Book reviews by Mobilism's Book Review team
Feb 11th, 2020, 2:21 am

TITLE: The Dark Dark: Stories
AUTHOR: Samantha Hunt
GENRE: Fiction, Literary Fantasy
RATING: ★★★★☆


It turns out having high expectations before reading The Dark Dark by Samantha Hunt proved not a problem as I had feared. This rich, ripped tapestry of a story collection is embedded with such unfettered weirdness that I was left both satisfied - and weirdly uneasy. The honed, unusual prose that Hunt employs adds richness to the reading experience; on almost every page there is a sentence to delight in...
"My pizza slice has left a German shepherd–shaped grease stain on its paper plate. There's no denying that strange things happen in the state of Texas."

As each story came slowly into focus, Hunt's ability to pull emotional and creative depth out of what could have been rather cliché short story premises impressed me: a cheating wife turns into a deer at night; a woman failing to get pregnant meets a doppelganger; a man kills a dog twice. Instead of falling into cliché, Hunt hurls us deep into dream territory. And these dreams are the kind that invade waking life. The stories in The Dark Dark are, in some senses, a kind of magical realism horror collection, but Hunt’s stories feel real rather than fanciful. As she wrote in her previous book, Slipfoot, "History holds up one side of our lives and fiction the other." This is never truer than in The Dark Dark.

Commenting on and summing up short story collections, which by their nature indicate variety, can be a great challenge. Not so here. The tightly tied themes, the meta, hold Hunt’s stories together like magnets. Pregnancy in all its forms seems to be a constant subject throughout the collection, whether it is corporate pregnancy as seen through the prism of a large group of teenagers, or seen through the two stories of a woman called Norma who is desperate to get pregnant, or whether it is metaphorical pregnancy like in the story Yellow, in which a man living with his parents has a sudden change of perspective on life, a fermenting within him: "He’d turned. He’d fermented into something wonderful and open, something porous and bright yellow."

Hunt is a writer who clearly plans ahead, but she holds a remarkable ability to let her trains run off the rails and into the wild. In each story is a clearly defined starting point where we become aware of the characters, and from that moment Hunt’s stories accelerate downhill, sideways, inside out, often finishing themselves off in some kind of prickly ending. Life spins out of control for the people of The Dark Dark, spins into unknown territories, where reality weirdly distorts. Pregnant girls float into the skies, people transform into animals, a sexual predator and his prey’s roles are swapped in a sudden moment, the hidden turmoil of a woman’s soul is revealed in the midst of a Florida hurricane. And with these characters, we spin into unknowable darkness.

The bookended first and final stories are the most tightly entwined, with the same character Nora meeting a doppelganger in each instance. However, each story deviates in extreme directions by the dénouement. As if riffing on a foundational tune, the other stories in The Dark Dark seem to build on the Nora story’s themes, slowly twisting events into weird, surprising, painful outcomes.

My favorite story of the collection, All Hands, centers around a group of fifteen teenage girls who all at once are found to be pregnant. The how and why of these pregnancies are never fully revealed; instead, the examination of the ramifications of this mysterious dilemma is explored through dumbfounded male and cynical female points of view...
"One pregnant teenager is a broken home. Thirteen pregnant teenagers is a Category 5 hurricane barreling toward Galveston."

The teens are physically present with the adults but are spiritually and emotionally unreachable. This distance between the girls and those who worry about them, sleep with them, are responsible for them, is emphasized throughout - until the girls transform into new a form and leave the world behind...
"We don’t know the alphabets they use, but we can read a curve. We see a girl’s reflection. We tilt our faces toward their glow, warmed by their light, their meaning bubbling up from a dark sea."

It’s a strange, dark tale that ends in a welcome metaphysical release. The story reminds us of the chasm between generations, and the impossibility of one individual being able to truly help or reach another...
"Who can say how long it will be before the rest of us understand girls? Deserve them? How long until it is safe."

Other standout stories include Beast, which examines cheating and inner transformation; in this case, a physical change of the narrator from a human into a doe. In Yellow, a man and woman have a sudden illicit encounter, producing reanimated life. Cortes the Killer, about a woman returning home on thanksgiving, ends in a death, and The House Began To Pitch is a story about the unraveling of the narrator during a Floridian hurricane. Love Machine is a strange story about the two men living underneath a nuclear weapon.

Featuring throughout The Dark Dark are honest human thoughts on the entrapments of regular relationships, on the fears of meaninglessness, the emptiness of life and the inability of true communication. The powerful final story in some ways wraps up the meta-narrative, yet also deliberately leaves loose ends, with the words...
“Let’s not do this,” she says. “I don’t want to know how it ends.”
“You don’t? But we’ve come so far. It seems like we have to go through with it.”
“Can’t you already kind of guess what’s going to happen?”
“Well, I can.”
“Then go ahead, guess.”
“Well. Either good will win—”
“Or else bad will.”
“Yeah, but which one is it?”
“Good or bad?”
“I can’t quite tell yet.”
‘“Well, guess,” Norma says. “Guess.”

As I said, this story collection affected me in strange ways as I read it over the Christmas holidays. So many of Hunt’s sentences were electrifying, but the finishing of each story left me tired, brain numb, in need of a cup of tea and a lie-down; it is that kind of book. It doesn’t just speak to you, it takes from you as you read, it demands your attention, it twists your head and forces you to look and consider how much is unsaid, how much dark we can fit in darkness. Like the title itself, the collection doubles down, flips and repeats, reinforces its ideas with inky shadows. These stories feel like they could be studied, explored and picked over by college classes for years to come. It’s not just Hunt’s prose but also the power behind her thinking that leaves the scars on her readers. We all are imploding in some way or, as Alex Garland says, experiencing some form of self-annihilation; The Dark Dark forces you to see look into that destructive force. Destructive forces. That unraveling of the soul can be found and experienced in all of us.
Feb 11th, 2020, 2:21 am