Like the opening shot of a late-night, science-fiction horror flick, Melissa Goodrich’s debut short story collection Daughters of Monsters crash-lands into our planet from a universe not quite like our own. Pairing hypersaturated sentences with high-concept surrealism, Goodrich has managed to tweak the parameters of our reality to present a world transformed. This idea of constant change hums through each story in the collection—the ways we morph and adjust in our unsteady universe, and the ways we try to hold on.
Characters are in states of turbulent flux in most of the manic little pocket universes Goodrich constructs. In “She Wants, She Gets,” Cinderella turns to ashes every midnight. She has no idea what she’ll become the next morning—a bucket, a mop, fire. In “Anna George,” a teenage girl must readjust to life after her mother comes back from vacation transformed into an orange. “Super” details a small boy’s reincarnations after his brother accidentally drowns him—a cabbage, a theater ticket, intestines.
Some of these transformations are more subtle, more horrific. An unexplained toxic fog ravages the country in “Lucky.” Two families join together in a cross-country drive to escape. Goodrich expertly pairs the atmosphere of a family road trip—sad, argumentative parents and bored, rowdy kids exploring destructive impulses—with the growing brutality of a post-apocalyptic landscape. Bored in the RV, the kids trap a toad and cut off its front leg with a knife. “I press the blade against his throat. Better confess afore ya lose the other one, I say to the toad.” These moments of youthful violence are contrasted with the numbing losses the family endures, such as when the protagonist’s twin, Eric, is buried in a suitcase after he is poisoned by the air. “Eric barely fits. Dad has to fold him over. He can’t get the zipper all the way closed—there’s this bump, on one end, because of the head.” The reader is shown each blow as the fragile family unit dissolves in the claustrophobic atmosphere of horror the gas cloud creates. The boy narrator laments: “I just figure we’re playing tag and getting tired and soon we’ll all be It.” By the end, in one subtle and stirring image, we’re left with the characters transformed into their most desperate forms.
But transformation can also force characters to reach for a better version of themselves. In “Birthday People,” Ben’s birthday party is populated by different versions of himself—four-year-old Ben, tenth grade Ben, post-break-up Ben. The different Bens drink too much, they mope and fight. Ben must take care of the Bens, even as things get messy. He looks at a past Ben and thinks: “It was ugly looking at a man like that. And was I really that different.” Yet the process heals him, turns him into an entirely new Ben, one who is able rock his four-year-old self to sleep.
Perhaps the most dazzling transformation of all occurs at the word level, as Goodrich turns ordinary sentences into fully lit pinball machines. There’s a constant striving for stylistic and syntactical ingenuity, as in “Telephone,” a story told only in first sentences. In “Super,” the protagonist reincarnates as a computer file and his language reconfigures itself into folder hierarchies: “is it like/constellation?/like art exhibits, a museum//instillation? is it like/bookshelves/like art exhibits, a museum/of you they’ll pay to see//installed/kind of like a bookshelf/it’s you they’ll pay/kind of like stars.” The most playful use of language comes from the title story, where Goodrich lets out her inner Blake Butler and twists words into abstract experiments: “You’re a monster. A surveyor of night. A reptilian majesty. An everlasting. Snaileyed, scaled, iridescent, and barbed.”
Like all collections, there are some uneven spots. “For Good” screeches the pace to a halt as Goodrich wanders away from her surrealist modus operandi and tells the story of a woman trying to keep her young lover from leaving. But even here we can find stunning use of language, like the knockout opening line: “When he starts sucking on my nipples, all I can think about is goose grey clouds.” Ultimately, Daughters of Monsters soars thanks to the speed and impact of its prose and the freewheeling inventiveness on display. Goodrich writes that magic is what “makes something happen that wouldn’t otherwise happen.” That’s a perfect encapsulation of how Goodrich approaches her stories, mixing elements that shouldn’t blend, then adding magic into the testube. Atoms rearrange, new substances are created. We see new worlds, we receive new eyes.
Publisher: Jellyfish Highway Press
Publication Date: April 5, 2016
Reviewed by Augusto Corvalan