Every year, I find myself looking out for new books that use genre fiction's tools to dissect the unique strangeness of women's lives. Some emerge from the science fiction and fantasy scene; others from the literary world. Enter Samantha Hunt's newest book, The Dark Dark, part of the same FSG Originals imprint that continues to bring us Jeff Vandermeer's crossover novels.
Like the best short story collections, The Dark Dark chews on some delicious, evergreen themes in extraordinary ways. Here, Hunt seems obsessed with pregnancy — its mysterious introduction, its peculiar and alarming doubling and redoubling, its elusiveness. People who do not deserve children get them, and people who want children can't have them. 13 simultaneously pregnant teenagers mystify a counselor at a high school on the Gulf Coast; a woman who can't get pregnant makes a decision that backfires in surreal and unexpected ways; a woman who suffers a miscarriage takes her anguish straight into the path of a hurricane. On it fringes, we see infidelity and other questionable choices, spiked with fears and anxieties that coalesce into real and often magical consequences. This is liminal fantasy with a solid literary sensibility; sure to please fans of Karen Russell and Lidia Yuknavitch.
Hunt is the master of the lovely and strange tableaux vivant: A horse walking across a frozen retaining pond outside a Walmart moments before plunging through the ice; a dead dog's head lolling lifelessly as a "harshly used work shirt;" a woman-turned-deer coming to her feet above her husband in their shared bed; an FBI agent feverish with love folding his body around an exploding sex robot. You can almost imagine them filmed in the style of Lars Von Trier's Melancholia overture — crisp, slow-motion, swollen with pathos and mystery.
The Dark Dark hits it stride with its longer and more peculiar offerings: "A Love Story," where a dissatisfied wife and mother wakes to a sound in her house, is like Miranda July's "The Man on the Stairs" cut with Kelly Link's many nested narratives; the result is both inexplicable and wholly complete. And the collection is bookended by "The Story Of" — a lovely, odd story about a woman who is having difficulty conceiving, full of odd impulses and hinted-at, unexplored avenues — and "The Story Of Of," where her story is altered by small, profound choices, spinning into uncharted waters, a love child of Kafka and Ted Chiang. These stories in particular illustrate Hunt's strengths as a writer — she is at her best when her stories seem to almost get away from her, crescendoing into feverish, manic beauty. Horror and strangeness are her allies.
But once you boil away the horror, these are stories about middle-class women imprisoned by the domestic in some way or another. Hunt's female characters are full of deep trenches that overflow with sorrow and rage. They are safe and suburban and utterly, profoundly alone — abandoned to their griefs, their desires, their particular understanding of the world. One character gets an email from her husband, full of helpful "life hacks." She writes back to him: "Or you could marry a woman and make her your slave." He never responds. And so the lesson echoes: We all live in the dark, but women live in the dark dark — the shadow of any space they occupy.
Carmen Maria Machado's debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, will be released in 2017. She has written for The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Granta and elsewhere.