Horrifying and humbling in their imaginative precision, the stories of Sarah Goldstein’s collection, Fables, awaken the tension between human and nonhuman in these haunting vignettes.
The title of Sarah Goldstein’s debut collection from Tarpaulin Sky Press, Fables, is deceptively simple. Even the cover, featuring artwork by Goldstein, is spare and unadorned. However, the compression and fusion that this story collection inflicts on the ancient form of the fable results in a world where the “dogs of the town lie in a heap and cough, shuddering with every breath,” advice comes in the form of “[h]ide your lover in a bale of straw. Cut her breath with a scythe and hang her in wire,” and any expected moral clarity is distorted in the “insensible forest” of Goldstein’s imagination. Indeed, the fables of Fables are anything but simple: Pastoral scenes are corrupted by cursed transformations, home and identity become sites of violence and confusion, and the line between the human and the nonhuman, marked by magic and brutality, is continually in flux, being realigned.
Arranged in five sections, the first and last acting as prologue and epilogue, Fables oscillates between stories, typically less than a page long, which may or may not take place in the same time, or even in the same world. This ontological haziness serves Fables, elegantly jolting the reader between realities and thwarting spatial and linear expectations. However, because each story is so brief and so much takes place from story to story, Fables is perhaps best read without discretion for beginning or end. Regardless, these stories illuminate themselves through their common interest in exploring the liminal spaces between human and nonhuman, natural and supernatural, and ripping open the differences to see what bleeds out.
In one story, a young couple fears some unnamed darkness in their home. The situation becomes dire as the woman “rubs her temples until the bone appears.” Then,
They throw poisoned bread up into the attic and quickly shut the door. They hear something trashing, moaning, spitting in agony, so violent that cracks appear in the ceiling. Dragging it out to the backyard the next night proves difficult. Doorways are sawed apart, every piece of linen in the house is enlisted to wrap and sop. Outside, they see curious raccoons and deer gathered in the brief sweep of the flashlights – drawn by what, she can’t imagine. Her bandaged head is throbbing. Their garage fills with smoke.
A tension between the known and the unknown, charged with a menacing ambiguity, pulses through Goldstein’s language. Antiquated elements (“poisoned bread”) mix with contemporary moments of horror (“the brief sweep of the flashlights”) to create a wholly new kind of fable, one with implications that are discomforting and threatening in their lack of resolution. In the introduction to the new anthology of contemporary fairy tales and fables, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, Kate Bernheimer observes that “the proliferation of magical stories…is correlated to a growing awareness of human separation from the wild and natural world. In fairy tales, the human and animal worlds are equal and mutually dependent. The violence, suffering, and beauty are shared.” Such “violence, suffering, and beauty” are everywhere present in Fables as Goldstein empathizes with and animates the nonhuman natural world, often to unsettling ends. The “curious” natural world appears to be on guard, judging human action, poised for retribution. Indeed, the nonhuman world is continually on the offense in Fables, desiring, if not celebrating, the destruction of the human, but it’s not as if such retribution isn’t due. Fables is full of characters, from hunters to children, who abuse, neglect, and defy their environments.
But don’t assume these stories all take place in the forest. One story sets itself in a hastily abandoned neighborhood after an unspoken disaster where minion-like “volunteers” go door-to-door dispensing false information and shooting people. Another takes place after some kind of accident while a girl “shudders along the roadside with her limbs deciphered.” There is a windshield, a sledgehammer, and a backbone. The last sentence of this short tale, “Her sightlines narrow to a dreary hallway of open doors with see-saw voices sobbing into amputated handkerchiefs,” exemplifies Goldstein’s ability to manipulate thin threads of narrative while employing language that is as dark and enchanted as the world it gives breath to.
It is testament to this book’s unique sensibility that these stories originate from sources as varied as Brothers Grimm, historical accounts, and Google searches, and its brave desire welds the old and the new into a contemporary fable that is both horrifying and humbling in its imaginative precision. Entering Goldstein’s Fables is good fodder for dreams and the conscience, but be sure not to leave this one laying out for the kids.