Rosie Forrest’s Ghost Box Evolution in Cadillac, Michigan, winner of the Rose Metal Press 9th Annual Short Short Chapbook Contest, is as dark as its characters are vulnerable. Forrest has built a world here in her debut collection, a world we recognize and wish we didn’t, a world we grew up in, one we hope our kids don’t grow up in. Her stories are finely wrought, expertly crafted little things that speak volumes about what it’s like to be an adolescent in suburban America.
Adolescence is the heartbeat of this collection, as the children within attempt to come to grips with their fears, the dangers of the world, their independence. Forrest is at her best when her characters are left alone by their elders to make their own decisions, to fail or succeed without guidance. However, despite their youth and naivety, the characters in Ghost Box Evolution in Cadillac, Michigan are perceptive and intelligent. This is true in the title story, which explores a series of abandoned department stores—a Best Buy, a Sears, and a Borders—run like nations, ruled by the wittiest and meanest of kids; the narrator says these ghost boxes are a necessity, but she thinks of her brother: “In a different year, a different decade, he would’ve built a tree house; an ear for music, he might have joined a band.” This extreme perception, which transcends the bounds of the story itself, is also found in “Taps,” in which three college students walk out onto a frozen lake. The narrator says, “In other stories, the boy is too bold, and the ice, barely frozen, gives way. But in this one, he keeps singing till we’re caught,” and in that moment, it almost feels as if she wishes they were in the other story. It’s subtle, quick, but it’s the kind of subtlety that Forrest often uses to her advantage.
Ghost Box Evolution in Cadillac, Michigan is populated by surprisingly destructive characters, searching for what one narrator calls a “shared brokenness.” In “What Happened On Wednesdays (As Told by Someone Who Probably Wasn’t There),” teens play a twisted game of hide and seek. The person who arrives first isn’t dead, and he gets to choose what happens to the dead ones, which, we are told, could be anything: shaving, licking, stripping, pouring washer fluid in their mouths. Players often go home with missing eyebrows or smelling of urine. These destructive impulses are woven throughout the core of many stories. “Gun Moll” opens with the narrator remembering a Halloween when they had dressed as Bonnie and Clyde, saying “[I’d] never fire up into my jaw, but I would have shot bang through your cheek, just so I could peer through the hole.” In some stories, characters place themselves in danger, perhaps in spite of themselves, in order to face their fears or to go against what they’re told. In “We’ll Go No More A-Roving,” for instance, two young girls are convinced a creepy abandoned church is diseased, haunted perhaps, and so they break in. They think, “Surely we’re expected home in time for dinner. Surely, we’ll be missed if we do not come.” And yet, they stay.
Even though this collection focuses on adolescents, some of the most interesting characters are their guardians. The ones who are supposed to be role models for these children are depicted as absent and unaware. That’s not to say every adult in Ghost Box Evolution is this way. But for every mother who doesn’t give her young son a hunting rifle for his birthday, there is a mother like the one in “Where We Off To, Lulu Bee?” who buys a rusted toy horse from Goodwill for her daughter who had outgrown the thing years ago, and says, “Look, Lulu. You just ride the fucker.” For every parent who tells her children to apply themselves, there are the parents who are entirely absent; afraid of the world; fathers who sneak out at night and switch wives, who then cuddle up next to foreign bodies.
But far and away the best aspect of Forrest’s collection, as with all great flash, are the endings. These are endings that make you shudder. They are ominous and surprising, but most importantly, they build off of each other. There is never an ending in this collection that feels out of place. Forrest did an excellent job of arranging these stories to work together. They aren’t competing with each other for emotions. Grief followed by hope; love followed by a desire to be alone, to be free. They force you to slow down and think about what you read, force you to prepare yourself for the next story. The collection is only forty-four pages but it feels much more substantial, like every last word is absolutely necessary. Ghost Box Evolution in Cadillac, Michigan is not a debut to miss, and I am incredibly excited to see what the future has to hold for Rosie Forrest.
Reviewed by Cole Meyer
Publisher: Rose Metal Press
Publication Date: August 5th, 2015