In order for a collection of short stories to work, the reader must be pulled into the narratives and settings as quickly and thoroughly as possible. In Vampire Conditions, a slim volume of grotesque stories by Brian Allen Carr, the immersion and compassion is palpable from each opening sentence. We are past the tipping point, along for the ride, and the destinations are always unexpected. These are cautionary tales bound with bruised human flesh, taut and cracking from the tension.
Carr’s stories are mostly rural, and he takes full advantage both of wide expanses of land and of emotion to show us how things unfold when nobody is looking. Take these opening lines from the first story, “The Paint From Her Hands”:
“When the baby came dead they held her for a few hours on the kitchen floor with their legs tangled in the purged amniotic fluid, and Tabitha cried with her head thrown back against the refrigerator door, but Barrow didn’t say a thing. He even breathed quiet, drawing the burnt-almond scented air through his nose, his thoughts as puzzled as dust floating in light. They had been to the flea market the week before and had seen a woman with a stand where she made dolls in the likeness of real babies for mementos, and they had smiled and laughed with her and had said they’d see her in a few weeks, and the doll maker held her hand against Tabitha’s belly…”
What a horrible moment, this tragedy, vividly unfolding in front of us. We get a sense of their unique world in his name—Barrow (not much of a stretch from barren, I think, or sorrow). And with the ominous doll maker, we feel a bit of the supernatural, the promise of seeing them again—and soon. It’s that twist, the dolls, that takes us in an unexpected direction. The reaction of parents (who are no longer parents) is filled with anger, desperation, and loss.
This hint of the unknown, this danger, is always there, right from the start, pulling us down the rabbit hole as we root for (or against) characters that struggle to find their way in the world. Again, a strong hook in “Lucy Standing Naked,” as we start the second story with a kiss:
“Lucy Colon kissed at strangers in the hall. She’d hold her face cold and still as winter concrete for the most part, but when she neared the strangers, got a step away, she’d turn her face toward them, pucker up, and suck a kiss through her lips. Most strangers wouldn’t even notice. Some would turn their heads unsure. Others might flinch at the sound, brushing their ears with their fingertips as though shooing away a fly. I only knew because she told me.”
We are let in on a secret, some kind of witchcraft perhaps, or maybe just the games kids play. Who knows? We have to read on to find out. But in that vulnerability, that risk taking, we ask her to do it again, to see what will happen, unsure whether the reaction will be positive or negative, but wanting to see something develop nonetheless.
Immersion. Compassion. And running through it all, dysfunction. Because we want to see things go wrong, we want to peer deep into the darkness, to witness the base desires of humanity, to gape at deviants as they try to fill the voids left behind by abuse, neglect and manipulation. Take this example from “A Brief OK”:
“The only real friend I had was this lady I paid for hand jobs at the library. She was hideous. Her skin was near the same color as the clump of dead baby that fell from my wife’s hiney, and I’m not sure how old she was, but I think she was going bald. I’d give her a twenty and she’d spank me off in the poetry section, we’d both be sitting on one of those weird canister things that you can stand on in the library to reach the top shelves, and I’d tell her about everything that was bothering me as she diddled me off—that funny flickering sound that hand jobs make. She didn’t ever really talk much, and when she did it sort of sounded like she was under water or afraid that if she opened her mouth too much her bottom teeth would fall out. She was always checking out books about “horseys,” and she always wanted to show me some of the pictures while she smiled. Yeah, come to think of it, she may have been a bit retarded.”
Where do you go from there? That’s all kinds of wrong, and yet, a part of us wants to laugh, while at the same time stone the man to death. But we also want to leave the poor slobs to their distorted salvation. Whatever the reaction, it’s hard to look away.
It is likewise in “Corrido,” a story about a teacher merely trying to do his best to save a few lost souls. When our protagonist opens the story by wiping the dirty butt of a handicapped boy, the shocking moment is disorienting, and the reader, unsure of what is happening, falls into the story of stunted emotions and mental limitations, worked over by Carr and left diminished, a bit of us dying inside.
It’s not a stretch to see glimpses of Denis Johnson, Ron Rash, and Daniel Woodrell in the writing of Brian Allen Carr. His settings are lush and yet bleak, his characters damaged but not beyond repair, his conclusions sad, but not without a ray of glimmering hope. In Vampire Conditions we are drained, and yet made eternal—forever altered, but still intact.