An Unhaunting

640px-Abandoned_house_in_White_Marsh,_VirginiaIt’s easy enough to get in. There are no locks; you can enter as you like. Once you’re inside, though, there’s something unsettling. Everything looks to be in order, but you get an uneasy sense of abandonment. Someone used this place, once, on a regular basis—loved it, even. But now there’s a pervasive pall of disuse; water dripping somewhere in the back, a flurry of feathers upstairs, and then silence. Yet at the same time, you feel that this dereliction is temporary. A sense of life lingers in the appointments; a glimmer of brightness from a cracked, curtainless pane. Whoever has cared for this place will be back. But… when?

Oh. Sorry… I thought I was on the About page.

Yeah, Like Fire has been something of a haunted house as of late. But as seasonally-appropriate as that might be, we’re back—throwing open the windows, giving the joint a good dusting, relegating the raccoons to the attic. It’s good to take a little vacation, but the nature of vacations is that they end.

Speaking of seasonally-appropriate, I had been thinking this time of year called for a good lightweight scary read, and had a couple lined up that I thought might fit the bill. But because my reading habits tend to be governed by some perverse logic that I don’t understand, I started an e-galley of a debut collection that’s not out until February by an unknown-to-me author with no spooky bona fides whatsoever: Amy Parker’s Beasts and Children (Mariner)—which actually turned out to fit the bill in some very unexpected ways.

The beasts and the children here—every story features at least one of each—are not in good places. The children are at the mercy of self-absorbed and narcissistic adults—misled at their best, and often cruelly negligent—and the beasts are at the mercy of children and adults alike. Anyone who knows me knows that I have little stomach for children in peril, and even less for endangered animals (I know it should be the other way around, but that’s how I’m wired). And there were a number of points early on in the book where I just thought I’d have to put it down. But the writing was strong and interesting, and the stories feed into each other in a way that ramped up my attention, not so much linked as braided, a few strands that worked themselves together as the book progressed.

The publisher’s blurb invokes Lorrie Moore, Claire Vaye Watkins, and Rebecca Lee—which, along with the fabulous cover, is certainly why I picked it up galley in the first place—and some of Parker’s bemused, slightly sad children’s voices remind me a bit of early Ellen Gilchrist. It was a bit of a painful book and yes, scary in ways that are less haunted-house and more about taking readers on a discomfiting and transformative journey that bruise their empathy pathways and then, finally, reward with a bloom of beauty—what Hanya Yanagihara was aiming for in A Little Life, I think, but I found Beasts and Children to be less manipulative and ultimately more effective. It’s not the usual short fiction fare—Parker is taking chances here, and they pay off.

I’ll give it a fuller review closer to publication time, because I think this is a book to watch. In the meantime, happy Halloween to all, don’t eat too much candy, and remember: “Our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” (Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory)

(“Abandoned house in White Marsh, Virginia” by Toby Alter, 1983. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)


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