I had already decided to make January a theme month on the blog, and to once again make it Short Story Month, with the goal to read a short story every day. As such, I was looking around the shelves of the Lost Apartment for anthologies and single-author collections, and it occurred to me that I have a book at the office that would be absolutely pitch-perfect for this: The Best American Noir of the 20th Century, edited by James Ellroy and Otto Penzler. It’s a gorgeous volume; absolutely beautiful, and it’s also signed by Otto. I must have picked it up one year at the MWA Board event at the Mysterious Bookshop. But it literally is a time capsule of great noir stories, going back to 1923, and what better education in not only short stories, but noir, than to read this marvelous collection, one story at a time, day by day?
I’ve also ordered Lawrence Block’s latest anthology of crime stories inspired by pictures, Alive in Shape and Color. I may have to extend Short Story Month to Short Story Quarter, and read a story a day until April. Which really isn’t a bad idea, frankly. This is also the period where I’ll be putting together Sunny Places Shady People, the St. Petersburg Bouchercon anthology, so reading short stories should be a priority, don’t you think?
I certainly do.
I also finished reading Krysten Ritter’s Bonfire last night–Paul was at a play.
State Highway 59 becomes Plantation Road two miles after the exit for Barrens. The old wooden sign is easy to miss, even among the colorless surroundings. For years now, on road trips from Chicago to New York, I’ve been able to pass on by without any anxiety. Hold my breath, count to five. Exhale. Leave Barrens safely behind, no old shadows running out of the dark woods to strangle me.
That’s a game I used to play as a kid. Whenever I would get scared or have to go down to the old backyard shed in the dark, as long as I held my breath, no monsters or ax murderers or deformed figures from horror movies would be able to get me. I would hold my breath and run full speed until my lungs were bursting and I was safe in the house with the door closed behind me. I even taught Kaycee this game back when we were kids, before we started hating each other.
It’s embarrassing, but I still do it. And the thing is, it works.
Most of the time.
Alone, locked in a gas station bathroom, I scrub my hands until the skin cracks and a tiny trickle of blood runs down the drain. It’s the third time I’ve washed my hands since I crossed the border into Indiana. In the dinged mirror over the sink, my face looks pale and warped, and the memories of Barrens bloom again like toxic flowers.
This was a bad idea.
The trauma that is high school is something that many of us apparently never get over, and it’s certainly becoming a crime fiction trope. But this isn’t a bad thing. As I said, almost all of us have traumatic memories of high school, and therefore can relate to the characters and the stories in these types of books. Hell, I’ve drawn from my own high school traumas enough times in my own work to recognize it as a trope of my own (Sara, Lake Thirteen, and both Chanse and Scotty have moments of reflection on their own past that are directly drawn from mine).
Bonfire is a compelling read, and very well written. Abby Williams, our main character who is telling the story in a first-person point of view, fled her hometown of Barrens after a traumatic childhood that included the painful death of her mother from cancer, her father’s religious mania and the resultant brutal parenting that came from it, being not popular, and having her best, childhood friend, Kaycee Mitchell, turn on her and terrorize her with a group of mean girl new friends. But towards the end of their senior year, Kaycee and her friends all became ill–with very odd and strange symptoms. It turned out they were faking it, and Kaycee disappeared. Now, there are some complaints about the factory near town, Optimal Plastics, that has revitalized the dying town but may possibly be poisoning it. Abby, now an environmental lawyer for a non-profit firm that handles such cases, is leading the investigative team and thus has to come back to Barrens to not only run this investigation but deal with her own demons. But are her theories and investigation tainted by her past, and her relationships with people from when she as a child? And why is she so obsessed with the missing Kaycee–whatever happened to her? Was she really faking it, or were the girls really sick? And what the hell is going on in Barrens?
Obviously, the sickness of the girls reminded me a lot of Megan Abbott’s brilliant The Fever from a few years ago; which was based on an actual case. And Ritter’s debut novel is crisply written, with a powerful sense of scene, character and plot that continues to build until it comes to its conclusion. I really enjoyed the book tremendously, and resented not having the time to actually sit down and read it through; I did manage to do so last night while Paul was at a play. It’s probably one of my favorite reads from the year, and I highly recommend it. Well done, Ms. Ritter.
And now back to the spice mines.