The Short Version: Strange mazes, strange houses, strange people, strange places – the world of an Amelia Gray story is, you guessed it, a strange one. Over the course of the collection, Gray explores both isolation and partnership through a twisted but always compelling lens.
The Review: While I was only so-so about Gray’s last novel, Threats, I find myself already pushing Gutshot into people’s hands. Perhaps it’s the short story form that allows Gray’s weirdness to flourish without overstaying its welcome or becoming too oblique. Perhaps it’s just my own maturation as a reader. Perhaps it’s both, none, or another thing entirely.
Regardless, these stories are something else. Most of them run only a few pages – some even barely a page. Yet nearly every single one packs some sort of punch, some moment of “whoa!” or “eww” etc. The title ain’t too far off: these stories hit you in the gut.
Each story could have a comment in and of itself – the collection, as a whole, is remarkably strong (if perhaps overfilled). I’ll refrain and just talk about a handful that stuck out to me, that give (I think) a decent overall impression of what you’re getting into when you pick up the collection. You can even get a taste of the collection in advance, if you’re a New Yorker fan: “Labyrinth”, one of the best pieces of the bunch, was the fiction for the 2/16/15 issue a few weeks ago.
Let’s start with “Labyrinth”, actually. As the title implies, Gray is dabbling with Greek mythology here – but, as the best short stories do, it lives beyond the borders of the page. We’re introduced to a strange labyrinth at a country fair, given to understand the weirdness quickly and without needing a spoonful of sugar to help it go down… and the ending line, one of the absolute best ending lines of anything I’ve read in quite a while, leaves the story open for you to imagine a little further but doesn’t leave you feeling like you didn’t get a full story. Sometimes it’s easy to feel cheated by a short story that ends abruptly or with a twist – but Gray has a talent for creating a world out of next-to-nothing and planting it in your head so quickly that you can’t help but allow it to take root.
Another great example is “Heart House”. A dark story to be sure, involving a call girl and some particularly twisted fetishists – but there’s almost a humor to the weirdness. It feels, at times, a little bit like something out of Bryan Fuller’s vision of Hannibal. I won’t give away the twist for the sake of reading it, but it never steps over the line into being a gross-out or to outright brutality. In fact, none of these stories do: instead, they exist in a sort of alternate universe, like The Twilight Zone. They are not as outright fantastical as the stories of Neil Gaiman or even J. Robert Lennon, although they do share some of Lennon’s suburban distrust, nor are they quite normal. I suppose the thing to say is that Gray has her own, rather distinct, voice as a writer – these stories aren’t quite like anything else.
Of course, there are exceptions – and those are the ones that are perhaps the most interesting. Gray’s story about Ulysses S. Grant (originally from a Melville House collection of short stories about each President) is the single most interesting story in the bunch, not because it was weird or even the best written but because it just came out of bloody nowhere. There is a muscular melancholy to the writing, a seriousness and a quietness that some of Gray’s other fireworks sometimes overshadow in her own writing – the weirdness of, for example, a giant snake cutting its way through a town can sometimes be the thing you remember about a story instead of the way she manages to evoke class disparity and small-town tensions with that device. But this story, a simple enough piece about a great man in a quiet moment, is… it’s tremendous.
The problem with the collection, at the end of the day, is that it becomes overwhelming. I say this perhaps far too often about short story collections and so I should, perhaps, let it go as an issue – but the collection has too many stories and the cumulative effect is one of numbness, even if you take (as I did) nearly a month to read them all. You become inured to the weirdness and the stories towards the back of the collection don’t land with as much of a hit as those earlier ones, like a fighter coming to the end of several rounds. It doesn’t diminish the actual power of the earlier ones – just makes you wish they’d called it a match a little bit sooner.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. Gray’s stories are straight-up weird, folks – not capital W weird but just, like, the kind of creepy friend who you know you shouldn’t leave alone with strangers. And you know that if the story starts weird, it’s only going to get weirder – and that if it starts normally, it’s probably going to twist weird by the end. Even the stories that don’t get strange have a lingering power, a sort of late-autumn-evening magic to them. Few of them run more than a few pages – few of them need to. I thought her novel was good, but I thought this collection was great.