Of course, I have wondered: if I were to knock out a cord, or with a misplaced elbow switch off the device, might I get from her an angry buck, or a livid kick, and maybe some life. Fingernails on the back in retribution would still be fingernails on the back.
Poyner’s work as a poet elevates his language and brings an acute awareness to the psychology of his characters. The stories are often reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s, with sinister undertones and narrators unraveling over their obsessions.
Several stories over-indulge in male fantasies, including young women going out of their way to sleep with much older men or being inexplicably overcome with insatiable desire. There are a slew of tales about partially human women, especially mermaids, and amid these are a few too many descriptions of mermaids’ naked breasts pressed against the tanks that imprison them. Some female characters are wellrounded individuals with their own motives and ambitions, but the issue is that the women who are hypersexualized are never also realized into full characters. However, we’re never in any one story’s world for very long and if one feels too uncomfortable, it’s only a couple pages until we’re plunged into the next.
The strongest stories leave the reader lingering before they turn the page, showing a glimmer of an irreversible future, whether ominous or optimistic. The stories are ordered effectively to break up the heavier moments with welltimed reprieves, whether it be through newfound friendship with a monster, a boost in self-esteem, or a freshly discovered sisterhood. The stories that leave the deepest imprints are those that serve as allegories for issues in our own world without being heavy-handed. One of the most poignant is “The Progressive Reversal,” in which the inhabitants of a village are not people but sentences. Yes, sentences, with their nouns and verbs and, most important, ending punctuation, as the story explains:
Coming to a conclusion about one’s neighbors was not difficult: they were each but one sentence. Judgments of character might get caught on a set of parentheses, or twist on a hyphen, but there were not enough syllables to get far afield.
At first, such surreal subjects do not readily parallel our world, but there is something special when the story subtly nudges the reader toward that understanding:
Each of us knew the others well enough … to understand that at night, in the deep well of the lost hours, in our wet and panting imaginations, in all of us there were the literacies of the dim, swallowing shadows of a coming pagination.
It is admirable just how many different universes these stories encompass while still managing to mirror our own, but some go a little too far beyond comfort. At times, the epiphany that ends each story is deeply unsettling, including, at the bleakest points, increasingly disturbing bestiality and impending child rape. With such short stories, it can get psychologically challenging to come to such a dark realization and then continue blindly into the next tale. Sometimes it is necessary to pause before continuing.
Ultimately, “The Revenge of the House Hurlers” is a deep dive into human nature, peeling back the layers to reveal the darkest corners. Across the collection, Poyner succeeds in making the mundane fantastical and the fantastical mundane. From anthropomorphized vending machines to intergalactic bartenders, many of the stories at first feel lighthearted or even silly, but they end on eerily haunting ideas and ambiguity. We don’t know if the future will be good or bad, but we do realize that there is no returning to “normal,” which certainly hits close to home in the time of a global pandemic. In the end, though, for better or worse, human nature always prevails, and we must simply ride out the story until we reach its destination.
Jackie Mohan teaches composition and literature at ODU, where she earned her master of fine arts degree in its creative writing program.