The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones
I have not dug into Stephen Graham Jones as much as I should have, but the work I’ve read is fantastic. This is his latest novel (released in July with another book coming out in September, the man is a workhorse) and continues his blending of Jones’s indigenous background with his love of horror. The Only Good Indians centers on four Native men who took part in an elk hunt a decade earlier. During the hunt, they did something and witnessed a horror that haunted them to varying degrees. The plot is structured to move from man to man and see how the curse on them plays out. In that way, the book is sort of a mish-mash of linked short stories and novellas. The book’s core is Lewis’s story, a postal worker who has moved away from his hometown and is living with a white woman. There’s some cultural guilt there, especially when a Native woman a little younger than Lewis starts working at his job. He’s torn between his individual wants and the expectations of his culture looming over him. Through this triangle, the horror begins to manifest itself, culminating in the middle of the novel and creating ripples that shape the rest of the text. There’s no way this story could be recast in a different culture, especially not whitewashed. This is a specifically Native people’s horror story, yet Jones taps into universal themes that cause the novel to resonate on multiple levels.
Everything Is Beautiful and Nothing Bad Can Ever Happen Here by Michael Wehunt
Without realizing it, I read this novella at the absolutely perfect time, lined up with events in my society in the United States. I didn’t read it for that reason, I picked it up because I admire Wehunt’s work and highly recommend his short story collection, Greener Pastures ( I want more Wehunt!). This novella was written as part of a series of charitable books, with 40% of all sales going to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The story follows Bea Holcombe, a housewife living in a small town near the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. Her community is shaken suddenly when a man opens fire on a crowd of Black demonstrators who want the statue of a Confederate leader taken down. The man turns out to be Bea’s next-door neighbor, which causes her to begin questioning everything. Events take a turn for the sinister when Bea finds a knothole in the fence she shared with the now-dead neighbor allows her to see events from the recent past. She glimpses the man abusing his pregnant wife overlaid on the now widow struggling to put her life together. Then creatures start appearing at Bea’s windows at night, grotesque variations on the standard KKK hoods and robes but fleshy. When the ultimate horror and Bea’s personal connection to the shooting reveal themselves, everything spirals out of control.
I Hold a Wolf by the Ears: Stories by Laura van den Berg
I usually like to introduce myself to a writer through their short story work rather than a novel. Through short stories, I feel as though I get a good overview of themes they like to play with, and it serves as a hook to make me want to explore their longer novels. I have not read van den Berg’s book The Third Hotel, but I am very intrigued after this short story collection. The work hovers in that intersection of weird lit, horror, and literary fiction. It doesn’t crossover into the tropes of genre literature but borrow motifs and focuses on building unsettling urgent atmospheres. For example, the story “Lizards” lays out a wife’s anxieties over life in Florida and recent changes while her husband uses carbonated water; he’s been buying off a neighbor to sedate her. We never get an explanation for what this drink is or ever hear from the neighbor in the story. Those aren’t as important as the themes surrounding relationships and trust being explored. It’s easier to just knock his wife out then work through his role in aggravating her anxieties. If you are up for stories that subtly unsettle the reader, there is a lot.
Daddy: Stories by Emma Cline
Here’s another writer whose name I’d seen attached to an acclaimed novel for the last couple of years. I find it interesting that reviews of people who read her book The Girls don’t have very positive feelings about this collection. I found it very enjoyable and reminded me of some great grounded writers I’ve read over the years. As the title implies, there is a theme of parenting and especially fatherhood woven throughout the selections here. The opening story is from the point of view of an older dad whose adult children are returning home for Christmas. There’s a lot of dysfunction and complications in people’s lives, but so much of what happens rang true. Everyone is either happy to forget their childhood or hung up on the present, not feeling like the nostalgic past. There’s another entry about a father picking up his son from boarding school after the child commits a horrific act of violence. The tension between them builds to an explosive conclusion. We also have stories about those affected by fathers, in one story the nanny of a famous Hollywood couple has an affair with the husband and is thrown to the media wolves, the man refusing to respond to her communications. I see Cline as pointing out the manufactured nature of families in the 21st century, the idea that culture imposes expectations of behavior and structure in this institution, and how unrealistic and unsustainable these are.
Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay
I’ve had Paul Tremblay on my “Must Read” list since picking up his novel A Head Full of Ghosts in 2016. I have to say that the first novel has remained on top, but that doesn’t mean his subsequent work is terrible. I think Ghosts just hit perfect for me at the time, and the other novels haven’t quite gotten there. I will say that 2018’s The Cabin at the End of the World is a close second. In Survivor Song, Tremblay gives us his take on the “zombie apocalypse” only here it’s grounded a bit more like a severe form of rabies. It passes from the animal community into humans at a quick rate, and the story takes place just as the outbreak is happening in the United States. The story follows Dr. Ramola Sherman, a transplant from the U.K., and her friend Natalie who is pregnant and possibly infected. The narrative charts their journey over a single day trying to get Natalie somewhere safe, with the constant fear that her infection will become apparent to the people around them. Tremblay does an excellent job of creating genuine emotional tension, we get to know his characters very well, and he puts them in perilous situations that are never manipulative. An encounter with an armed militia in the streets plays out pretty close to how I imagine it would go in real life. Not everyone is a “true believer,” breakdowns occur within in the group as some men want to help while others hear Ramola’s accent and take that as a threat. Survivor Song hits pretty hard amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but it does provide rays of hope in the epilogue tying back into the title of the novel.