When they were found at all, it was in tatters.

Reading Matt Bell’s How They Were Found

What do you want from a short story collection?  Moreso than a novel, a collection requires you to start and stop, to approach endings, reset yourself, and then again orient yourself into something new.  So do you want variety, shifts in style and subject?  Or do you think a collection should be something like a novel, with a unified aesthetic and consistency of vision?

Matt Bell’s How They Were Found is the latter type of collection.  The narrative voice doesn’t really change from story to story, and even as the subject matter changes, it really doesn’t.  It’s something like the bread and wine of communion: there are a lot of types of bread and different kinds of wine, but through communion these varieties bring the same body and blood of Christ.  That’s what How They Were Found is like: the stories differ, but don’t really vary. But don’t take that as a criticism: it is actually an impressive aesthetic achievement.  Immersing yourself into How They Were Found is something like immersing yourself into a novel: you are entirely taken into a unified vision, and aren’t really allowed to leave that vision until you are through (maybe not even then).

These are stories about something missing or lost, of characters not only searching for something, but trying to create the means by which to search for something (often but not always what is lost is family, or family member(s)).  And they are stories told by somebody who appears steeped in the plots, imagery, and themes of the horror genre, but also unwilling to follow easy conventions.  Many of these stories are quite horrifying, in a way that words like “scary” or “disturbing” aren’t quite enough (“Hold On To Your Vaccuum,” “Dredge,” and “Mantodea” certainly linger in their horror).  I found the early stories to be intentionally abstract: they seem grounded in a concretely imagined world, yet conveyed to the reader distantly, in foggy, hazy description.  As the book moves along, the stories really start to ground themselves in physical detail, particularly of filth and decay, of bodies destroyed and coming undone.  It is a collection consistent in its aesthetic and thematic worldview (“bleak,” I guess, if I’m going to diminish it with a word), stories that compliment each other and build together well.   Many of the stories on their own are quite good, but taken together How They Were Found is a well-planned work of art in itself (it ends sourly, though: “An Index of How Our Family Was Killed” is a tedious way to end an otherwise fine collection.  If I were editor, I’d be tempted to cut it entirely and finish with the very good “The Collectors,” which would be in many ways just the right way to end this book).

This is a book for adults who have outgrown the horror genre (as I feel I have.  I have kids: I have real shit to be terrified about, without needing reminders), but can still appreciate a writer that can work in shock and blood, that are still willing occasionally to follow somebody into the darkness, but also insist on bothering only with writers who bring seriousness and skill to their work.  But it’s not only for that type of reader, and I don’t think Bell is a writer for only that type of reader.

How did I come to be reading this book?

It was given to me by a friend, the writer Rob Kloss.  Rob’s book recommendations have never disappointed me (unlike his film recommendations *wink*).


One Response to “When they were found at all, it was in tatters.”

  1. Innovation and its Limits « "Books, Jerry" Says:

    […] "Books, Jerry" "I read." « When they were found at all, it was in tatters. […]

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