Early in Ethan Rutherford's engrossingly creepy story collection "Farthest South," a woman tells her husband to read to their two young sons at bedtime. "They want a ghost story," she says. "They said to make it scary."
Rutherford can do scary, no question: The nine well-crafted stories in his second story collection are suffused with piles of bones, shape-shifting creatures, dark woods, starvation and storms. But Rutherford wants to conjure an atmosphere of eeriness and anxiety more than he wants to frighten. In his best stories, the otherworldliness feels intimately human, exposing our primal concerns about love, parenthood and death.
"The Baby," for instance, takes place in a maternity ward where something isn't quite right with the newborn — it's silent, for starters. Also, it has gills. But the narrator's fears are more existential than clinical, as he gets glimpses into the inner lives of the hospital staff and their own potential mortality. In "Pools, I Am a Hawk," a young girl visiting a swimming pool who's eager to fit in is brought to a forest to visit a shrine to her dead doppelgänger. "If you are Claire's ghost, you have to tell us," a boy says — a peculiar brand of peer pressure.
In both cases, Rutherford has taken high-tension moments — being a new parent, wanting to belong — and balances off-kilter imagery with earthbound experience. (Anders Nilsen's pen-and-ink illustrations, evoking Edward Gorey, heighten the feeling.) And he's in good company among a batch of recent writers who've warped and bent ghost and fairy tales to their will, like Karin Tidbeck, Matt Bell and Carmen Maria Machado.
Rutherford's collection includes variations on adventure tales: The title story tracks an Antarctic expedition that includes 25 boys and a talking Emperor penguin, while "The Diver" features mass flooding and a calamitous battle with a giant squid. But more often the drama is interior, whether it's an uncertain young couple on a trip to England ("Holiday"), two siblings enduring their abusive father after losing their mother ("Angus and Annabel") or two parents trying to get their kids to bed ("Ghost Story").
Rutherford, who received an MFA from the University of Minnesota, has mastered his palette of imagery almost to a fault — children and infants, after all, are easy symbols of vulnerability no matter what weirdness you apply to them. But the fear of loss his stories evoke is potent and never lapses into the easy scares of horror stories.
We read these stories to be reassured as much as unsettled. In "Fable," a woman prepares to tell a story about shape-shifting foxes, the human baby they adopt and the wolf that hunts them. "Is it a love story at all?" a listener asks. "Will we be scared?" Yes. And yes.
Mark Athitakis is a book critic in Arizona.
Farthest South: Stories
By: Ethan Rutherford.
Publisher: Deep Vellum/A Strange Object, 184 pages, $16.95.