Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Dark Dark by Samantha Hunt

Samantha Hunt's short story collection The Dark Dark is a masterpiece of weird normalcy.  Each of the stories are so dark, engaging, and different from each other in tone, topic, and style...with the exception being the first and last stories.  She takes the everydayness of life and twists it a bit; holding a fun-house mirror up to the bizarrity we all experience. 

In "All Hands", we follow 3 characters - two Coast Guard officers and a high school secretary in Galveston, TX.  One of the officers is in a relationship with the secretary, and the other falls overboard after issuing a citation to a drilling company and drops multiple stories into the Gulf of Mexico.  The secretary is involved in the political fallout from 13 students who all got pregnant around the same time.  She encounters the other officer when he make it back to the ship after his fall.  The officers would respond to the order "all hands on deck", the officer who fell was "all hands" (clumsy) in handing the citation, and the pregnant teens spend time talking about their hands. 

In "Beast", a woman may or may not be turning into a deer at night.  Her hands and feet harden into hooves, fur grows on her body, her arms and legs thin, a tail appears, her face lengthen and her lips shrink.  It only happens at night; by the morning she's human again.  She isn't sure how to tell her husband - because how would anyone tell such a thing? - so every night she just asks him to inspect her for ticks.  Until one fateful night.

In "The Yellow", a 40-something man, living with his parents, hits another family's beloved dog when it runs into the road in front of his car.  For most of the story, as he gets acquainted (physically and otherwise) with the wife of the family, the dog is dead.  However, unexpected things happen and the dog revives.  Throughout, there are references to yellow in the color of his bedroom walls, the lines on the road, and his soul. 

In "Cortes the Killer", a girl returns home from the city to her family's farm for Thanksgiving, in the wake of her father's death from lung cancer.  The land around her family's home has been developed into strip malls and offices, however, her family has held onto their land.  Their mother worked for a company that sold myth retellings, and an amusement park bought the mother's myth about Montezuma and Cortes' first meeting.  She and her brother decide to ride their horse to Walmart for something to do, with devastating consequences. 

In "The House Began to Pitch", Ada, a new transplant to Miami, decides to weather her first hurricane without any preparations.  She fled her home in Rhode Island for reasons, and has made a new life in rural, Southern Florida.  Her neighbor Chuck, a beer-drinking conspiracy theorist, lives with his sister, a right-wing conservative lawyer.  In this story, the hurricane's overt rage and power is contrasted with that of Ada's which is quiet and internalized - bubbling just below the surface until it explodes. 

In "Love Machine", an FBI surveillance expert develops a realistic, humanoid robot (called Operation Bombshell) to use as a remote-detonation explosives carrier.  She's anatomically correct (full digestive, excretory systems, sex organs), and has some AI capabilities, so that she can converse with her target before setting off her explosives.  Essentially, she's a fully-functioning sex robot with a bomb.  Her target is Ted, a Unabomber-like hermit fellow out in the Montana wilderness, who has mailed bombs to scientists he dislikes.  He and the robot share cups of coffee and he tells her stories.  He sees his bombs as masterpieces of storytelling, actually.  They debate the inevitability of modern society, returning to pre-industrial life, and beauty.  It's this last topic that changes the course of the robot's mission forever.

In "A Love Story", the reader is contained within the mind of a stay-at-home mom who deals drugs and spends a lot of time worrying about all the bad things that could possibly happen to the people she loves.  She wonders why she and her husband haven't had sex in eight months.  At night, she pours over motherhood-based websites, reading about hormones and their effects on a fetus.  The stream of consciousness style of this story feels neurotic and obsessive, with the narrative bobbing and weaving around so many topics that are only tangentially connected to each other.  This sense of unease and worry stems from the motherly love that the narrator feels but is challenged with how to express it in a healthy way. 

In "Wampum", a teenage girl keeps a handbag full of treasures - rare currency, a stick with unusual  patterns on it, a deflated balloon, and things that were touched by her much-older crush, Trey.  She's left alone when her mother goes on a church retreat to meet men, and she invites Trey over.  Many things are traded back and forth as currency between them: Looks, items from her purse, and bodily fluids.

The very first story in the collection is called "The Story Of", and the final story is called "The Story Of Of".  They function as bookends, informing each other in a way that is reminiscent of the movies Inception and Memento.  There's a cyclical, deterministic relationship between Norma, her husband Ted (is he the same Ted from "Love Machine"?  I don't think so, but I can't be sure either), and Ted's half-sister who also happens to be named Norma.  In "The Story Of",  sister-Norma is pregnant, drug-addicted, and filthy.  Narrator Norma distinguishes herself by referring to the other as Dirty Norma.  Norma and Dirty Norma also appear in "The Story Of Of", but this time, there is also Ted's brother's wife and her baby.  And a gaggle of schoolgirl/lawyers, a notebook, and an abandoned mental hospital.  Norma and Dirty Norma end up meeting at the hospital, finding a notebook, and reading their own story in its page.  "The Story Of" and "The Story Of Of" are so similar that I felt some serious deja vu, yet they differ in significant ways.  To quote Norma, "It's never the same; it changes a tiny bit every time" - our memories

There are some definite themes running through The Dark Dark.  The first is, surprisingly enough, darkness.  It takes the form of literal darkness at night, dark moods, dark skies during storms, dark depths of water.  The stories themselves have a metaphysical darkness that pervades them.  The second theme is uncertainty.  All of the characters struggle with the choices they have made in their lives, whether they know themselves, know their own bodies.  Are they really just a combination of chemicals?  Can they trust their own minds?  What do they know and how do they know it?  What happens when how you're living your life goes against societal expectations?  The third theme is pregnancy/motherhood.  In every story there are instances of characters who are pregnant (unplanned and otherwise), trying to conceive, suffering miscarriages, giving birth, and having sex.  The desire for children is so great a presence that there is an image of a child on the cover of The Dark Dark...the image may be of a skeletal torso, and in the center/womb there is a void space that appears to be a small child. 

Another feature of the cover design is that it is evocative of a Rorschach test, with the addition of a barely-visible image of a deer superimposed on the lower-right side.  The main focus of "Beast" involves deer.  In the first line of "All Hands", the narrator mentions back sweat making a Rorschach blot on his Coast Guard uniform.  The Rorschach test was designed to analyze people's perceptions and to draw conclusions about personality traits and emotional health.  How a person interacts with the ambiguous pattern is just as important as the ultimate interpretation of the pattern that is given.  It seems that Samantha Hunt is testing her readers with their interpretations of not only the cover but of her stories.  Perhaps we can draw clues about our own selves in the world through the ways we make sense of The Dark Dark.

If you like stories that aren't afraid of getting a little weird, are beautifully written, and hold a mirror to our own lives, then I would heartily recommend The Dark Dark.  Each story creates a fully-formed world, with deep and intriguing characters.  There may be some stories that grab you more strongly than others, but each one provides a rich and interesting reading experience that I've never found in another short story collection.  The stories are dark dark, but the work is great great!

Librorum annis,