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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Book Review: How They Were Found by Matt Bell

How They Were Found, by Matt Bell, Keyhole Press, Nashville, Tennessee, 2010. Review by Debrah Lechner. Fiction collection.

It’s not what is grotesque about Matt Bell’s characters that transfix the reader, it’s what is so human and commonplace about them. It’s impossible not to identify with even the most psychologically disfigured of these people, and that is one of the elements that creates such urgency to read more of Bell’s stories.

The span of emotional range in these stories is also astonishing. “The Cartographer’s Girl” is one of the most affecting stories of lost love that I have ever read. By the time we meet him, the cartographer is the one who is lost, but he still searches for the girl, making marks on the map of the city:

! is any place she woke up after sleepwalking, any place he found her,
disoriented and scared.

X is nowhere, X is now, X is never mind.
X is all he has left.

In another story, “Hold on to Your Vacuum,” a punishing teacher puts a drill to the head of a pupil who has a difficult time lugging his vacuum from place to place. It soon becomes obvious it is a contest:

And then there is the drill bit again, pressed against my forehead, already biting through.
I say, I don’t want to play anymore.
I say, it’s not fair to everyone I hurt if I can forget about what I did.

I say, You cheated. You never explained the rest of the rules. You never told us there
Was a chance that we could win too.

In the horror of this story, there is a commonality of experience, and its insanity makes perfect sense.

There are many other bizarre pleasures to be found in this volume. The rewriting of Little Red Riding Hood in “Wolf Parts” revives the original childhood horror of that story. The final piece, “An Index of How Our Family was Killed,” is exactly what the title says, the details of events that decimated a family told in alphabetical order. It is innovative and effective. It manages to both follow and depart from a traditional story arc, and because it succeeds in this, it is all the more filled with suspense.

One of the showpieces in this collection is the story “Dredge,” first published by HFR in Issue #45 and then selected to be part of the Best American Mysteries series. Other work has been included in the anthology Best American Fantasy, and his stories have appeared in numerous publications. You can read “Dredge” in its entirety in the archives at Check out Matt’s website to see some more samples of his work, and then purchase a copy of How They Were Found for your personal library.

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