Reviews

‘The Dark Dark’ Is Full of Sex, Death, and Magic

A review of Samantha Hunt's strange new short story collection.

9780374282134_5e6ebIf you love strange fiction — Kelly Link, Aimee Bender, Karen Joy Fowler, Karen Russell, Twin Peaks, Stranger Things — Samantha Hunt’s The Dark Dark is a must-read title. This little powerhouse of a story collection is not just a rehashing of the literary weirdness we’ve all come to love, there’s something special about the way it’s put together.

In many “weird and dark” story collections (most of which are truly fantastic and not at all being slammed here) the strangeness is a given and the stories feel secure in a way because you can anticipate the tip into unreality. This is not how The Dark Dark operates. Hunt veers from mundane to odd to unlikely to very improbable so deftly that when the truly impossible finally strikes — in a few but not all of her stories — the reader gets a flash of what the characters might feel: fear and wonder. Intelligent and literary, the collection is so grounded in character and emotion that every level of uncanniness feels organic. The bizarre, for Hunt, is as simple and jarring as a repeated word.

The bookends of the collection “The Story Of” and “The Story Of Of” are the perfect example of the range Hunt exhibits. “The Story Of” is a grounded literary piece about infertility, disappointment, and longing. It is occasionally humorous and certainly odd, but doesn’t even strain plausibility. “The Story Of Of” seems at first like it could echo the earlier piece, or offer closure, or show an alternate ending. It does none of those things, instead shattering the earlier piece of fiction about a third of the way through, and stretching it into the shape of an entirely different story about infertility, disappointment and longing, featuring the exact same characters.

The pages between offer stories that run the gamut between surreal and commonplace, and not always in the way that you’d expect. One of the most fantastic stories in terms of imagery is “All Hands,” in which thirteen teen girls become pregnant; although filled with strange and memorable scenes, it’s mostly grounded in reality. In the meantime, “Yellow,” a story about a man hitting a dog with his car, though straightforward in tone and setting, becomes one of the most magical stories.

Lest it sound like the collection is filled with only the unexpected and the uncanny, take a look at this selection from the story “Beast,” which is piercing in its sweetness:

In high school we chose boyfriends blindly, pin the tail on the donkey. I thought he was handsome and that was about all I thought. So I was surprised to find, after we’d been married a few years, that my husband was someone I really love.

Or check out the nonchalant sarcasm of the narrator in “A Love Story”:

Once, I was a drug dealer, back when pot was still illegal here. I’m a writer now. It’s not that different from being a drug dealer. Both have something to do with levels of reality. Both offer flexible hours for mothers.

The latter, “A Love Story,” is one of the strongest pieces in the collection. It belongs in some kind of literary hall of fame for excellent depictions of the hormonal and bodily experience of being a mother. This theme, motherhood, is common in the collection. Hunt explores infertility, miscarriage, infidelity, teen pregnancy and aging mothers with equal interest. Her male characters, on the other hand, are about one third soldiers, one third reliable husband and one third burnout. She also seems to have a penchant for ticks (As in, Lyme-disease carrying insects) in the marital bed. Which is strange, lovely and dark in its own way, too.

And ultimately, the collection truly is dark. Death, sex, and the body are Hunt’s major subjects and almost nobody makes it out of the collection without a fair amount of baggage. The repetition of words, situations and even actual scenes makes the collection feel whole and complete but at the same time, it gives the book the feel of an unsettled mind, and eventually, gives way to the bizarre and the uncanny. The Dark Dark is a story collection with an organic literary strangeness that is a unique and excellent read.

FICTION – SHORT STORIES
The Dark Dark
by Samantha Hunt
FSG Originals
Published July 18, 2017

Help the Chicago Review of Books and Arcturus make the literary world more inclusive by becoming a member, patron, or sponsor. Each option comes with its own perks and exclusive content. Click here to learn more.

%d bloggers like this: