Ben Loory‘s Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day is one of the nicest-looking, nicest-feeling books you will ever hold in your hands. But do not be fooled. The tales inside are not nice stories. Even the ones that sort of end up happily–they don’t behave and play by the rules at all. Loory’s stories are twisted parables for the faithless fallen, fairy tales wrapped in nightmares. They are mysterious, strange and often sad pieces–though sometimes, like Pandora’s box, they are left with just a little hope after all the creepers have escaped.
Like fairy tales, Loory’s tales often start in an innocuous way and create a strange new space for us to play in. Like fairy tales, they are simply and sparely told. But these stories don’t explain away the dark; they open the door to it and shove us inside to spend fifteen minutes in the closet with all of our unnamed fears. The simple way of telling, the fairy tale singsong, the “once upon a time” they sometimes start with–these serve as jarring reminders of the monsters under the bed. Only now there is no adult to tell us there are no monsters. There are, Loory seems to be saying with each of these tales, there are. For instance, the simplicity, repetition and almost childlike descriptions in “The Path” are quite chilling when juxtaposed with the actual content:
The man stands in the bathroom with the gun to his head. Slowly, he pulls the trigger. He hears the shot–and then five more.
He lowers the gun and looks over.
There are six holes in the wall, right beside his head. Six little round, perfect holes.
But there are no holes at all in the man’s head.
There are no holes there at all.
Six holes, six little holes–we could almost be talking about little pandas, or little monkeys jumping on the bed, or little princesses dancing–but we’re not. We’re talking about holes in, or rather not in, a man’s head. Shivering yet?
Loory makes me a little jealous, because he seems to be the kind of writer that has those ideas (you know, the kind you have all the time–oh, THIS would make a great story–but then, really, you have no idea how to execute it and so the story dies?) and he seems to be able to actually put them into practice, make them work, sustain them. This is a rare talent. This is something Phillip K. Dick actually couldn’t do half the time. These stories remind me of something Phillip K. Dick would have written if he could have disciplined himself, restrained himself. They remind me, though, even more, of the wonderful short pieces Ray Bradbury was so good at. The ones that Bradbury managed to squeeze miles of love, wonder, magic, dread, terror, and sadness into even though they were only a few pages long. Loory knows when to go with an idea, but even better, he knows when to stop. He knows what the final package needs to look like.
These stories are very different in many ways from the Bradbury stories, however. They’re a more modern animal, full of allegorical nonsense, teaching moments that go nowhere. They’re exercises in fabulous existentialism, in absurdism at its finest and frightningest. The story of “The Crown,” is a prime example of this: a man rises and keeps rising due to nothing more than chance, accident, and finally just utter and delightful nonsense. It’s a perfect little allegory for our current political system–or is it just a terrifically silly and slightly scary story? Either way it works and that’s how the best stories are. They work no matter what and these stories certainly do just that.
I suspect Loory is a fan of The Twilight Zone. In fact his “The Sea Monster” seems a new interpretation of the classic “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” episode of that show. But it certainly could be accidental (and fortuitous) that his best stories seem to work in the same two ways that the best Twilight Zone episodes work: 1)We’re presented with an utterly cozy, normal world that we gradually learn is not all that it seems; or 2) We’re presented with a totally bizarre world that strangely mirrors the familiar aspects of our own in some way.
In the first vein, Loory gives us a man just watching reality TV, or a girl and boy in love and riding a ferris wheel, for example. In the second vein, Loory gives us an octopus living in the city and feeling quite literally a creature out of water:
In his mind, the octupus pictures his brother–their father–and poor Aunt Hattie, and all those octopi he used to know in the days before he lived on land. He remembers the day he turned away from them–the day he swam away–the day he walked up onto the beach and headed into the city and found the apartment.
In either case, it’s the shock of recognition that gets you, toys with you, makes you care and feel afraid for the world and its inhabitants in these stories. It works its magic in your brain and makes you think think think, like the best art does, about the human condition in all its absurdity.
Loory’s Stories is a book that quite simply expands the human universe for us. It puts its strange tales on display like a spinning planetarium, and provides us with a dazzling array of diamonds to choose from. Ultimately this is a book that falls into a long tradition of transformation through storytelling–of mirroring the weird world and making it something to play with, to learn from, to laugh at–and yes, to be more than a little afraid of. Maybe there are good lessons in this book, then, after all. Maybe we should be a little hopeful, and more than a little afraid of this world we live in. Maybe that’s the ages-old point; maybe that’s the power of self-preservation through storytelling.