Each mesmerizing story in Benjamin Percy’s latest collection, “Suicide Woods,” is rooted in the uncanny, where the familiar is freaky and the impossible “a white smear rising out of the darkness.” But even in Percy’s eeriest tales, compassion and wry humor infuse the narratives. “Suicide Woods” is more “Stranger Things” than “Twilight Zone,” closer to King than Kafka, and it’s as entertaining as whatever chilling show you’re bingeing on Netflix right now.
The title story, “Suicide Woods,” is about a girl with a kraken tattoo. She joins a therapy group prone to idealizing death, and with her camera and a coffin forces the group to reckon with life. Two stories feature golems. “The Dummy” is about a wrestling mannequin and a gender-fluid wrestler contending with the twists and turns of bodies and words. Johnette, the wrestler, doesn’t “fit her body, and her body didn’t fit language.” Everyone wants “an explanation for the way she was,” especially boys who “studied her uncertainly, as if peeping in a window only to find their reflection in it.”
In “The Mud Man,” Thomas wishes for more hours in the day to get his work done. When a “swollen belly of dirt” births his “own animation,” he gets much more than his lawn mowed and his bushes pruned.
Perhaps the story that comes closest to allegory is “Heart of a Bear,” which is wonderfully stitched together from Mary Shelley’s playbook. It’s a fairy tale unbound, a wild riff on nature vs. nurture. A bear learns to speak and walk upright, overcomes his “blind-urges” for “hunger, shelter, sex,” and believes there’s a “someone” beneath all his fur. He still eats Goldilocks, but he feels bad about it.
In each one of Percy’s stories, the settings are alive — “mold breathes out of basements,” while “cornstalks fang through the snow,” and trees are “skeletal with the onset of winter.” Nature is personified, mythical, malevolent and mad, “always gobbling itself up.” The natural world is often the element that moves the narrative forward or wields the suspense in another.
“The Uncharted” is the final story in the collection, and if I had to choose a favorite (don’t make me) it would be this one. Josh is a YouTube phenom, an extreme athlete desperate to be a hero. He’s exploring the underwater tunnel that “veins its way into Lake Superior” when the “whitewater seizes him and drags him down into the underworld.” Orpheus’, not Dante’s.
Michelle’s heart is stone, “uncharted territory” along with the Alaska Triangle she’s mapping for Atlas, a Google-like navigation company. After a team of her researchers disappears, Michelle recruits Josh to search for them, only to realize “some places are better left undiscovered.” You’ve been warned.
Carole E. Barrowman teaches English at Alverno College in Milwaukee.
By: Benjamin Percy.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 193 pages, $16.
Events: 7 p.m. Oct. 15, Content Bookstore, Northfield; 7 p.m. Oct. 22, Next Chapter Booksellers, 38 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul.