The spooky season of Halloween may be in the rear-view mirror, but a Benjamin Percy short story is forever. Creeping dread and anxiety. Forever.
Suicide Woods, Percy’s third collection of short fiction, frays the reader’s nerves in exactly the way he means to. The book is such a mix of genres that trying to pinpoint where it might sit on a shelf is inadequate. Some stories are horror, some are crime fiction. All are mysterious and dark, but the darkness in a story like “The Balloon,” in which a plague quickly brings on the end of civilization — almost — comes from a very different source than the darkness in “Writs of Possession,” a story full of the kinds horror that takes lives in a very real, modern, and bureaucratic way.
The standout may be the long-read “The Uncharted,” which takes a geo-mapping adrenaline junkie to the edge of the world and beyond.
Most of the stories in Suicide Woods could easily be categorized as supernatural stories —perhaps too easily. The characters grapple with what they think they see, what they might be experiencing, with the dark things that might be found right here on earth. Read before bedtime at your own risk.
I talked to Ben Percy by email about writing for thrills and across genres, and the real Suicide Woods.
How did you approach creating this story collection? Individual stories stacking up, or did you take a more methodical approach?
I published my last collection of stories in 2007, so I had a big, steaming heap of them on my hard drive. Of course my editor at Graywolf — Steve Woodward — didn’t want to merely publish a grab bag of short fiction. So we talked about what might make the book a book. How could we curate the stories in such a way that their voices rise together into something orchestral? They’re thematically united — about loneliness, the class of civilization and wilderness, man in the wild and the wild in man — but they’re also stylistically aligned as stories that are neither literary nor genre, occupying a kind of borderlands, and in that way they’re living up to the central maxim of my book of craft essays, Thrill Me.
In the acknowledgments you thanked a writer for a piece on the Japanese “suicide woods,” which inspired your story “Suicide Woods.” What did you borrow and where did you veer away from truth? What was it about the nonfiction piece that spoke to you?
When I read Larissa MacFarquhar’s reporting on the suicide culture of Japan — in “Last Call,” published in the New Yorker — I felt haunted and thought about it for days afterward. There is a trope in horror. That of the terrible place. Hill House is a terrible place. The Overlook Hotel is a terrible place. The Meyers home (in Halloween) is a terrible place. The so-called Suicide Forest of Japan — located in the shadow of Mt. Fuji — is a terrible place. People go there to die. To hang themselves and shoot themselves and poison themselves. I imagined a US counterpart to this — and set it in one of the grayest and weirdest cities in the country: Portland. It’s about that, but it’s also about the anxious, depressive, frayed-nerve time that we live in.
Tell us the origin story of another of the stories? Author’s choice.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson is the ultimate haunted house story. One of the things I love about it is its unreliability — the same unreliability you witness in King’s The Shining. Is the place stained? Or is the point of view character? So I took on a similar challenge, setting my novella “The Uncharted,” in the Alaskan wilderness, a section of it that is known as the “Bermuda Triangle of the North.” Alaska has the most missing persons cases of any state, and a lot of them vanish here. So I send off a team of explorers there, each of whom is struggling with their own psychological demons, so that the reader is uncertain what is true and what is a projection.
Which story did you write first? What inspired you? How did that piece connect the collection into a whole?
I believe “Dial Tone” is the oldest story in the collection. I had seen the film 21 Grams and I had read the novel Mrs. Bridge — and I was interested in the stylistic challenge of a modular story, a non-linear narrative. I thought the form would be especially suited to a mystery, because you’re forced, as a reader, to puzzle-piece all the sections together, making you a detective and co-author. This sort of revisionary impulse is vital to the book: I’m trying to shake up your familiarity with horror and mystery and crime, so that you’re caught off-balance, making you more vulnerable.
You write many genres, many formats. What are the benefits to writers creating and building a career this way?
I write comics, novels, essays, articles, short stories, podcasts, screenplays — but this wasn’t always the case. I started off focusing on short stories alone (that’s one of the reasons I’m thrilled to have published this collection, since I’m returning to my first love). And it’s in this medium — the arena of the short story — that I honed my craft. It’s much easier to realize what you’ve done incorrectly in a ten- or fifteen-page narrative than it is to pinpoint the problems of a sprawling four hundred-page manuscript.
Diversifying my work has not only allowed me to make a living as a writer — it’s also added tools to my storytelling arsenal. Writing comics, for instance, is an exercise in precision. You have twenty pages. Not eighteen, not twenty-four. But twenty. In those twenty pages, you have five to seven scenes, an ABC and D plot, two splash pages, etc. I really could go on for ten pages about the “story math” of comics. But the point is, I was then able to apply this same “math” to my novels, and it made my books so much tighter.
I’m also never bored at the keyboard. Whenever I get exhausted by or stuck on a story, I just hop over to another project, and then return later with renewed energy and a fresh perspective.
By Benjamin Percy
Published October 15, 2019
Benjamin Percy writes fiction, nonfiction, comics, and screenplays. He is the author of four novels, The Dark Net, The Dead Lands, Red Moon, and The Wilding, as well as two books of short stories, Refresh, Refresh and The Language of Elk. His craft book, Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, is widely taught in creative writing classrooms. Percy’s science fiction trilogy, The Comet Cycle, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2021. He is the past recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and the Whiting Writers’ Award.
Lori Rader-Day is the Edgar® Award-nominated (and multi-award-winning) author of The Death of Us, Death at Greenway, The Lucky One, Under a Dark Sky, and others. She lives in Chicago, where she co-chairs the mystery readers' event Midwest Mystery Conference and teaches creative writing for Northwestern University's School of Professional Studies.