Art by Stephen Knezovich
Lost Horse Press, 2016
The short story form is perhaps one of the most enjoyable literary genres. I’ve not always felt this way but over the passed few years, I’ve come to really admire short form authors. Part of this is due to the proliferation of new literary genres. Since the beginning of this century, creative nonfiction and flash fiction have risen in popularity, prominence, and merit meaning the short story has had to adapt and innovate. The thirteen very brief short stories of Wonderland are eerie and familiar making reading them delightfully unsettling.
Samuel Ligon’s prose is at once sweeping and particular making each character voice resonate with a casualness, a matter-of-fact vernacular, acting as a smokescreen for the dizzying nonsense of the stories. Each story is prefaced by what could be called a vintage collage by Stephen Knezovich. The pieces suggest the story earmarked but don’t quite give you much more than a quizzical angle to approach the prose yet the symbiosis is compelling.
For example, Professor Astor’s Unsolicited Blurb is a rambling and debased recommendation of the fictional novel Piss Angels by Tamara Swain: “a cerebral hemorrh of a romp through one woman’s uneventful journey through memory and the state of New Mexico and awakening desire and all kinds of harsh, unforgiving landscapes, populated by somewhat distant, disconnected people who must somehow reflect elements of those harsh, unforgiving landscapes. There are horses in the book.” Professor Astor inserts himself into Tamara Swain’s work (and life) unasked, uninvited seemingly to be welcomed through his flattery. When a book blurb is written isn’t always what the blurb-er wishes the work was? Certainly so with Professor Astor who uses this literary barb to compose a wretched love letter to his ex-student with whom he has developed a crass and unhealthy obsession. Ask any young, talented and/or accomplished woman writer and chances are they’ll have stories of similar to the fiction that is Lucas Astor and that is chilling.
The lecherousness of Professor Astor dwells next to the toxic codependency of Pie & Whiskey. It is a magical relationship between Connie and Donny fueled by meat, prescription drugs, overdoses of cough syrup, and menthols as a summer cold (always the worst) is attempted to be dispelled. As someone who’s just moved to far rural Kentucky, Ligon’s prose resonated with me as he crafted a poetic scene of garbage-trash tragedy:
“Tissues litter the bathroom floor a foot deep, creating a kind of beautiful fluffiness across the tile, but it’s the worst summer cold I’ve seen. She’s been drunk nine weeks trying to kick it, switching between small batch bourbons, sour mashes, and the cheap stuff, even working a gallon of homemade corn liquor her cousin Kenny brought up from Washburne. Nothing works, though she says she’d be dead if it weren’t for all the medicine she’s taking. She switches from Kools to Newports and back again, runs through every kind of cough syrup. We’re about broke keeping her in tenderloin, though she’s never more beautiful than when she’s in the tub, a flatman of whiskey in one hand, a fistful of raw beef in the other, the meat warming from the steam and dripping pinkish juice down her delicate forearm into the bath water as she alternates between medicines, seeking relief. Beautiful or not, she’s not getting better, despite what she takes.”
You can feel, taste, and smell the lowdown crazy here as well as the contemptuous but clinging love.
Similarly, in Sing a Song of Sixpence, which I feel is the best of the collection, we get a fairy tale retelling. The bake and wife of this story plot an insurrection to be carried out via their blackbirds:
“When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing, one tentative whistle and then another and then a keening chorus as they came to life inside the vented crust. The flurry that followed was the most startling thing I’ve ever witnessed, all of my dreams of murder come to life on explosive black wings. I thought of Diderot’s words, ‘Only great passions can elevate the soul to great things.’ I thought of Tammy in the garden, waiting for night, our furious love and hatred, out plotting and scheming, training those birds, and now the magic of their rising on wafts of steam, a flurry of feather and birdsong and gasps from the royal fuck-faces as the birds prepared to peck through their eyes and into their worm-infested brains. The glory of it all!”
Yet these tools turn on their users leaving revenge flat and the targets indifferent. The absurdity of the baker’s and Tammy’s plan underlines the ugliness of obsession. Ligon gives us tales of gritty, all consuming passion that pretends to be love but is regularly and easily revealed to be a kind of harsh rage. The characters of these stories don’t succeed; they lash out believing in so doing that they will somehow be more grounded, more sure of themselves.
Samuel Ligon is the author of three books of fiction, Safe in Heaven Dead, Drift and Swerve, and the forthcoming Among the Dead and Dreaming. His stories have appeared in New England Review, Prairie Schooner, The Quarterly and many other places. His essays appear regularly in The Inlander.Ligon is the editor of Willow Springs, and Artistic Director of the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference. He teaches at Eastern Washington University.
Stephen Knezovich is a writer, editor, and artist living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is the the director of marketing and publicity for Creative Nonfiction magazine, In Fact Books, and the Creative Nonfiction Foundation’s educational programs. He earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Eastern Washington University.
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