Lingering on Darkness: Sleepovers by Ashleigh Bryant Phillips

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Bestiality. Bone squishing into brain. A child choked with extension cords. When Ashleigh Bryant Phillips lets loose, she can shock. Her debut, the short story collection Sleepovers, is lush with hallmarks of the Southern Gothic: violence, poverty, decay, dread that hangs like the hot and dense humidity of summer in that part of the country.

Lauren Groff selected Sleepovers for the 2019 C. Michael Curtis Short Story Book Prize, an award for emerging authors from the South. In some ways, her own collection Florida parallels Phillips’s first book. Each is hyper-focused on the Southern locus around which it revolves. In Sleepovers, it’s not initially obvious that all twenty-four vignettes are set in the same locale. But Phillips’s collection quickly spirals into a mosaic portrait of a rural North Carolina community, bonded at first by motifs—magnolias, hound dogs, Virginia Slims—that hint at a common setting.

The stories are more obviously laced together by recurring characters, who sometimes behave in unsettling ways. Shirley, the sixty-year-old pool custodian protagonist of “The Locket,” is a former champion dressage rider. Desperate to impress Krystal, a Diet Pepsi-swilling, Virginia Slim-smoking (there are those cigarettes) sixteen-year-old blonde who stops by for a swim, Shirley lends the girl her prized locket—the last we see of it—containing strands of hair from her deceased best friend, a Thoroughbred named Norma, whom Shirley addresses as if the horse were still there beside her. Elated by an afternoon spent sun-tanning and eating gas station hotdogs with her teenage friend, Shirley returns home only to be deflated by her harpy of a mother, who is intolerant of her daughter’s equine delusions. Enraged, Shirley dumps a pot of scalding tomato soup on her and retreats to bed, pulling a pillow over her head to block out the elderly woman’s screams.

Morale improves little from there. “The Bass” begins with the knell of depression: “I know I can get better if I want to. Everybody can get better if they want to.” Donnie remembers floating on his back alone in a pond where his abusive father once fished, immovable even as night fell and his frantic wife arrived to coax him out of the water. In the present, Donnie catches a giant bass there, then makes good on his lust for a coquettish convenience store cashier—Krystal, now grown and working at the same Duck Thru where she and Shirley once purchased lunch—before heading home to present the enormous fish to his wife, now pregnant. There’s no explicit acknowledgement that Donnie inhabits the same universe as Shirley, and when Krystal leans forward on the counter to accentuate her chest, the locket is absent. It’s either long gone, or Donnie is too blinkered to notice it.

True to the book’s title, Phillips allows only glimpses into her characters’ lives. In the 1969 essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” Flannery O’Connor wrote, “We find that connections which we would expect in the customary kind of realism have been ignored, that there are strange skips and gaps which anyone trying to describe manners and customs would certainly not have left.” In Sleepovers, the sense of estrangement is heightened by grotesque characters, like Shirley, as well as Phillips’s chosen form, a collection of interlocked yet fragmented stories that feel almost like a novel, though they’re never consummated with an overarching narrative.

On the first page of the book, we meet Shania, a girl who comes from a moldering home with “dog food cans and cigarettes and broken bottles” in the backyard and sheets covering the windows rather than curtains. By the time the story concludes, she’s a pregnant young cashier, still working despite her condition. Shania resurfaces in “The Country Woman” as a mother who belts and strangles one of her twin sons, secreting him away so that even her far-away family has no idea there are two boys.

Her unnamed landlord, meanwhile, is a beguiling bon vivant described in terms that approach magical realism. “One day a man came to install Wi-Fi at the woman’s farm and she seduced him. She bathed him and braided his hair and traced his dragon tattoos with her tongue. And then he started sleeping there every night.” Eventually, she starts chaining her lover under the table and whipping him with a belt—a kink—all the while oblivious to the travesties occurring outside, in a barn she rents to Shania.

