In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods (2)In Matt Bell’s debut novel, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods (Soho Press), we are lured into familiar territory—the world of fables and tall tales, where our expectations of the surreal, the grotesque, and the magical are fulfilled in ever-expanding layers. But beyond the illusions, beyond the world building, darkness, and the unknown is an allegory—a harsh yet beautiful lesson on what it means to be a man, a father, and a husband; to be a woman, a mother, and a wife. Told in layers, fractured into sections, unfolding in a grand tapestry that weaves emotions and actions into a complex series of destinies and consequences, this novel is not an easy read. But the reward is dense prose, powerful psychoanalysis, and the unsettling feeling that our own actions today—many miles from the woods with its failing bear, and its lake with its undulating squid—might be bound by similar rules and outcomes.

Don’t let the egg on the cover fool you—it’s riddled with cracks. Nine Months (Soho Press) by Paula Bomer is the opposite of every clichéd story about mothers, birth, children, marriage and identity. It is the raw, honest and brutal story of Sonia, a mother pregnant with her third child, and unhappy with every aspect of her life. She used to be a painter, she used to run wild and free, sleeping with whomever she wanted to, living for herself. Faced with the birth of her third child, she abandons her husband, Dick, and her two boys, and hits the highway, searching for something, open to whatever comes her way.

In Kate Zambreno’s hallucinatory and disjointed Green Girl (Emergency Press), we are lured into the world of Ruth, a young American girl lost and damaged in London. Following this ingénue into her dark musings, the echoes of voices fill the page—Ruth, HIM, her mother, the author, and the silver screen flickering in the distance. It is a hypnotic read—the duality of Ruth—her good side and her darkness, the need to behave and the need to be punished.

Heartbreaking stories grounded in a fractured reality, love and the strange things it makes us do, neighbors and the heavy weight of proximity, this is Sarah Court. A collection of connected, interlinking narratives, Sarah Court (ChiZine Publications) by Craig Davidson is set in a circle of houses, each neighbor with their own story to tell. Reminiscent of Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock, but set in the area around Niagara Falls, we get to see from several different perspectives how things unfold when there is death next door, the trickle down of sweat and violence from one family to the next, the way that love and lust intertwine young passions, families infecting each other. The residents:

“The haunted father of a washed-up stuntman. A disgraced surgeon and his son, a broken-down boxer. A father set on permanent self-destruct, and his daughter, a reluctant powerlifter. A fireworks-maker and his daughter. A very peculiar boy and his equally peculiar adopted family.

The Ones That Got Away (Prime Books) tiptoes into the darkness, luring us deep into the woods, up into crawlspaces, and to distant islands, where the people, the sacrifices, the losses are our own, our universal fears come to life. You’d think that once he surprised me, once Dr. Jones pulled that old trick where you watch the left hand while the right hand does something else that I’d be prepared for more misdirection, watching the wolf when it was always going to be the dolphin. But it’s all there, it’s always right there, a tingling sensation that runs up your spine, an itch where it settles, burrowing in, a heat up your neck flushing with realization. It isn’t misdirection. It’s an adding up of information, the sum larger than the parts. It’s coming to your own conclusion before the story ends, whispering to yourself that it can’t be what you think it is. Please don’t let him go there. It’s not a trick, or a twist, and no God as machine descends from the sky. It’s what you knew all along, it’s what you feared could be true, it’s a stiff body standing in the corner of a musty basement, the camera on a tripod tipping over, and the evil revealing itself. And it’s how the everyday people in these tales deal with these revelations when they come home to roost.

 

Cover art for The Physics of Imaginary Objects by Tina May Hall

As it often is with new voices, it all starts with a dull buzz, and the sense of serendipity. Something allows the title or the subject matter or the quality of the prose to break through the daily clutter, the onslaught of suggestions and advertising, to sit with you, to hold your hand and not let go. That is the case with this powerful collection of fiction, The Physics of Imaginary Objects by Tina May Hall. For me, it started with early adopters, people like Dan Wickett at Dzanc Books and the Emerging Writers Network, and Roxane Gay at PANK. By the time I saw the cover, and tracked down a story online to get a taste of the voice, I was nearly sold. After reading “When Praying to a Saint, Include Something Up Her Alley” at her website (originally published in Black Warrior Review) I was in. All in. So very much invested. And a little bit scared.

JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER.