The ReLit Awards, founded by Kenneth J. Harvey, are considered Canada’s “pre-eminent literary prize recognizing independent presses” (taken from the prize’s website, where you will also find longlists and shortlists: lots of good reading).
Serving today, a plateful of the 2013 Short Fiction winner (Ian Rogers’ Every House Is Haunted) with side-servings of Alex Leslie’s stories and Ronna Bloom’s poems in Cloudy with a Fire in the Basement and Tracie’s Revenge by Wade Bell.
The hand reaching to straighten the sampler on the cover of Every House Is Haunted isn’t blood-covered or wizened. And the sampler, despite its ominous declaration is traditional and nicely framed.
But it is soiled slightly, off-kilter, and the wall behind it is grimy and unkempt. There is something slightly bent, and then there is the talk of haunting of course.
Appearances matter in these stories, whether speaking of their packaging of their contents. For just as long as it takes to unearth the reality beneath.
(Though from a marketing perspective, Every House is Haunted is consistently well-presented. Each section of stories is named for a portion of a house – The Vestibule, The Library, The Attic, The Den, and The Cellar – and introduced with a double-page spread of an atmospheric image which suits the setting, creating a sense of momentum even without a section for staircases.)
And that is where a large part of the enjoyment of these stories rests, in the delightful upset of readers’ expectations.
“There are haunted places in the world. Dark places. Shunned places. Forgotten places. All existing in reality and every bit as tangible and accessible as the house next door. Sometimes it is the house next door.” (From “Cabin D”)
For the scenes are often not only recognizable but familiar. A windowless facade that might be just a bar, but it’s not the kind of bar you frequent. A roll-top desk in a university office, but it’s in the Demonology Department. Telling stories around the campfire, except the listeners are also characters in a horror story that is about to unfold.
“Consciousness retuned in what Joe thought was a very cinematic fade-in of details. First everything was blurry and wavering, like the dissolve before a flashback. Then they gradually became clearer, details filling in, shaped taking on sharper, more definite forms, until he got a complete picture of his surroundings.
He was in a movie theatre.
Of a sort.”
(From “Deleted Scenes”)
One feature of Ian Rogers’ style which adds to credibility and a sense of familiarity is the use of dialogue and swiftly executed exposition. The narrative is punctuated with bursts of conversation, stories broken into short scenes and vivid episodes, and paragraphs fragmented into purposeful phrases. There is a sense of movement throughout the prose. (That is at work in the passage quoted above as well.)
“‘So I got the job?’ Wendy said.
‘Your qualifications check out, and you said you like books. That’s enough for now.”
This is completely absurd, Wendy thought. But when Vanners reached across the table and offered his hand, she shook it. It was a job, after all. And if she didn’t like it, she could always quite. Right?”
The characters do not always behave in a likeable manner, but they are sketched in such a way that readers are willing to invest in short order (often through the characters’ relationships to others, drawing on human universals). Even the characters which are not human. (Like I said, it’s all very normal. Until it isn’t.)
In the Acknowledgements, Ian Rogers explains that these stories span the time from his first sale (“The Tattletail”) to his most recently sold (“Aces”), representing his “evolution as a writer” across six years of storytelling. The stories vary substantially, in length and depth, in voice and style, but the collection is consistently entertaining.
Part of that is likely to do with the similarly earthy feel of their covers, which look as though they’d feel ridged or bumpy if you were to run a fingertip across their surfaces.
But part of it, too, is that I felt the same warring sense of want-to-gobble and must-savour as I turned the pages.
From the first poem’s playful tone in which the freakish collide with the mundane (is it a real circus with elephants, or are those strap-hangers at the end of a busy workday), I was hooked.
There was a discussion online recently amongst readers who remembered having kept notebooks of favourite lines and verses and poems when they were younger.
By the time I got to “Swim”, I wanted to start one of those notebooks again.
(That’s the second poem, which begins like this:
“The threads of you
like ink secreted and dissolving
I can’t hold them
and whatever octopus sent out this ink
is floating away too….”)
But by the time I got to “You Write the Poem”, I knew it would be too much writing.
(It would be like the first Adrienne Rich collection, the first Denise Levertov collection, the first Marge Piercy collection, that I borrowed from the library, from which I typed out so many poems that the pages stacked up like a novella.)
And yet I wanted to make note of stanzas like this:
“You take your shoes and socks off
in the middle of the painting.
You have no idea.
You disrobe like a hardboiledegg,
Ronna Bloom writes about her neighbourhood cafe and about glimpses of the sacred in the everyday, about watching television and isolated moments of being.
“The Coast is a Road” is one of the longer stories in Alex Leslie‘s collection, People Who Disappear.
Not that it takes more a few pages for readers to understand the situation.
Not that I will be able to forget the final scene of the story. Not for months, perhaps not years. Perhaps not ever.
This took me by surprise (and I do like to be surprised by stories) because the bulk of the work immerses readers in a sense of the fleeting.
And because readers are on the look-out for disappearing acts, this feels appropriate.
It is often beautifully expressed, so even though uncomfortable and uneasy, with this loose feeling, a sense of being somewhat unhinged, the story affords rooom for readers to admire the journey.
“Trees flicker by like a film reel in grey and green, and the highway sweeps under the wheels until it is a faint line of colour like no other colour, a faint vein on the underside of the sky’s skin, and we drive farther and farther away.”
(Isn’t that lovely? Not only the film reel, which also incorporates an element of distance but simultaneously includes readers, for even this character feels like an observer of the landscape through which the car moves. But also the twinned sense of motion and confinement, with the highway sweeping and the vein beneath the skin – rather than speaking of the blood which must be pulsing or flowing or at least, pooling within.)
Despite the focus on the transitory, however, there is a strong sense of place in the story, and the paradoxical intimacy of discovering and treasuring the familiar in the unfamiliar.
“It rains through the first three days we spend driving the road between Tofino And Ucluelet, drinking coffee thick as paint in cafes warm as nests, walking in and out of shops to finger sea-glass necklaces and dry our hair, wondering where all the people went and when we’ll see some whales, as if they will swim onto the sidewalk in front of us out of the dark blue air.”
The acknowledgement of the impossible lurks beneath the surface of the story, this idea of whales on sidewalks, even as certain truths are acknowledged, painfully.
“I feel something inside me tear slowly away from itself. You are nothing I can keep.”
Though perhaps not in the ways readers will expect, the story does end with a disappearing act. One which I would like to forget.
“But you need to keep moving, need the long pulls of stories, the possibility of a landscape of immediate things.”
There is a delicacy to the emotional intensity of this story, a deftness to exploration of that which lurks on the underside. It makes me want to read more about people who disappear.
The title story in Tracie’s Revenge and Other Stories by Wade Bell is immediately engaging. “She was pinch-mouthed, somewhat paranoid and – or, at least, as she’d often been told – completely inconsiderate of anyone’s feelings except, at times, those of her son, aged four.”
The protagonist has no intentions of cozying up to the reader; she is simply ‘she’, not even ‘Tracie’ for several pages.
She doesn’t answer the telephone and she tosses the cat off the porch.
If indeed she does sometimes consider her son’s feelings, she doesn’t intervene when she hears the boy banging his head outside against the metal frame of the screen door.
But she does acknowledge that she should take him to see a doctor, about the head-banging and about his limited vocabulary and near-mutism.
It’s clear to the reader that Tracie’s life is complicated: there are creditors calling, claiming that Gene hasn’t made the required payments, and then a man shows up at the house with a rifle.
The complications are not itemized for the reader; they are on display, all their sharp edges and gashes.
The dialogue is credible, and as the story wraps up, the reader is left with a curious sense of motion without resolution.
It is strangely satisfying despite the all-too-human contradictions and unanswered questions which linger in the reader’s mind.
I’m looking forward to this year’s longlists: how about you? What indie press stories have you been reading? Do you look to the ReLit Award lists for recommendations?