Reviewed by Christine Jacques
Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day
by Ben Loory
$15.00, Paperback: 224 pages, July 2011
These stories are like a variety of pearls, each with its own cast and glow. Some are soft in the way of old pearls, others are iridescent, and more baroque. It’s easy to see why they are for nighttime. Some could keep you awake. Imagine a next-door neighbor mounting a human head on a stake in his front yard. Imagine a cemetery where the dead try to pull the living down below the earth, and imagine pulling up a rope to find two waterlogged corpses. Imagine a microscopic man, bound and gagged, kept in a bag. (Note to Loory: the next time you’re in Samoa, leave flowers on Robert Louis Stevenson’s grave to thank him for writing The Bottle Imp.). You don’t need the gory details to know that human heads planted like a cornfield are creatures of the night.
But the bright, blessed day isn’t supposed to contain monsters like the shark in a swimming pool, visible only to one man. After campaigning to remove this shark by closing the pool, the man slowly but horribly realizes that he’s set a monster free. Finding a balloon in the street shouldn’t lead to house arrest for a child, who only wants to go outside. Loory often ends with an invisible higher power, who seems to approve the goings-on with laughter or, in the case of the balloon, “a faint, expected pop.” What’s eerie about a balloon breaking? Nothing, if you don’t think a child is attached to it as it rises above the Stories world.
How does Loory do it? The formula varies slightly from one story to another. Take one common object: a book, a hat, a plastic crown. Apply a strange context, or animate the object, or give it a quality known only to the main character. For instance, a hat is staring at a man, and follows him. From there, it’s a short step to the man’s sense that the gazing hat will tear his throat out, if given the chance. (The Hat, p. 80-85). The dread here is how alone the poor guy is, and how running away doesn’t solve the problem. In the case of the crown, the trouble begins when the dishwasher wearing it makes the crown visible. Poof, you’re a king! And responsible for resolving a war! And taking off the plastic crown won’t get you out of it. Your subjects have a genuine gold crown for you. No escape: that’s horror.
Isolation is another horror that the citizens of Stories know well, by ostracism or because Loory reduces the population to the story’s characters, narrowing Loory’s focus to the feeling between them to a painful point. One exception: the house on the cliff and the sea below are good company, and so their world isn’t so frightening or lonely. Not so for the grieving husband whose wife was kidnapped by aliens. He undertakes an unsuccessful rescue mission in space, when no one on earth seems able or willing to help. The End of It All isn’t the best of Stories, but its theme of lost happiness will speak to more than a few readers.
Loory’s style tends to three to four pages on average, and after the third story, Stories begins to feel familiar. At this point, you must put the book down. You wouldn’t ride a roller coaster three times in a row, would you?) Stories is not a book for one sitting. These are for savoring, one at a time. Get a nice fat mystery with a predictable enough story line for a plane ride.
About the reviewer: Christine Jacques lives in Colorado. Literature is her first love, but her husband is a close second.