Alienation presents itself once again, not only in the characters’ relationships with one another but also in their relationships with their own emotions. What if it isn’t Shania but the landlord who wields the belt as a weapon—or wants to? Interpreting Shania from the lessor’s perspective, the tenant is not a tangible woman but a desire that resides on the premises, following her sadistic impulses to their tragic end. Thus, the landlord holds her own darkest tendencies at arm’s length, embodying them only via an imaginary proxy. Conversely, the landlady can be read as a figment of Shania’s imagination. By summoning an alternate reality in which the recipient of her blows is willing—it’s implied that the lover consents to masochism—Shania does not have to shoulder the psychological burden of reckoning with the extent and consequences of her violent inclinations. So which character is real? It hardly matters. The point is the same: We all have our own ways of coping with what we hate about ourselves.

Phillips rides Southern Gothic tropes hard, though her narratives are modernized with references to Wi-Fi and Wendy’s, and her prose is blunter than that of O’Connor or Truman Capote, whose early story “Miriam” is echoed in “The Country Woman.” Comparisons to O’Connor’s work are especially difficult to sidestep, even if Phillips’s curly, cropped hair and midcentury-style getup in her author portrait—pleated, high-waisted bottoms cinched tight over a long-sleeved button-up—didn’t push readers down that path.

Like O’Connor, Phillips wrestles with morality. In “Return to the Coondog Castle,” teenage Megan has been impregnated by Daniel Adam, a married methamphetamine addict with whom she lives in a shack after leaving her parents’ home. In anguish over his failure to furnish mango-flavored Smirnoff for her seventeenth birthday, as promised, and about stumbling upon his wife’s Bible in the door of his truck, Megan grasps a plump tomato between thumb and forefinger. She considers “stripping Daniel Adam clear naked and cutting his head off with that bowie knife he keeps in his glovebox. Leaving his body… where they found that old woman in the ditch. Since that old woman’s spirit’s already spooking the place, Daniel Adam won’t be able to spook it. He don’t deserve a place to linger around on.” She goes on, “She wants to feel her weight cracking him, his bone squishing into his brain. She won’t feel the baby moving inside her then. Maybe it will even get still. The tomato bursts between Megan’s fingers. She doesn’t want to be a bad person. She hates Daniel Adam for making her a bad person.” It’s a jarringly visceral description. Where O’Connor employs surprise in service of dramatic climaxes, as in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” or “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” Phillips often resists watershed moments, instead wallowing in stagnation. Megan daydreams of her dramatic climax, “sitting here in her computer chair, sprawling out her legs, smelling her sweat smells, waiting for something to happen.” Even after she’s cried and spilled her story to two kindly older women, who ostensibly drive her home to her mother, there remains a steadfast vagueness—it’s unclear what has materially changed.

For all its despair, Phillips’s writing is leavened with scraps of tender prose that are all the more moving for their scarcity. In the conclusion of “The Country Woman,” the landlord scales a magnolia tree and “screams out to her land. And if you keep pulling up, you’ll lose her in the tree, but you’ll see the moon shining on the tin roof of the farmhouse. The farm all alone, way outside town. The wilderness that surrounds them. The slick of the pigs’ back, moving in the dark. And even this far away, you can still hear her. And you can feel the boy near you, floating in stars.”

It’s tempting to dwell on the cosmos, luminously rendered amid the horrors that litter these pages. But it’s the shadowy particulars—the violations, the infidelity, the ghosts—that we should linger on. If avoidance causes trauma to fester, then a necessary first step in processing and ultimately moving on from negative experiences is to address them head on; sharing one’s whole story, bad parts and all, can be a cathartic bridging of those “strange skips and gaps.”

Quoting the late Buddhist philosopher Alan Watts, Sleepovers‘s epigraph hints at the author’s purpose. “We do not like to be told that we are in a trap, and that there is nothing we can do to get out,” it reads. “Still less do we like to realize it as a vivid experience. But there is no other way of release.” In Watts’s book Become What You Are, he expands on this philosophy. “Where do we go from here? We do not. We come to an end. But this is the end of the night.”

The darkness is where our chains lie. And it’s the chains, Phillips suggests, that will set us free.

Alison Van Houten is a freelance writer whose journalism has appeared in National Magazine Award-winning print publications including Outside, San Francisco, and Sunset. Follow her on Twitter at @notvanhooten. More from this author →