A Week of Consequential Reading #1


Welcome friends, nerds, book junkies. Welcome to my ever-expanding bookshop filled to the gills with all sorts of odds and ends. It’s a place you could stay all day; believe me, I’ve lost track of the times I’ve let that happen.

Each week I’m going to share and review a the selection of stories I’ve read. I’ll be reading old, I’ll be reading new, but almost always it will be short fiction I’ve had the pleasure (or sometimes displeasure) of reading. You’re more than welcome to follow along each week and discover new authors, as well as cherished old favorites, and let me know what you think. It’s like a book club, except this is a blog… and it’s short stories… and I’m sitting alone typing on a lifeless, digital page…

Well technicalities aside, let’s take a look at the stories for this week. There wasn’t really an intended theme connecting these, but it looks like we have a batch of mostly philosophical horror. Don’t worry, we’re going to be exploring a wide selection with each new segment.

The Box by Jack Ketchum

I’m due for a review of Ketchum’s collection Peaceable Kingdom, but you can expect a whole other post for that. Out of all I’ve read so far, The Box stands as not only one of my favorite Ketchum stories, but short stories of all time. It’s simple—both in prose and premise—and manages to do so much with so little.

A father witnesses his young son asking a stranger about the box he’s carrying with him. The stranger shows the boy, who then refuses to eat when the family returns home. Saying much more than that would spoil the experience.

This story won a Bram Stoker Award, and rightfully so in my opinion. It’s not a piece that’s super showy or hyper ambitious, so it would bad to go into it expecting something like that, but it’s remarkable as far as capturing something very dark and nihilistic—and how that can consume you and everything you love about life. This is also the kind of story welcoming of discussion. It can be open to interpretation, but not overly so. Most of all, I’ll never forget the dread I felt in the pit of my stomach. It’s hard for most stories to reach that point with me, but nevertheless I was in Ketchum’s grip up until the last word.

The Town ManagerThe Bungalow House by Thomas Ligotti

For as much as I’ve talked about Ligotti before, I had yet to dive into much of his short fiction. Bungalow House took me by surprise. On the first pass I found myself disappointed, and surprised to see later that many consider it to be his best short story. After a handful of reads however, and discussing the piece with those familiar and unfamiliar with Ligotti, I feel like I missed the point initially.

Our narrator for the story describes an avant garde art piece in the form of an audio cassette. Through his eyes we learn about his relationship with the art gallery he visits, and the obnoxious gallery director, before the plot unfolds to reveal something much darker behind what at first seems mundane.

I wouldn’t recommend this story if you’ve never read Ligotti’s short fiction before. The language of the narrator comes off as pretentious, obnoxiously repetitive, and redundant. It’s difficult to criticize for those reasons however, because it seems to me this was the very intent of the author. The Bungalow House is almost a satirical commentary on modern art in the same way American Psycho is a commentary on materialism and the upper-class (to simplify.) In any case, it may not be a very entertaining piece of fiction at a quick glance, but is thought-provoking and memorable. Just know what you’re getting into.

The Town Manager, of the two, is superior as far as the impact of the story. Ligotti paints a rustic landscape inhabited by few and withering under dictatorship—until a new town manager comes to drag things further into ruin. The nihilistic theme of this story doesn’t feel overdramatic—though it is political by nature—and manages to capture the very real horror of the systems we trap ourselves in and submit to.

For those hesitant to look into Ligotti, I think The Town Manager serves as a good entry point. And from what I’ve heard, Teatro Grottesco is probably one of the author’s best collections. Reading these pieces was enough to catch my attention, so maybe we’ll see a full review of that later.

Town of Cats by Hagiwara Sakutarō

Here’s a good example of how it’s not always positive and glowing here in Warren’s corner. I found this story especially difficult to get through—perhaps because the telling is excessive and overly-meandering. A personal account of Sakutarō’s lacking sense of direction turns to a Japanese folklore story about sinister and secret villages. In concept it doesn’t feel far from Alice in Wonderland. In execution, I feel as if I’m back inside a stuffy literature class praying to God something will hold my interest.

Maybe I wasn’t in the best mood. Maybe I didn’t read this at the right time. Still, here I am wondering if there was much at all I took from this story. It was akin to being lost in a one-sided conversation I sat through with the hope of learning something. “Eating your veggies” you could say. I appreciated the culture and the folklore in the story, don’t get me wrong, but otherwise the rest was lost on me. Granted, Town of Cats is apparently Sakutarō’s only short story, and he seems to be best known for his poetry. Perhaps that would be better to look into.

Incarnations of Burned Children by David Foster Wallace

A very quick read, but no less, a few minutes I probably won’t be quick to forget. Wallace is probably best known for his epic-length novel Infinite Jest, but taking this small dip into his short fiction has me yearning for more.

Incarnations deals with the scarring (physical and emotional) parents risk giving their children—intentionally or not. Wallace’s third-person telling of this tale feels cold and precise, and yet vividly paints the emotions of the characters and their thought processes. It also unpacks one small mistake growing out into devastating results, and ends on a melancholic note I find myself thinking over long after my eyes have left the page.

The film Eraserhead captures the nightmare of being a father, and Incarnations captures that same nightmare with a completely different approach. Wallace need not turn to purple prose to get the emotions across, and the story needn’t be longer than it has to, which can be a great example for aspiring writers.

Well, it looks like that’s it for now. Thank you for checking out this post! Have you read any of these stories? Any suggestions for future reviews? Leave a comment below and I’ll check it out. You can also stay tuned for the next blog post by following at the top of the sidebar. I’ll see you in the next one.

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