijer has an amazing gift for writing about erotic fixation; see the title story in her debut collection, Heartbreaker, for starters. Even stories that aren’t specifically about erotic fixation, like “Shop Lady,” have an unsettling obsessive edge to them. And then there’s stories like “The Fire” and “Fugue” that veer into territory so unnerving they start to feel unreal—not unrealistic, let’s be clear about that, but unreal, or uncanny if you prefer. If the characters and worlds she creates start to remind you of modern horror fiction, well, as Meijer explains in this guest essay, that’s no accident.
I, like most children, grew up with a nose for the forbidden. I read romance novels (the more explicit the better) during math class in the fifth grade, giggled over The Satanic Bible with my twin sister, wrote love poetry about Jeffrey Dahmer, plundered the local video store for the goriest, tackiest B horror movies. I wanted to be shocked and to prove to myself that I was unshockable, and in the 1990s, before the internet was a given, you had to do a little digging to get to the good stuff.
For me, that meant stalking the book section of the local Tower Records, the only source of “alternative” reading material; I pored over anthologies of crime scene photographs, Robert Crumb’s racier comics, pocket-sized ‘zines with titles like Murder Can Be Fun. Only the Penthouses and Playboys were off limits, wrapped in cellophane and displayed out of arm’s reach; everything else, including plenty of explicit material, was easily accessible. No “adults only” section, no eagle-eyed employees monitoring the reading habits of a ten-year-old with her nose planted deep in an essay about Bob Flanagan’s erotic escapades in a hardware store. Heaven.
It was in the horror section of Tower Records that my life as a writer got its first big kick in the ass. I was probably looking for Anne Rice when a glossy black trade paperback caught my eye, its spine dripping with spiky red letters: Strange Angels. By someone named Kathe Koja. Some books speak to you from the shelf, by whatever mysterious magic of title/cover art/aura; this one grabbed me by the neck. I opened it up and started reading, sitting on a step stool, Smashing Pumpkins pumping through the store speakers. Here, finally, was the book I’d been looking for, the book that I hoped was out there, the book that I wanted other books to be, told in an edgy, stream-of-consciousness voice that shot me dead.
24 July 2016 | selling shorts |