Back in the day when I first started reviewing and I was writing for the old BSCReview (This eventually became a website called BOOMTron, and we all stopped writing for it, and put our full efforts into Spinetingler Magazine), I used to write a column called “Short Thoughts On Short Fiction”. The column was originally started by Brian Lindenmuth, and he would pick out crime stories from around the web, and review them. It was a cool column, and when I started writing for Lindenmuth, I asked if I could take it over, and he let me run with it. I had a lot of fun writing the column, mostly because no one was really reviewing short fiction at the time and I felt like a special and unique snowflake because I was.
Fast forward six years, I don’t really feel like a special an unique snowflake anymore, but guess what, there’s still no one is reviewing short fiction outside of individual author collections and anthologies.
Now I’m not going to revive “Short Thoughts On Short Fiction”, that’s a Spinetingler thing and it belongs to Lindenmuth as far as I’m concerned. But I like the idea of reviewing individual stories. So what I’m doing is I’m going to be reviewing individual stories on a more or less regular basis. The stories will come from e-zines, anthologies, and individual author collections. And unlike “Short Thoughts On Short Fiction”, I’m not going to limit myself to crime fiction. If I read a science fiction story or western or whatever that knocks my socks off, I’m going to review it, and as often as possible, I’ll try to hunt down great short fiction that is either free or of extremely low cost.
Anyway, the first story up is “Ghost Story” By Victor LaValle
“I was at war and I was in love. Of both, the second was harder to hide, there was evidence. Like beside my bed, three liter bottle, almost full. I rolled from under my covers, spun off the cap, pulled down my pants, held myself to the bottle and let go.”
In my opinion, probably one of the most difficult states to describe realistically is a character suffering from severe mental illness. Most writers have more or less trained themselves to use mental illness as a ham-handed device. Their either suffering so much that they’re unable to function in society, or they’re devious psychopaths wearing a mask of kindness and affability, but secretly carrying around murderous intentions for anyone who happens to fall into their realm of influence. For those of us who’ve dealt with or suffered from mental illness on a first hand basis know that these are caricatures, and that mental illness is crafty. It hides in plain site, and usually you don’t recognize it until it’s staring you right in the face.
What I admire most about Victor LaValle is his realistic portrayal of mental illness and not only the effects it has on the individual suffering, but on their friend’s and family members as well.
“Ghost Story” is the second story in LaValle’s debut collection, Slapboxing With Jesus, and focus’ on Sammy, an NYU student born and bred in the Bronx. Sammy is intelligent, well spoken, and has gone off his meds. LaValle never mentions what mental illness Sammy is suffering from, but from his obsessive behaviors throughout the course of the story it’s most likely a schizoaffective disorder. Early in the story, LaValle establishes Sammy’s level of obsessiveness as he describes Sammy’s bathroom rituals.
“I finished, pulled up my sweatpants and closed the bottle; inside, the stuff was so clear you could hold it to one eye and read a message magnified on the other side. I religiously removed the label from this one like I had all the others, so when I put it at the bottom of the closet with them, in formation (two rows of three), I could check how they went from dark to lighter to this one, sheer as a pane of glass; each was like a revision—with the new incarnation you’re getting closer and closer to that uncluttered truth you might be hunting privately.”
The ritualism of the act seems so normal in Sammy’s mind, despite the fact that if most readers were confronted with seeing such a thing, we would be horrified, and at this early stage in the story, Sammy still seems to cling to a bear thread that this behavior of saving his waste is abnormal.
“I would show them all to the woman I loved, one I could trust; that had been tried three times already—the two stupid ones had asked me to empty them and change my life, the smart one had dressed right then and walked out.”
Sammy’s obsessiveness, of course, extends to his friendships. Sammy and his friend Cocoa grew up in the same neighborhood, but unlike Sammy, Cocoa has matured and has moved into adulthood and is about to become a parent with his wife, Helena. Sammy views Helena with paranoid distain, and automatically assumes that she sees him in the same light and that they are in constant competition for Cocoa’s attention and loyalty.
Sammy believes that he has scored some type of victory over Helena when Cocoa starts to spend more and more time with him as the story progresses. But the fact is, Cocoa is spending so much time with Sammy out of fear for of the safety of Helena’s family, who the young couple lives with, and out of fear that Sammy will do something to himself. Finally, out of frustration, Cocoa takes Sammy to his sisters house in an attempt to rid himself of the burden of Sammy.
Sammy’s sister welcomes him with some trepidation and fear. Although Sammy seems to enjoy the visit, playing with his infant niece and making small talk with his sister. Once his sister puts her little girl down for her nap, she tries to convince Sammy to take a dose of his medication in a cup of orange juice and the brother and sister begin to struggle.
“When I got up she draped herself across the table, spilling the juice and the orchids she had in a vase, the ones her husband had bought two days ago, purple like lips too long exposed to the cold.”
“It was lucky Masai was at work. I was much bigger than Karen, and I could simply pluck her off my arm and leave, but if Masai had been there it would have been contagious, contaminating the living room, the bathroom, their bedroom. We would have been all over the place. But at some point, as I was tugging, she let go. She could fight harder, she had before. Her hands fell to her sides; she opened the door for me.”
For me, this scene is the crux of “Ghost Story”, the moment the reader realizes that not only has Sammy given up on himself, but that all those who loved and cared for him in the past have as well, and that Sammy’s future is very much in flux. He could either start taking his meds and finish his studies, or he could simply let his delusions overtake him.
Much like the stories of Junot Diaz—who LaValle was readily compared to upon the publication of Slapboxing with Jesus—Lavalle tells Sammy’s story without adoration or unnecessary language. The conversational first person narration allows the reader to see the world entirely through Sammy’s hyper aware but clouded eyes. “Ghost Story” is an uncomfortable story, and there are certain scenes which will make you squirm a bit, but it is this discomfort that it conveys that makes it an exceptional piece of storytelling.
If you would like to have an individual story reviewed (this includes your own as well) please feel free to leave a comment with the name of the story and where it appears, and I’ll make sure to take a look at it.