Michael Hartford

writer, photographer, programmer, dad

“Do You Think We Should Pull Over?” by Brian Doyle

The narrator recounts tales about Pete and cars, and Pete and dogs, each more preposterous or sad or illuminating than the last, before finally reflecting on the importance of recounting preposterous, sad, and illuminating stories.

This is mostly a voice-driven story – it sounds like the kind of thing you’d hear at a dive bar a few beers into the night, told by a garrulous raconteur who can’t keep his stories straight but is still a joy to hear, if not for the plot than for the cadence.

“Something Like Living Things” by John Langan

Three girls are attempting divination with a deck of playing cards; their mother appears with a different method of seeing the future.

Another story from “When Things Get Dark,” this is a brief sketch that leaves quite a bit of room for dark speculation: who are these girls and their parents from “the old country”? What do the visions from the Book of Revelations portend? What (or whose?) entrails are being offered for a glimpse of the future?

“In the Deep Woods; the Light is Different There” by Seanan McGuire

A woman, orphaned and divorced, goes to her father’s lake home, which has been empty for a long time; she spends a terrifying night hiding in a wardrobe.

Another story from “When Things Get Dark,” the collection of stories inspired by Shirley Jackson, this is an economical and tense sketch. It has some typical Jackson tropes – the empty house, the disquieting locals, the dark woods – and does a good job of keeping its central horror shrouded in mystery. There may be some hints as to what visited the house in the middle of the night, but they might be red herrings – nothing is resolved. This felt a bit like the first chapter of a novel that I’d enjoy reading.

“Glow” by J.S. Breukelaar

On the eve of a “Humanity First” candidate’s election, a botched ICE raid on a mixed family of humans and aliens leads to a strange inter-species exchange.

Though a bit heavy-handed, this story has some interesting ideas; the aliens seem to be truly alien (while never quite described concretely), and their journey to Earth implies a deep history that the humans seem blithely ignorant of.

“AAA Plus” by Brian Doyle

When his car breaks down, a guy splurges on the AAA Plus membership and takes full advantage of the unlimited towing privileges.

This is a cute, funny little anecdote – not much of a story, really, but breezily told with an interesting voice and clever details, so complaints from me.

“For Sale By Owner” by Elizabeth Hand

Three friends have a clandestine sleepover in a beautiful, empty, secluded house in the woods, with disquieting results.

Another from the “When Things Get Dark” anthology of stories inspired by Shirley Jackson, this one is clearly an homage, at least in part, to “The Haunting of Hill House.” The house here, an empty but impeccably maintained Federal-style house in the Maine woods, is very different from Hill House — it’s described as being almost austere, with smooth white walls and square rooms and bright light streaming through the windows, unlike the not-quite-plumb Hill House. But it is also, it would seem, a trap, like Hill House, luring in the unwary with its unexpected warmth and hominess. Just as Hill House never reveals its secrets, neither does this house; it simply leaves a subtle tingle of dread beneath its cheerful facade.

“A Hundred Miles and a Mile” by Carmen Maria Machado

A woman who suffers “moods” – moments of dread and quiet despair – finds a kind of relief in a department store encounter.

This is a quiet and haunting little story, extremely ambiguous and slippery, leaving a disquieting tingle behind. In addition to the spirit of Shirley Jackson, it also evokes a little of Patricia Highsmith – there’s a quiet menace to the protagonist’s whispered secrets, and part of me is glad that we never learn what she says.

“Funeral Birds” by M. Rickert

Lenore attends the funeral of Dolores, one of her home health care clients, but upon returning home discovers that Dolores has taken up residence in her apartment.

This story, from a collection of stories in the spirit of Shirley Jackson, leaves much unsaid. All of the important action – Lenore’s husband’s death, Dolores’ death, the secrets shared between Lenore and Dolores – has all taken place before the funeral, and we get only shadowy hints of the aftermath. For a ghost story it’s not particularly scary – Dolores is more of a nuisance than a terror – but it still has an uncomfortable and disquieting tone, befitting a Shirley Jackson homage.

“A Lot of Things Have Happened” by Adam Levin

The narrator recounts anecdotes that may be connected by vermin, or animal cruelty, or human cruelty, or kindness, or just general cluelessness.

This is a very “New Yorker” story: not much by way of plot, a lot of indistinguishable characters of an artistic middle class stratum (MFA programs seem to be the main connective tissue), and anecdotes that are recounted colorfully and with some vigor but don’t seem to coalesce into a discernible whole. It’s not that I don’t enjoy this kind of story – I do, the writing is tight and sometimes remarkable – but I don’t expect it to stick in my head enough to bubble up at surprising moments and make me see things in a new way.

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