Review of Next to Nothing: Stories by Keith Banner

Next to Nothing: Stories by Keith Banner (Lethe Press, 2015). A Lambda Literary Award finalist.

This is the real Heartland, full of the everyday Americans you will find all around you, should you choose to look and see. These are not the trite buffoons of sitcoms, not the artificial, overwrought white trash inhabitants of “reality television.” These are people with whom you interact in a thousand little ways every day. The manager at Ponderosa. The sketchy family who run the video store beside the McDonald’s. That reminds me: These stories primarily feel set in the nineteen seventies and eighties, but aren’t. This dichotomy comes about because there are no smart phones in these stories. There barely are any cell phones. No computers. No cable television. Then again, there are still pockets of this nation that cell phones barely reach, where unattended land lines often don’t go to answering services or even have answering machines attached, and where people, when asked if they have an email address, are apt to say, “Nah. I don’t fool around with them computers.” Trust me, I ask that question and get that response often, for work. This is that America, rendered with unflinching realism and care.

Short Stories 365/256

“Ordinary Mayhem” by Victoria A. Brownworth from Night Shadows: Queer Horror (Bold Strokes Books 2012). Edited by Greg Herren and J.M. Redmann.

This isn’t a short story, it’s a novella. It takes up one third of the entire volume.

This story blew me away. It’s incredibly complex but the details are added in careful layers, using repetition in a way that never feels repetitive. We’re introduced to Faye, a student at a Catholic elementary school for orphans. Her parents died in a car crash, hit by a drunk driver. She lived with her grandparents for a short while before becoming a resident at the school as well as a pupil. She’s a thoughtful, inquisitive, sensitive, reclusive, and traumatized child. Everything she encounters gets filed away in the compartments of her mind, to be brought out and studied later on, as part of a quest to figure out the puzzle that is life and death.

The chapters about her childhood are interspersed with ones from her life now, as an adult. Her artistic skill and unflinching ability to look at life’s most grisly aspects have made her a revered photojournalist. The story takes the reader across continents and through time, watching as she collects atrocities. Faye photographs and interviews the “living ghosts” left behind by human monsters.

It’s that fact: that the monsters are not supernatural, that makes this an absolutely bone-chilling tale. It’s hands down the most frightening piece of the entire collection because it’s so grounded in reality. These are the stories we see on the news, about serial killers and genocide and mass hysteria. And though a deep undercurrent of religion runs through the piece, nothing seems capable of stopping the violence.

I first read this story the day the news story surfaced about the grisly murder at the Sirhowy Arms Hotel in Argoed, South Wales. That fact might seem coincidental, but after you’ve read this, it doesn’t seem that way at all.

Every story in this collection is worth reading, but if this were the only one, it would be worth the price of admission. It’s one of the finest pieces of writing I’ve ever read, and one hell of a way to wrap up this anthology.

Short Stories 365/152

“The Specialty of the House” by Stanley Ellin from Mystery Stories (aka Quiet Horror) (Simon and Schuster, 1956.)

I read this story recently, after Steve Berman of Lethe Press posted online that it (quite possibly) is his favorite short story of all time. I admit it; I was beyond curious. I found a copy online and read it in my car during lunch.

It felt very familiar, which is not surprising once you know that both Alfred Hitchcock and Vincent Price adapted the story for television. Those names were staples in our house when I was growing up (as was Rod Serling, and this has a distinct Twilight Zone feel to it). It’s entirely within the realm of possibility that I saw one of the teleplays of this piece.

This is good, old fashioned, edge-of-your-seat horror. It’s not bloody and gory. Suspense raises the hair on the back of your neck, and it’s never stomach-turning (which is funny, all things considered.) There’s a particular detail I won’t disclose, so as not to ruin it for you. In this day and age of “spoiler alert” notifications I‘m tempted to say that figuring that detail out early doesn’t ruin anything for the reader, but I think that’s inaccurate. I think Ellin wanted the reader to figure it out early, because knowing what’s happening and being able to do something about it are two completely different things. Like seeing cars colliding on the freeway ahead of you, there’s not a damned thing you can do to stop it, and you also cannot look away. The dramatic irony quotient here is very high. It’s an excellent lesson in how to do this sort of thing well.