If the near proximity to Halloween is getting you in the mood for frights and oddities, there’s a new short story collection you want to get your hands on. But be warned, these stories shouldn’t be read too close to bedtime if you need a sound night’s sleep.
The unsettlingly titled collection is Suicide Woods by Benjamin Percy, and, together, these stories provide an experience akin to coming across the original The Twilight Zone episodes around age 11. Percy is a formidably flexible writer who’s written some excellent novels, from the werewolfish social critique of Red Moon to the weird historical twisted take on Lewis and Clark in The Dead Lands to a craft guide for aspiring creative writers and a forthcoming contribution to the Marvel comics Wolverine to name just some of his work. And since this review is focused on spookiness, you can make your day right now by popping over to an audio file of Percy delivering a memorably terrifying reading of Margaret Wise Brown’s children’s classic, Goodnight, Moon.
A top reason to read Suicide Woods is its innovation to hick horror–to that zone of horror and weird fiction that leverages tropes of isolation, unpopulated landscapes, and cultural stagnation to conjure uncanny ambience and action. Percy pens a sort of neo-hick horror that exudes an experiential knowledge of and tenderness for the particular challenges of living in the flyover parts of the US.
Take the story “The Dummy” for example. In the context of a scary story collection, it’s natural to imagine this is going to be a tale of ventriloquism gone awry. Instead, this story plunges into what it’s like to be a teenager who’s struggling with identity intersections of gender and high school athletics. To keep the story totally fresh for you, I’ll say no more about the characters or plot. Instead, I’ll emphasize that this is a story instantly recognizable to anyone who’s lived in a small town in the US Midwest, and therefore a story that’ll be new and doubly striking and strange to readers abiding elsewhere.
Through other stories such as “Suspect Zero” and “Dial Tone,” Percy electrifies the objects and systems of infrastructure that can all too easily be accepted and ignored as part of the landscape and the functioning of daily life. In the process, these stories spark connections between their haunting plots–that burn at various speeds–and contemporary conditions of work and media and information networks that are marking us from the outside as well as the inside.
“The Cold Boy” that opens the collection is downright chilling! (Sorry, couldn’t resist that.) It takes the winter lakescape of Minnesota that Fargo captures and disseminated beyond the state’s borders as a narrative driver for a person’s experience of guilt and awe at such a magnitude that it’s hard to know what has happened or when exactly.
Finally, it’s productive to address the short story that shares its title with the book, “Suicide Woods.” It seems obvious from the title alone that this will be one of the most controversial stories of the collection. This one is intense, and there are some deep ambiguities woven into its fabric. As such, any reader will have to do interpretive analytical work to judge what they think it contributes to an issue that is as sensitive as it is complex. I say this to anyone who might read the collection but doesn’t feel in a position to engage in an uncertain story about people working to live with suicidal ideation.
With that content consideration in place, this eclectic volume of stories has the power to take you into other worlds, or, perhaps more accurately, to flip a toggle that reveals you’re already inside an overlap of worlds. Some are familiar, some are not, but we’re in them all at the same time. Benjamin Percy has traced the code of the doppelganger posting all those random pictures on your Instagram account, and those posts are coming from inside your own phone.