on 17 March 2011
This review was originally published at The Nervous Breakdown:
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.
From the very first story, there is no hesitation, no easing into these tales, these dark fables. This is no mistake, the way this collection of short stories starts. What could be more innocent than a bunny rabbit in the snow? A father and son lost in the woods, surely there will be an escape, a rescue, and everything will be fine in the end. But that's all relative, isn't it? The surprises start with this story, "Father, Son, Holy Rabbit," and from the sentence, something isn't quite right:
"By the third day they were eating snow. Years later it would come to the boy again, rush up to him at a job interview: his father spitting out pieces of seed or pine needle into his hand. Whatever had been in the snow. The boy had looked at the brown flecks in his father's palm, then up to his father, who finally nodded, put them back in his mouth, turned his face away to swallow."
One of the many things that Stephen Graham Jones does well is mix the reality of nature, of life, with the elusive presence of the horrific, the fantastic, the mythic:
"The next day, no helicopters came for them, no men on horseback, following dogs, no skiers poling their way home. For a few hours around what should have been lunch, the sun shone down, but all that did was make their dry spot under the tree wet. Then the wind started again.
`Where's that stick?' the boy asked.
The father narrowed his eyes as if he hadn't thought of that. `Your rabbit,' he said after a few minutes.
The boy nodded, said, almost to himself, `It'll come back.'
When he looked around to his father, his father was already looking at him. Studying him.
The rabbit's skin was out in the snow, just past the tree. Buried hours ago.
The father nodded like this could maybe be true. That the rabbit would come back. Because they needed it to."
The rabbit would come back, of course, because they did need it to, but not in any way that I anticipated. I guess at endings all the time, as many of us do, and I'm pretty good at getting it right. But with these stories, I only knew what was coming about half the time. And that's no reward either, to know what's coming, hardwired to fear the hidden beast, accidents already set in motion, or the horrible things we as human beings continue to do to each other.
Another strength of Stephen Graham Jones is a willingness to build stories on the classic myths of horror and fantasy. There are only so many things that go bump in the night. It's man versus the machine, nature, the known, the unknown, the monster, the truth, himself. There are vampires and zombies and werewolves, of course. In "Wolf Island" he takes the werewolf story and turns it into something else completely. Out there in the wild it's eat or be eaten, as you know:
"The bird was like an oversized gull. A tern, maybe. Definitely not a pelican.
After pulling all the feathers out there was hardly any meat.
Emma shook her head no about it anyway.
Ronald nodded that he understood, and peeled the stringy meat from the bone, had his eyes closed to eat it when Emma stopped him.
`What?' he said.
She took the meat, touching it with as little of her fingertips as possible, and walked to the water line, laid the meat in the wet sand.
Within thirty seconds, two large crabs and one smaller one were snipping at the meat.
`Now,' she said to Ronald, and he stepped forward, brought his foot down on one of the large crabs.
Its claws sliced the air uselessly, and then Ronald drove his bare foot deeper and the crab cracked, died.
Emma laughed nervously.
Ronald studied her, no real expression on his face."
He sets us up, as we watch Emma and Ronald search for food on the deserted island. Until things start to change. Until Ronald changes, or really, stays the same, just revealing himself as something more beast than man.
Ronald slowly befriends a school of dolphins, seeking to connect, to divide up his loneliness and primal urges into manageable chunks of time. But in the end, much like the tale of the scorpion and the frog, his true nature rears its ugly head. And as the scorpion stings the frog there are other creatures sitting on the shore, eyeing that scorpion for their own little meal. As Vonnegut said, so it goes.
When you think maybe you've got him cornered, all smug that you get where he's coming from, can see it coming now, Stephen Graham Jones morphs into a pair of shallow high school girls, a mixture of Heathers and Carrie, with his stamp of dark humor applied. "So Perfect" is funny in its portrayal of youth (always wasted on the young), their language and priorities stilted and full of entitlement. It has heat at times, the two young ladies slender and tan, unafraid to use their powers of persuasion. And it's haunting how far these two will go to get thin, to stay on top, to remain the queens that they think they are. Tammy and Brianne, you've seen them before:
"`And did you see her nametag?'
`Don't even start.'
`Like I would be using somebody else's credit card, though? Please.'
`Shh, shh. She might be listening. Her dad's got to be in prison or something, right? To let her work at a register like that?'
`You're making excuses for her.'
`No. I just don't want my car to get keyed.'"
And of course, like this:
"Two days later is a Friday. Tammy and Brianne are having a tanning contest on Brianne's back porch. Her dad, home early from work, is washing the Irish setter. The dog's name is Frederick.
Because it's funny to her, Tammy keeps arranging her bikini so as to make Brianne's dad have to look somewhere else."
But this is all in good clean fun and nobody gets hurt. Until they do:
"On the other side of the classroom, hiding, is Joy. She isn't lifting her head from her desk.
Tammy shrugs to Brianne about it and Brianne shrugs back, makes the eeek! shape with her mouth.
Halfway through class is when it happens, the thing that will spark an investigation that will span four high schools and never once interrogate either Tammy or Brianne, the real killers here.
All at once, in the middle of Mr. Connors taking up last night's problems, Joy slings her head up from her desk. A line of vomit strings down from her lip. And there's more coming."
Expect the unexpected. In this collection of short stories, Stephen Graham Jones does all of the things that have come to be expected of him, and more. There are moments of terror, tension built up over time, an uneasy feeling creeping over you, your gut in knots, hesitating to turn the page. There are gestures of kindness and love, loss built on sacrifice, families protecting each other. There are histories from childhood that are buried deep, but sometimes not deep enough. And there are myths and legends that turn out to be true, awe paired with knowledge turned to fear. Be prepared for the nightfall, I'm warning you now. Laugh if you want to, it's okay. Maybe you're one of the lucky ones, your imagination held in check. Or maybe you'll stare at the ceiling, listening to the scratching while you try to convince yourself that it's just the squirrels in the attic. When the shadows slip across your bedroom walls, it's from a car passing by, for sure. Just close your eyes, and drift off to sleep, there's no weight sinking into the bed. It's probably just the cat.
You do have a cat, don't you?
NOTE: Since this review was written, The Ones That Got Away was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award for the best in horror writing and has made the final ballot.