FEBRUARY 26, 2020
IN THE STORY “Heart of a Bear,” from Benjamin Percy’s new collection Suicide Woods, a hypersentient bear caring for the infant whose parents he devoured puts on human clothing and goes to the supermarket to shop for formula.
“A pair of overalls barely fit around him,” Percy writes. “Over them he pulled a canvas jacket, and though it would not zip, it fit snugly, ripping only a little at the seams. From a hook he removed a hat and yanked it down over his ears.” Thus attired, the bear rolls up at an Albertsons he recognizes “from the commercial that cycled constantly during daytime soaps.”
Everyone in the store, he suddenly realized, was motionless, their eyes fixed on him. No one said a thing. Muzak played from the sound system. In a panic the bear shoved the shoebox full of money at the man and raced his cart out the door, leaving a litter of potatoes and hamburger and canned corn behind.
This goofy and yet strangely plausible scene, in which an animal tries and screws up being human, becomes one of the book’s most pervasive motifs. As Percy mentions in his acknowledgments, “Heart of a Bear” itself owes a debt to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) — specifically, the moment in which Frankenstein’s creature, on the run from his creator, observes a blind man’s family in their cabin in the woods, learning their ways in hopes of befriending them, with some very mixed results. In “Heart of a Bear,” as Percy’s beast tries desperately to keep the baby it has orphaned alive, we feel for the bear (curiously, more than we feel for the baby) not only in his exaggerated anthropomorphism, but also because, in granting him consciousness, Percy allows him to strive like us all toward loftier aims than our natures might dictate; Percy’s bear gains human truth, whether he consciously knows it or not. The house “looked too small to have ever contained him,” Percy writes, as the bear flees heartbroken after the story’s grisly denouement, “and it seemed to shrink farther and farther away as he watched it now and understood that he was falling out of one life and into another.”
On some level, “Heart of a Bear” externalizes a struggle that receives more muted treatment in many of the other stories in Suicide Woods: people trying and failing to be fully human, often at horrific cost. That bloody border between human and inhuman, man and beast, isn’t new terrain for Percy. Traumatized war veterans caught in gory tournaments of backyard boxing, fetishistic weirdos who don animal skins, terrorist werewolves, and unlikely serial killers are only a few of the darksome legions Percy has used in past books to stage his investigations.
Suicide Woods, which compiles stories written by Percy across the last decade, is his first collection since 2006’s The Language of Elk and 2007’s Refresh, Refresh. In Suicide Woods, as in those books, Percy’s stories tend largely toward domestic realism with a generous dosage of bleakness and violence; unsurprisingly, in the course of a career that has seen Percy drifting ever further into the horror genre (the tentpole Stephen King–style epics Red Moon , The Dead Lands , and The Dark Net ), his tales have become deeply Gothic, too. Tonally, the book as a whole resembles nothing so much as Percy’s 2010 debut novel, The Wilding, about a father-son camping trip gone brutally haywire. That novel, woven together from miscreant strands of suspense, Gothic horror, and the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales, featured a band of Cascadian hillbillies, another mad bear, and not one, but two portentous owls.
Suicide Woods is Percy at his most joyful and carefree; he seems to be having a great deal of fun. In Percy’s previous work, right up to Red Moon, you could feel him attempting to blur genre boundaries, a little of this and a little of that; in Suicide Woods, he seems to have obliterated those boundaries entirely. It’s always lots of fun to read, if not across the board successful — like rooting through a trick-or-treat bag, searching for the choicest bites. The collection itself can be broken down into two categories: stories in which the characters’ bumbling attempts at living more fully into their humanity are mediated by some supernatural force, and those in which the characters take matters into their own hands, reconciling their strivings and failings as people with violence or self-destruction. The former stories, on the whole, are the highlight of Suicide Woods, though the latter are not without their charms.
