May 2015

Vanessa Willoughby

fiction

Gutshot: Stories by Amelia Gray

Amelia Gray's third story collection, Gutshot, is just as viscerally sharp as it is cunningly clever. The collection is divided into five parts, recalling the five senses of perception. As her peers and literary critics have noted, Gray is not an author that can be neatly fit into one category or defined genre. Her narrative style is one that mixes dark humor with the outright grotesque, creating an experience compacted with the power of a knockout punch. In his review of Museum of the Weird for The New York Times, J. Robert Lennon marveled at the seemingly effortless execution of her distinct prose: "I don't know what kind of process Gray employed to write the twenty-four uncategorizable stories in her eccentric and intermittently arresting new collection, but they bear the signs of having been born overnight."

Indeed, as the reader traverses the narrative landscape punctuated by flashes of body horror and the depravity of the human condition, Gray never lets the oddities overpower her steady control of the prose. Part One features several stories stretching the absurdities of romantic and/or emotional entanglement, while others focus on the limits of emotional depravity. In these stories, couples pass the time in a passive stupor, a demolished house that once guarded the twisted secrets of its owners continues to exude the energy of its buried depravity, a little boy literally can't stop puking, and an entire town demolishes a revered cemetery. Nothing sacred remains because it's a forgiving condition that's never guaranteed. There is no such thing as negotiable fate; existence is bookmarked by punishment. For example, the second story entitled "House Heart," wields the double-edged sword of a self-assured voice that is not only clinical but detached. The horrors that occur in the house seem to absorb into the floors and the walls, generating an inner energy or heart pounding with equal parts suffering and magnetic attraction.

Part Two may cast its all-knowing eye on different sets of misfit sinners but the prose and the quick-witted usage of language remains unflinching. Gray has the ability to make a few acerbic pages feel dense with unspoken history. This is best shown in "The Death of James," which is a story that ends with the bloody death of said unfortunate soul. The opening sentence of "Away From" seems to promise an untimely ending with its grim echoes of Looking for Mr. Goodbar-esque fate. The aptly named "Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover" is delightfully deranged, a fine-tuned work of despair that resembles a truth of the human experience. The final line expels the sentimentality of such a recognizable expression.

In an interview with Vice, Gray says:

I never grouped [the stories] while I was writing them. It was the last thing I did -- printed out every story and spread them around my bedroom while moving things around, with notes scrawled on them. Then I was like, "OK, these are fables.".[...] I wanted to group it in a way so that people wouldn't feel overwhelmed, or could look at each one as a sort of mini-book.

The stories in Gutshot can be thought of as fables, namely because the limits of believability are heightened to the magical thinking of fairytale proportions. Part Three heavily plays into the concept of fairy tales and how they can retain a sense of authenticity based in reality. The story "Labyrinth" uses the familiar monster from Greek mythology to transform a country fair into a nightmare echoing Stephen King. The fate of the protagonist seems doomed from the start but Gray manages to make the inevitable feel like a surprise. There is nothing laborious about the progression of Gray's stories, her prose sometimes as cool as icy water from a burst fire hydrant.

Part Four turns its focus to bodily horror, from a first date turned into destructive anarchy to a man who becomes enamored with a tumor-like mass born with teeth. Part Five ends with a story entitled "The Tower," which describes a mother's strained relationship with her only daughter, who is literally in love with a pile of crumbling bricks. Told from the perspective of the mother, the reader cannot help but feel a conflicting mixture of sympathy and annoyance. One can recognize the disappointment of the mother but feel repelled by her overwhelming need for endless gratitude and worship disguised as parental loyalty. She is not Mommie Dearest but she is not June Cleaver, positioned somewhere in between, her love serving as a replenishing debt.

Gutshot is a successful short story collection that dances between morbid and humorous, turning even the most ordinary of situations into a test of character. Although Gray's style is distinctive, her writing never feels stale, tired, or dated. Each story manages to say so much in the space of a few hundred words. This is testament to Gray's storytelling abilities, transforming acts of debasement into thrilling revelations.

Gutshot: Stories by Amelia Gray
FSG Originals
ISBN: 978-0374175443
224 pages