One of the most talked about short story collections of last year was undoubtedly Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck & Other Stories rave reviews were flying in left right and centre and so earlier this year, when the praise had died down somewhat, I decided that I would give them a whirl. Having not read any of McCracken’s work before (which interestingly horrified many and led them to say ‘but The Giant’s House is so you’, I still need to get my mitts on it) I went in blind to a collection of stories that when you initially describe them might sound dark and maudlin but actually have many moments of hope and humour.
Short stories are always a little difficult to write about because you don’t want to give everything away in each one, yet at the same time you want to give anyone thinking about reading it a sense of what the whole work is about. In the case of Thunderstruck & Other Stories the one thing that ties them all together really is loss. It might be the loss of a partner, a child, an animal. People tend to die or go missing predominantly in these tales at the start and then we go off backwards to find out more about them or forwards into the ripples of loss and grief that follow. ‘Oh bloody hell,’ you might be thinking ‘this sounds like a right cheery bunch of tales.’ Yet whilst the overall feeling, particularly as it ends on the title story, might be one of make sure people know you love them before they or you die or disappear, there is a quirky humour and sense of hope that resides within the whole collection. I probably sound like a loon saying that, once you have read it you will know what I mean.
Once upon a time a woman disappeared from a dead-end street. Nobody saw her go. She must have stepped out the door of the Victorian she shared with her father and son. She must have walked down the front steps. She was accompanied or unaccompanied, willing or unwilling. She left behind her head-dented pillow like a book on a lectern, on the right page one long hair marking her place for the next time. She left behind socks that eventually forgot the particular shape of her feet and the shoes that didn’t, the brown leather belt that once described her boyish waist, dozens of silver earrings, the pajamas she’d been wearing when last seen. She left behind her mattress printed with unfollowed instructions for seasonal turning. She left behind her car. She left behind the paperback mystery she’d been reading.
I am not going to tell you about every single tale in the collection as I think that might over egg the pudding and you would have very little left to discover. I will however give you a taste of some of the stories I really loved. If you go and read any other reviews, as I did before I borrowed the collection, what you will find interesting is that no person’s top three or four stories are the same though some feature the same one or two. Those tend to be Juliet and Thunderstruck itself.
Juliet initially starts as a slightly kooky tale of a town seen through the eyes of a librarian as she observes her patrons, soon enough things take a darker twist as we discover that there has been a murder, of a woman named Juliet, which leads to a confrontation between patrons and librarians and librarians with librarians. The farce with the tragedy becoming truly bittersweet. In Thunderstruck a pair of concerned parents decide to take their daughter away to France, after she is brought home by the police having done drugs at a party. In France it seems that she blossoms and all is well, only of course McCracken has a twist waiting for you and what a twist indeed. I thought this was interesting both in how it brought up the subjects of parents not always knowing best and teenagers just being teenagers, whilst also being a contemporary look at the old historical act of sending young girls to France to better themselves which has happened throughout time.
Somewhere, a dog barked. No, it didn’t. Only in novels did you catch such a break, a hollow in your stomach answered by some far-off dog making an unanswered dog call. Dogs were not allowed at Drake’s landing. Still, surely somewhere in the world a dog was barking, a cat was hissing, a parrot with an unkind recently deceased owner was saying something inappropriate to an animal shelter volunteer.
Two other highlights are Property which tells of a couple who sell their house to return to America for the next stage of their life, only for the wife to die before they leave. Her widow then has to move into a new rental home which is far from idyllic and seems to match his situation as life no longer has the shine, romance or excitement without his wife with him. If you aren’t broken (and then enraged) by this you have no heart. Hungry also looks at grief, though in a very different way as whilst staying with her grandmother one summer not knowing her father is about to be taken off life support, ten year old Lisa is left to her own devices and the contents of the larder and fridge, where she gorges her grandmother to grief stricken and guilty to do anything about it. It sounds funny but it becomes incredibly difficult to read. I should also nod to The Lost & Found Department of Greater Boston and The House of Two Three Legged Dogs which were also highlights but I won’t say more about as I will end up telling you about them all.
I do have a favourite though and actually I would suggest you leave this till last, though it is first in the collection. Something Amazing is just that, something amazing. It is the tale of the children of a neighbourhood who believe they still see the ghost of Missy Goody, who was six and a complete bully, since her death they believe her mother Mrs Goody is a witch and a mad woman. In many ways Mrs Goody is mad, driven crazy by grief, to the point where her grief and loneliness cause her to do something quite bonkers indeed. Yet oddly, because McCracken writes her so well, understandable in a very, very weird way – you don’t condone it, you get it though.
Something Amazing just worked for me on every level. It has a Du Maurier (highest form of compliment from me) gothic sensibility, it is utterly creepy and then utterly heartbreaking whilst also having the elements of a ghost story, mystery and fairytale. I had to read it all over again as soon as I had finished it. For me the whole collection is worth the cover price for this tale alone. There, I have said it. I liked the others very, very much indeed this one though completely stole my heart.
Just west of Boston, just north of the turnpike, the ghost of Missy Gooby sleeps curled up against the cyclone fence at the dead end of Winter Terrace, dressed in a pair of ectoplasmic dungarees. That thumping noise is Missy bopping a plastic Halloween pumpkin on one knee; that flash of light in the corner of a dark porch is the moon off the glasses she wore to correct her lazy eye. Late at night when you walk your dog and feel suddenly cold, and then unsure of yourself, and then loathed by the world, that’s Missy Goodby, too, hissing as she had when she was alive and six years old, I hate you, you stink, you smell, you baby.
So as you can see I concur with all the rave reviews of Thunderstruck & Other Stories and think that the way McCracken uses tragedy and farce, emotion and dark humour marvellous. I also love the way she writes about every day people, everyday problems yet at moments of great endurance in one way or another. I am now very keen to go and read all of her other collections and novels. So would love to hear your thoughts on them and of course on this collection too.
*Note in case you are thinking ‘didn’t you say that book was from the library yet you’ve had it sent from the publishers?’ I did get it from the library in hardback and read that copy in Spring and then was sent a paperback unsolicited later and read Something Amazing another three times, which was delightful.