December 27, 2017: “Beast” by Samantha Hunt

Happy Wednesday, Story366 enthusiasts! Right now I’m in that blissful time post-Christmas, pre-New Year’s where the world kind of stands still. I’m off from teaching. Karen is off from teaching. My kids are out of school. There’s no shopping or baking or wrapping. Me and the boys sleep until ten every morning and stay up way too late at night. We nap. We eat leftover Christmas food for our meals and venture to finish off the Christmas cookies. We have nowhere to be. Most everyone we know is either out of town or offline. And it’s freaking cold outside, in the low twenties at the high, prompting us inside, away from adventure, away from ambition. We have spent a few days doing anything we want, whenever we want, for as long as we want. I’ve read books, watched Netflix, Nerf-gun battled my sons, and not cared what time it is. Is there a better time to be an academic or an artist?

At some point, I have to turn this freedom, this unencumbered time, into words on the page, finish at least one of the three stories I’ve started, as, you know, this feeling of euphoria, of free time, is what we writers crave. During any given semester, I fight and claw for the energy to write, also when I fight and claw for the time—energy and time have to align, and that’s tough to do, as often as a solar eclipse or some comet passing by our atmosphere. Still, I manage; stories get written. Over breaks like this, with zero excuses, we’re supposed to produce like German factories, right? Literally, I think that’s why I get a month off between semesters, so I can conjure the written word, build my vita, bring esteem to my department. Karen always tells me as I head off to my office, “Be brilliant.” She knows this will include me eating, me napping, me reading pointless articles on the internet, me doing whatever I do in my office when kids aren’t vying for our attention. I might also fit in a Story366 post. Then, and only then, will I take a stab at brilliance.

With that in mind, let’s get to Samantha Hunt and her collection The Dark Dark, out from FSG, one of the five collections Karen bought me for Christmas from this very awesome list from Paper Darts, a best-of for collections for 2017. I’ve read stories here and there from Hunt in the past, but haven’t read any of her three novels (I don’t read many novels, so that’s not surprising). I was happy to get a collection of hers—her first—in my hands, experience more of her work, and a bunch of it at once.

To prepare for this post, I read three stories from The Dark Dark, “All Hands,” “Beast,” and “The Yellow,” and could have written about any of them, as all three stories are striking, wonderful pieces of fiction. They’re also an eclectic bunch, with completely different settings, characters, and points of view, unified by the fact they’re written by the same author, but also by how surprised I was by the twists Hunt takes us on , how I couldn’t have predicted how any would proceed. In fact, I couldn’t even tell you, after a couple of pages into each, what any of them were about or would become about. Plot unfolds in these stories, then changes its mind, then rushes toward unlikely endings, or no endings at all. These were some of the more interesting and unique stories I’ve read in a while. I love all three.

Since I have to pick one story, I’m picking “Beast,” as it’s most likely the story I’ll share with my students this coming semester, the story I think they should read, the story I want everyone to read just so I can talk with them about it when they’re done. “Beast” is about an unnamed woman who lives with her husband, reads the paper in bed, and gets a lot of ticks. At least this is what you would think the story is about after a few pages, as this is what happens: Our protagonist lies in bed, reads the paper, thinks about the stories she comes across, and talks to her husband as he pulls ticks out of her skin with tweezers. This isn’t a car chase or a duel or a passionate embrace in the surf, but at the same time, Hunt keeps it interesting with quick back-and-forth—the dialogue is quick, punchy, and fun—and interesting stream-of-conscious narration. One news story is about a man in Minnesota who works like seventy-eight hours a day, plus gives plasma, to put his twin sister through college, which makes our hero think about her own brother, who hung himself years earlier. So, not a lot happens, but we get to know this couple, even envy them, especially when our hero describes her husband, their good run, as luck, she and her friends randomly picking boys in high school, hers the only one a perfect match.

Where’s this story going? On top of being a relationship story, our protagonist reveals, eventually, that every night, when her husband falls asleep, she turns into a deer. Literally, she means it: hooves, pointy face, fur, the whole deal. Since she doesn’t have thumbs, she can’t leave their little house (they live on someone else’s property and pay their way by acting as caretakers, so there’s a little Shining here) because she can’t turn the knob on the door. So she waits, as a deer, until morning, when she turns back into her human self and then she and her husband resume their normal lives. (And now I’m thinking back to a detail in the first sentence, one that pegs her as nude every night in bed, which now makes a lot of sense—pajamas would pose a serious deer problem.)

Our hero swears that any day now, she’s going to tell her hard-working and loyal husband that she’s turning into a deer every night because … sooner or later he’ll wake up and find out for himself; the fact he keeps a loaded rifle in the house adds a few degrees to the tension. In the meantime, Hunt takes us through a few nights where she talks about her tick bites (which also make more sense), discusses musicals, thinks about a deer-fucker named Pete she remembers from childhood, and oh, right, deals with the affair she’s had (or maybe is still having) with a guy named Erich, who calls her and announce the degree to which they’ll fornicate. Note: The deer transformations seem to have begun right after the affair began, but nothing more is made of that, so we have to wonder about the sorta-obvious connection. Is Erich a weredeer? That’s one question, surely, but another: Is she really turning into a deer, or is it some weird mid-life crisis, some manifestation of guilt?

I won’t answer these questions here, as like I said, there’s more twists and turns on the way, nothing I could have predicted or would spoil for you. Not that I was predicting anything, anyway, as I was too lost in the prose, in the story, be it the twin brother anecdote or the Pete anecdote, or this couple’s familiar back and forth, two people in love despite what’s happened, what still will happen. I liked getting to know these people and could have read about them for pages and pages, the deer detail just an added bonus.  “Beast” is such solid fiction, in every sense, I don’t think me describing could do it justice. This is definitely one I recommend you check out for yourself—I can’t wait to see my students’ faces the day we talk about it.

The other stories I read in The Dark Dark had similar effects, one about a Coast Guard officer and another about a guy who moves back in with his parents, then runs over a neighborhood dog; if neither of these descriptions sound all that promising, trust, me, that’s just the basic set-up for what turn into really awesome, surprising, and exciting pieces of fiction. I suspect all the stories in The Dark Dark are like this, which makes me want to dive back in and find out. I haven’t read as many books this year as I did last year—few people have—but without question, Samantha Hunt’s will end up near the top of my list for 2017.