The uncertain position we all maintain in life asking when will violence strike, when will devastation occur, leaves us looking like the hapless swimmers at the beginning of each Jaws movie. Innocent, tender, and delicious. Our legs tread water, buoyed by all that is right and good and deserved in this world, a house, healthy children, clean food to eat, love. While that animatronic shark, a beast without mercy, catches the scent of blood and locks in on his target.
"Sam?" I call softly so the bad guy won't know we're separated. There's no answer from downstairs. What is taking him so long to come back?
I hold the night the way I would a child who finally fell asleep. Like I'm frightened it will move. I am frightened it will move. I am always scared my life will suffer some dramatic, sudden change. I try to hear deeper, to not shift at all, to not breathe, but no matter how still I stay there's no report from downstairs. What if Sam is already dead, killed by the intruder? Maybe choked by a small rope around the neck? What if the bad guy, in stocking feet, is creeping upstairs right now, getting closer to my babies, to me?
Part of me knows he is. Part of me knows he is always and always will be.
I offer that passage as not only an example, but also a sort of summary, of what one finds in Samantha Hunt's story collection The Dark Dark, which I picked up on Seattle Independent Bookstore Day about two years ago and have ignored until last weekend.
The writing throughout is plain and uninflected, which seems to heighten the emotional content of the stories because the prose doesn't build, it chooses to merely present. The juxtaposition of plot weirdness and matter-of-fact language makes the weird seem weirder, so that's a good technique for a writer to know, a handy way to make sudden small shifts in the story's reality fabric jump off the page. An errant adjective can carry a lot of weight here.
Pulling off onto the soft shoulder, he felt a certain resistance from the undercarriage. The vehicle and the animal had been joined in a terrible unison. He sat without moving. Perhaps it wasn't a dog. Perhaps it was some other creature, a beast unnamed and unknown, part woman, part deer. The thought gave him pause. He sat. Not long but long enough to know the thing was truly dead. There'd be no watching it limp away into the dark night, no gnashing of teeth. He would not have to back the car up and over the creature. He would not have to kill it a second time.
Hunt writes about states of being, which is common enough in fiction, isn't it? She often uses the metaphor of leaving and/or returning home, or more generally: a place one has fled, and the place to which one flees. From the vantage of one of these locations the protagonist remembers why she has taken flight. In a few cases the dislocation is temporal rather than geographical; sometimes it's not the dislocation of the story's main character, but the dislocation is always present. Dislocation, in fact, is a major structural tool for Hunt, especially the dislocation of characters from their sense of reality. I've seen this collection labeled "liminal fantasy," which I think means something like Kafkaesque or toying with supernatural events, the kind of modern American literary version of magical realism, I suppose. Liminal fantasy has been going on since the dawn of storytelling, I'd say, but that's not a complaint and it's a fine thing for Hunt to be doing.
Earlier, Susanne's husband had detected a certain ticking in her. He'd packed their children into the car for a night of pizza and a double feature at the second-run movie theater, leaving her alone to explode, to splatter the house with a combination of things she'd ingested as a teenager--films and punk rock records that confirmed what she'd guessed back then: one dies alone.
The book explores these ideas of dislocation (dislocation which is sometimes only the painful distance of reality from desire) in many directions. If I have any complaint about the collection, it's that while Hunt is striking out in multiple directions, she is making similar explorations each time, and even if the digging is widespread and the discoveries startling, it's not necessarily always a deep exploration. I might prefer if she stuck with one or two excavations and really got far below the surface. Perhaps she does that in her novels, which I haven't read yet.
The Dark Dark is a disturbing book, with the feeling that violence is right around the corner, behind the turn of the next page. I can't quite say I enjoyed it, but I certainly felt something and I read the whole thing in just a few hours, reading three or four stories at a time.
The quiet of afternoon nature films pervades the hallways. At the end of a long row of lockers the thirteen father together undisturbed. With the sun just so, buffed circles of wax are visible on the vinyl flooring. The girls speak softly, huddled in a whirlpool. The light is full of dust particles.[...] One mentions the tenderness of her breasts as she lifts off the ground. Words slip from lips; the current gently eddies. The girl in the air is joined by two others, floating, balloons. They glow, lanterns above, more and more girls still, until the last one, full of grace, so round, leavers her tiptoes and lifts off the linoleum. In the air, the girls dip and reel. One turns giddy somersaults. Weightless, swimming. "Woo," she might say. "That feels good." Big as stars. Beautiful as a poisoned sunset and just as far out of reach.
One other thing that occurred to me last night is that Hunt's protagonists all interact with other characters, and those other characters come equipped with lives of their own; to have an opinion of the protagonist is not their main purpose in the stories. This is in contrast to Robertson Davies' Fifth Business, where characters exist merely in order for the protagonist to tell the reader how those characters feel about him, and exactly why they are mistaken in their opinions. Hunt's stories are full of people; Davies' novel is full of characters, but only one person. Hopefully I'm done talking about Davies now.