Daily Press (Sunday) - - Fash­ion -

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.

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