Years ago at the Palace Theater in Superior, Wis., I slunk down in the seat beside my girlfriend. My eyes watered in fear as we watched “The Haunting” with Claire Bloom and Julie Harris.
I was similarly distressed reading a short story in Rachel Swearingen’s debut collection, “How to Walk on Water.” At least, I was upset when the ghost hunter plays a recording of “a hollow, raspy voice” asking, “Are you there?” Adding to the strangeness, the ghost caught on tape appears in an earlier story as the recluse Natalia, who rips “tiny pieces from the corners” of postcards and chews them.
I’ve begun this way to show the visceral power of art.
These nine stories, most of them very good, won the New American Fiction Prize. Their author has lived in Bemidji, Minneapolis and spent a summer in Orr, Minn., working in the Boundary Waters. She now teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Not surprisingly, several of her stories feature artists.
The first, “Felina,” dramatizes a visualist’s influence on a Chicago account executive. Visualists rely on light to express beauty. “Most of the world takes light for granted,” she says when they first meet in a nightclub, once a textile mill.
The visualist’s art perplexes, then frightens the naive executive. In her apartment, moth-eaten costumes hang from a line. Light creates unusual patterns. For another art installation, she stuffs and sews “coarsely with white thread … a myriad of copulating forms.” Headless, armless, one figure has a leather leg. Car headlights illuminate the forms.
Felina’s appearance is also illusory. When he sees her naked, “she was so thin, so bare he couldn’t look away.” That night, he feels “her cold, bony feet on his back.” Enchanted and repelled by her, it is as though “he was moving through other lifetimes,” as though perhaps Felina was one of the textile mill workers in old-fashioned dresses, “women, row after row of women, their hands working frantically to feed the machines.”
Most of Swearingen’s stories are slightly out of focus, off-kilter. Something’s amiss with her characters.
Artist figures appear again in the touching “Boys on a Veranda,” named after an 1890 Finnish painting, and “Edith Under the Streetlight.” In the latter, an elderly renter avenges herself on thoughtless neighbors. One of them, a research entomologist, not only borrows money from Edith, but thinks of the old woman as “a wigged praying mantis.” Finally, Edith’s performance art settles scores.
These and subsequent stories end with characters sensing that malign forces, in the entomologist’s case “the melody of the swarm,” have been gathering against them.
In the masterful title story, Nolan, a wanderer, recalls how the violent attack his mother suffered years before has changed their lives. Swearingen’s characters know something threatens them. In “How to Walk on Water,” Nolan would “stay awake all night if he had to. He’d figure it out. Why he was so angry.”
Always in Swearingen’s intriguing stories, this unsettling drift toward the unknown, the unknowable.
Short-story writer Anthony Bukoski lives in Superior, Wis. He is the author, most recently, of “Head of the Lakes: Selected Short Stories.”
How to Walk on Water
By: Rachel Swearingen.
Publisher: New American Press, 182 pages, $14.95.