Sunday, May 10, 2009

Short Story Month – Dan Chaon

Dan Chaon’s take on the horror story is what I love about the two stories I’ll discuss today, “Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted” and “The Bees.” As I reread these stories, the term personal apocalypse came to mind. The world is unraveling for the men in both of these stories.

In “Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted,” which is in 9L’s fall/winter 2007 issue, Brandon Fowler is dealing with multiple deaths. The story begins with, “there had been several funerals of his old high school friends and Brandon hadn’t gone to any of them.” After missing the last funeral, the girlfriend of the deceased confronts him for basically being a terrible person.

Brandon agrees because he realizes, “…it was not the kind of argument that you could win. What could you say? He had known a lot of dead people recently. But was that a legitimate complaint? Was it enough of an excuse to say that he simply felt worn out?” We find out rather quickly that Brandon is also dealing with the death of his parents and living in the house where they died. A good deal of the story is about his withdrawal from the world. The decay in his relationships is mirrored in the decay of the house. He sees and hears things and worries about his mental state. At one point he wonders if he is actually dead and just hasn’t accepted it.

Despite dealing with dark, existential ideas, the story is never bogged down by them. The impulse to turn the page, to stay with Brandon is strong because Chaon keeps a nice casual tone to the writing. We are simply presented with Brandon’s life. All of the dramatic interest is there without it needing to be revved up any further.

So why is the story called Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted? Brandon works at a grocery store and in the bathroom, is “his favorite piece of graffiti: Patrick Lane: Flabbergasted! This had been scrawled above the urinal for as long as Brandon could remember, and he occasionally wondered about Patrick Lane as he peed.” Brandon’s life is not without moments of humor and wanting to reach out to other people. He thinks that him and Patrick Lane, a former grocery store employee, would have been friends. We find out why they could never meet, but I don’t want to ruin the story for people who haven’t read it. I’ll just say that the story is a great, emotionally complex read.

Is it a horror story? I’d say so. Perhaps not a traditional, blood and guts one, but a psychological one, which makes it all the more exciting.

“The Bees,” which appeared in McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales (2002), introduces us to Gene. He is married with a son, Frankie, working for UPS in the suburbs of Cleveland. Frankie has been screaming in the middle of the night with alarming regularity, “it is the worst sound that Gene can imagine, the sound of a young child dying violently – falling form a building, or caught in some machinery that is tearing an arm off, or being mauled by a predatory animal.” This is on the first page and sets a dark, violent tone.

Frankie, we find out, is not Gene’s only son. Gene had been married before and had another son, DJ. In this other life, Gene had been a “drunk, a monster.” After things got really bad, he left them. Now he worries that Frankie’s condition is payback for abandoning DJ, “something bad has been looking for him for a long time, he thinks, and now, at last, it is growing near.” Creepy to say the least.

One of the best aspects of this story is how Chaon is able to maintain and build the dread seeping more and more into Gene’s life. Gene begins to dream of DJ and the revenge his first son might seek. There is the image of the bees, “he remembers what Frankie had said a few mornings before, about bees inside his head, buzzing and bumping against the inside of his forehead like a windowpane they were tapping against. All of this builds to a horrific ending. An ending that will not be ruined here. It is disturbing and haunting and must be read in the context of the entire story. Whereas in “Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted” the deaths happen off stage, the same is not true in “The Bees.”

“The Bees” is a psychological horror story, but includes some of the more violent aspects we traditionally expect from that kind of story. “The Bees” horror reputation is further cemented by being included in Peter Straub’s anthology of new horror, Poe’s Children.

While it is interesting to ponder how these stories might fit into the horror tradition, in the end classification is irrelevant. Great stories are great stories.

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