In the supernatural realm, the strongest stories in Suicide Woods (apart from “Heart of a Bear”) are the book’s opener, “The Cold Boy,” the haunting high school revenge tale “The Dummy,” and, to some extent, the novella that closes out the collection, “The Uncharted.” Not only are these entries suspenseful and pathos-rich additions to Percy’s preoccupation with the mysterious forces that govern our lives, they also expand the procrustean lineage of the Gothic tale with tenderness and restraint. Percy manages, as usual, to do all of this in robust, but never labored prose: the visceral lyricism of Cormac McCarthy mixed with the psychological acuity of Alice Munro.
In “The Cold Boy,” the single mom of a spacy tween takes off on a jaunt with her gentleman admirer, putting her son in the care of his lone-wolf taxidermist uncle. Since this is Ben Percy, it may be gratuitous to say that things go from bad to worse when the boy falls into the spring melt of an iced-over pond that borders the uncle’s property, “a hole as black and reflective as the glass eye he’d nudged into [a] deer’s empty socket minutes ago,” only to reemerge inexplicably alive, “his face a white smear rising out of the darkness.” Like one of Edgar Allan Poe’s somnambulant corpses (or one of the kids from Stephen King’s ’Salem’s Lot ), the boy resumes being a boy, but he’s changed — “silent and motionless, his skin white, blue around the edges, like some icewater mollusk scraped from its shell […] the smell of […] mud and algae and fish” coming off him. The boy radiates cold, refusing to eat, save for “scooping chocolate ripple ice cream from the carton into his mouth”; soon, the uncle’s just feeding him snow from the yard doused in maple syrup. The boy sleeps with the windows open, turning the carpet fibers in the uncle’s house into “frozen blades of grass,” staring unblinkingly at the uncle, communicating with him through postverbal “hissing.” And it’s not just the boy we see playing human in “The Cold Boy,” but progressively also the uncle himself. Grimly anticipating his sister’s return, the uncle has a “long hot shower and a shave,” puts on a “fresh shirt.” “He should try to look like someone,” Percy writes, “you would trust your child with.”
To further the Halloween metaphor briefly: if “The Cold Boy” and “Heart of a Bear” are the Reese’s, “The Uncharted” and “The Dummy” are the Milky Way and Snickers. “The Dummy” is a tale of a high school wrestler who adopts an uncanny wrestling dummy to train against her prickish rivals. The dummies, all named “Bill” by the protagonist’s wrestling team, “looked like scarecrows dressed head to toe in S&M leather.” She takes one of them home as a surrogate companion, driving around with him in the passenger seat of her truck, bedding him down in the garage where at night she can perceive his “black, slumped silhouette.” In “The Dummy,” the murderous supernatural force that comes to occupy, or has always occupied the “Bill” is ultimately less surprising than the proliferating abnormality of the narrator’s mind. “She was not capable of the same sort of injury as others,” Percy writes. “As if there was something already dead about her. […] She chased down grasshoppers and pinched them between her fingers and stared at the black spit that swelled from their mouths.” Later, she impales a chipmunk on the tines of a rake and presents it to the “Bill” like an offering while the dummy sits in her truck “like a patch of midnight the sun hadn’t swept away.”
In the novella-length story “The Uncharted,” which rounds out Suicide Woods, a trio of extreme sports media influencers travel to Alaska’s Northwestern “Bermuda Triangle” to track down lost explorers from a “mapmaking tech firm” and film the adventure to further their brand. Here, especially when it comes to the influencers themselves, whose points of view alternate alongside that of one of the tech-firm higher-ups, the fairy-tale sinuousness of the other stories banks on something more contemporary and self-aware, which itself runs the gamut between obvious (Todd “is the kind of guy who incorrectly quotes passages from On the Road. Bleach-haired, soul-patched, potbellied”) and hilariously dead-on:
[Josh’s] friends call him a warrior poet. They have misinterpreted his emptiness for depth. Vacant is how he feels most of the time. Hollow. Carved out. Sure, he’ll throw up his pinky and index fingers in the shape of the devil’s horns and say something for the camera, like: “Let’s own this mountain,” or “Ride the razor’s edge,” or whatever bullshit. But it’s all an act. He doesn’t give two damns.
