Ethel Rohan reviews Curio

[Note: this marvelous review of Curio originally appeared on Ethel Rohan’s old blog, but it was lost in the transition to her new, shiny real-author website. I’m re-posting/recovering it with Ethel’s permission–LES]

Before I share some thoughts on Laura Ellen Scott’s debut story collection, Curio (Uncanny Valley, 2011), it bears repeating that overall I’m a narrative writer and those are the personal preferences and biases I bring to my reading. Thus I admit I approached my reading of Curio with some trepidation. I like and admire Laura Ellen Scott and I worried my reading tastes might prejudice me against a collection of stories that I suspected wouldn’t be easily defined or digested. However, what I most feared about this collection—that the work wouldn’t be traditional story—is in the end what I most admired and appreciated about this excellent collection.

Curio is an eclectic collection of twenty-one very short stories. The book’s cover is an apt collage of nostalgic, monochromatic, and largely rural photos depicting animals, people, and row after row of tilled, furrowed ground. The collection also contains wonderful illustrations throughout by Uncanny Valley publisher, Mike Meginnis.

Curio opens with “The Second Prettiest of the Daughters” and the line, “Snow forever.” It’s a layered, complex story about ghosts, adultery, a failed marriage, tragedy, and “the wrong address forever.”  Ultimately, it’s a story about what covers, persists and haunts and skillfully sets the tone for the entire collection.

Here’s a great line from the second work, “Bog Redaction”: “The rake moved her up against the brick wall, hiked up her skirt and put his hand in like a pie knife.”

Lush language and rich imagery grace story after story:

Mr. Snow put down his book and looked out. Nothing, just night composed of acrid smoke and the tart jangle of jealous laughter. Moths bounced off the screened slider. Then they settled thick, some of them with extraordinary patterns and colors across their hairy wings. They were the only wild things he loved, truth be told.

— “Drownded Demonds”

There’s also the brutal, chilling, and beautiful in story after story:

Bun started with little kids because that seemed like protocol, but when he realized he wasn’t into rape and murder or permanence he snatched hikers, housewives, drywall hangers napping in their trucks–anyone in reach. He took them back to his broken cabin, shut them in and watched. He’d done this for years, never been caught. Never been sought, to his knowledge.

The cashier at the Food Lion used to be a girl, one of his. She wet herself and yanked the head off her own baby doll in frustration. These days she’s still blond, but not true blond like she was. He al- ways gets in her line, and she smiles at him like they’re old friends. Like he was the guy who played Santa at her dad’s parties. She can’t take her eyes off his cracked, golden fingernails.

All it took was the time to stop crying. A window jimmied or smashed. The door jerked off its hinges. Cabins are like that, pure crap. But it had taken her forever to work up the nerve to try the unlocked door, and when she did she ran right down to the river. They all did, every time. They scrambled away, leaving Bun delighted and sad.

— “Bun”

Another story indicative of this collection is “Onions,” an accomplished and keenly observed portrayal of four interconnected lives: voyeur, scarf lady, Dirty Santa, and the neighbor’s terrier. It’s also another example of the excellent quirkiness, absurdity, humor, and compassion weaved throughout these stories.

The neighbor’s dog howls at the outrage being done in the driveway beyond the fence. Diminished, not even as brave as a terrier, the voyeur steps away from the window.

“Moon Walk” was another standout for me in this collection:

She still has her blue streaked hair and the red jewel stud in her right nostril. But there’s a muddy, possibly bloody, scrape that draws an unbroken line of wreckage from the tulle at her shoulder to the ragged lace of her hem. She’s got one pearly sandal on, but the other foot is bare. Because she sees us seeing her, she ka-dunks backwards a step and a half. But I can smell her, peppermint and mildew like a Goodwill store.

Trespasses, violence, births, deaths, ghosts and all the themes and tropes around hauntings float throughout these twenty-one stories. “Christmas Eve” is one of the tiniest stories in the collection and contains one of my favorite endings from the book:

Men out there. Looking for a ring, a coin, the key to an ancient box. They seek a child, a leader, a woman who understands. Someone to sacrifice or save, it doesn’t matter. O holy holy. O holy moly. Button up yourself. If Jesus had lived and gotten a greasier job and a cap, you wouldn’t be able to tell which one of them was Him until he Spoke, scattering what few stars are left:

“There.”

“Last Seen Leaving” is disturbing and heartbreaking and has one of the most chilling openings of the collection:

Shasta Lemieu ended up in a cow field that they used for overflow parking when the craft expo came to town. Last seen leaving a Metallica concert, Shasta tried to get back into the venue and was denied re-entry. She called her friends, but when no one answered she decided to hoof it back to wherever.

That was eight years ago, and now they have found her remains working their way up out of the mud. Initial ID came from her purse, the strap everlasting, better than flesh around her bones. Inside were two condoms in pristine packets, good as new.

From “I Want to Kiss!”

At night I wheel down the mountain, harassed by bats. Louisa and the lover squat by a campfire made of broken furniture. She’s drunk, luxurious, and her breasts are bug bitten. My phantom mouth aches. When she finally laughs at an Austrian mistake, I force myself down her throat.

“Louisa, Louisa!” I cry, diving down in.

After reading Curio, I’ve come to realize that my reading tastes have limited my experiences and my literary nourishment. When reading and writing, I need to push beyond my biases and known loves. Thus my reading choices will no longer be limited to ‘by whom’ or ‘about what,’ but informed by ‘why’ I read. I demand fiction and all art have meaning and make me care. I care less and less how writers and artists make me care, I only ask that they make me really, really care. Thank you, Laura Ellen Scott, for Curio and for making me really, really care. Curio is lovingly and fittingly dedicated to the memory of Cami Park

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