by Helen Patterson
Summer is here! In Oklahoma, as the temperatures soar, it is a good time to head somewhere air-conditioned and read a good book. If you’re looking for something a little darker and more philosophical than the average summer read but you don’t want to commit to a full novel, have you considered a short story collection? It’s a great way to read a new author and learn about their depth and range without committing to a full work. Below are four suggestions and a brief description of some of the more interesting stories.
In Michael Andreasen’s The Sea Beast Takes a Lover, the bizarre and mystical interrupt the everyday to reveal the smallness of human comprehension and the uselessness of human endeavors. In “Our Fathers at Sea,” the old are shipped off in a crate to the middle of the ocean to be mercifully euthanized and sunk beneath the waves. The whole ceremony is a combination of ridiculous carnival and patriotic holiday, and it highlights how hard it is for families to connect with each other and how children will never remember us as we would like to be remembered. In “Jenny,” Douglas, the brother and caretaker of his sister, the title character, who lives without a head or most of her brain, finds himself unable to comprehend her response to a sexual assault. He realizes that Jenny is unknowable not because she is disabled but because she exists separately from him.
Anjali Sachdeva’s first collection, All the Names They Used for God, contains one of the most chilling stories I have ever read. “Manus” follows the aftermath of an alien invasion of Earth in which the entire human population is having their hands replaced with metallic ones, in a process colloquially called “forking.” The narrator’s friend refuses to be altered, instead choosing complete dissolution of her body on her own terms, becoming a symbol for a new revolution. Sachdeva’s other stories hover around this theme, the fear of becoming “othered,” being made into something or someone else. In the title piece, “Promise and Abike,” young girls abducted, brutalized, and forced into marriage slowly take back their power and gain complete control over their captors, but they lose something of themselves in the process.
Awayland by Ramona Ausubel is divided into four sections, dealing with human hunger, hope, loneliness, and longing: “Bay of Hungers,” “The Cape of Persistent Hope,” “The Lonesome Flats,” and “The Dream Isles.” Ausubel’s collection contains fewer overtly supernatural or science fiction elements than the others, but an element of magical realism pervades all her stories. The first section, “Bay of Hungers,” offers two of the most interesting pieces. In “You Can Find Love Now” a cyclops crafts his profile for an online dating website. His hunger for flesh and his hunger for love are never quite differentiated, and the reader is left wondering about the fate of whoever responds. The next piece, “Fresh Water from the Sea,” follows a girl and her mother who are reunited after the mother finds herself gradually growing transparent and turning into mist. Here, hunger is again multifaceted, suffusing the piece. The girl and her mother are hungry for connection, but they have spent their lives looking for it in the wrong places and ways, and now it appears to be too late.
The strongest collection I read was Mallory Ortberg’s The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror, in which Ortberg follows the current trend of updating fairy tales to make them more feminist and strange. In these stories, the protagonists often get what they want—but at the expense of others. In “The Rabbit,” the Velveteen Rabbit does indeed become real—by sucking realness from the boy who loves him. In “The Daughter Cells,” the little mermaid succeeds in gaining human souls and keeping her life after a bloody double-murder. In Ortberg’s pieces, gender and identity are fluid, and the protagonists themselves waver, never quite villains or heroes, but always complex and grasping, attempting to claim, or reclaim, power over themselves and the world. Though Ortberg’s worlds are some of the strangest and least recognizable, her characters are very human and disturbingly real.
Have a great summer, and get reading!
Originally hailing from Colorado, Helen Patterson is a graduate of The University of Tulsa. She works at the Tulsa City-County Library, writes literary horror, and loves a wonderful Okie boy.