Josh Wilde, the namesake of the influencer trio’s GoPro YouTube channel “Gone Wilde” as well as its “sinewy,” reckless Do-the-Dew spokesman, centers Percy’s exploration into how we’re compelled to put on human masks when confronted with forces that dwarf our comprehension and humanity. The survivor of a car crash that claimed his entire family when he was in high school,
[Josh’s] body is crosshatched with scars, but there’s one that stands out from the rest. A thick, gummy line that runs from his collarbone to his hip. […] A daily reminder that he lived and his family didn’t. If he dug into it with a knife, nothing would dribble out of him but stale air and shadows. He would simply deflate.
As Josh’s initially uncanny and increasingly Lovecraftian experiences in Northwest Alaska become both a funhouse mirror of and an unlikely remedy for the terrors that have hounded him all his life, Percy’s grip on the narrative reins never slackens. In some ways (and I mean this as the highest compliment, really), reading “The Uncharted” is like settling in for the comforting, schadenfreudian peril of a midnight movie like The Ruins (2008) or The Descent (2005), watching people you like well enough or just barely succumb one by one to some really bad shit. To say nothing of the sinister force that awaits Josh and company once they make landfall in Alaska, when they return again, diminished, Josh carries not hope but a weary acceptance. “Because [human beings] are uniquely suited for long-distance running,” Percy writes in the story’s climax, “we can successfully chase down death or race away from it. That’s what [Josh has] been doing all this time. Ever since the crash, he’s never stopped running. But now he’s ready to stop.”
The other kind of Gothic tale in Suicide Woods inverts the equation of regular people (or bears) in irregular circumstances that we encounter in Percy’s supernatural offerings; in these stories, irregular people find themselves in altogether regular circumstances that, bend painfully though they might, can’t contain them. Recalling the work of Peter Straub and Shirley Jackson, these stories are ones of outliers and misfits who dwell on the fringes but also next door; the violent friction they create trying too hard to not be who they are is primarily what produces the horror. In “Suspect Zero,” a clever little puzzle box of a story, Percy takes the Law & Order/Stephen King–style approach of nonlinear, time-stamped overlapping perspectives to chart the bloody oeuvre of an interstate killer, adapting herself as she moves through her spree to suit the blind spots of her victims. In reply to a sleazy pawnshop owner’s demand that she tell him her name, she reveals her dark-hearted nature like a true badass noir antiheroine when she says, “Maybe it’s Laura. Maybe it’s Linda. Or maybe it’s mind your fucking business.”
The haunting, virtuoso “Writs of Possession” adopts a similarly fragmented structural conceit to examine the tenuous, often tortured relationship of so-called everyday folk to the domiciles that contain them, set against the backdrop of stymied suburban sprawl and the housing market collapse. To avenge a neighborhood-wide drop in equity after a family lists their home for an asking price they can’t fulfill, their friends and neighbors turn against them, making “a trail of gasoline down the porch, along the pebbled path, to the driveway.” After the roof of the house is “replaced by a crown of flame […] [e]veryone staggers out of the driveway, into the street, the shadows playing across their faces making them appear as strangers to one another.” And in the title story, “Suicide Woods,” an extremely unorthodox suicide support group wanders a blighted forest on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, where they enact a grim trust exercise they are promised will furnish them with “a better appreciation for life.” “We take Xanax,” the suicide support group narrates in the collective. “We take Lorazepam. We take Prozac and Paxil and Zoloft. Dozens of little moons dissolve inside us and make our brains deaden and our hearts fizz.” Much like Percy’s overalls-wearing bear or his reanimated “cold boy,” we see the denizens of these stories, too, grasping after a humanity they can never achieve — or one that was never available to them in the first place. Suicide Woods leads us through a gleefully nightmarish gallery of our worst existential fears.
It’s the act of pretending to be human in these stories that reveals the abnormality of human consciousness in a fundamentally mysterious and terrifying universe that so often defies our comprehension: we may not understand who we are, why we do what we do, or what we’re even doing on this planet to begin with, but we do what we can do; we fake it, until. And that’s the most human of inhuman truths.