by Rebecca Jones-Howe
Dark House Press
*** Review copy from the library ***
A few people recommended Vile Men, a short story collection by Canadian author Rebecca Jones-Howe, when it first came out at the end of last year and they mentioned how impressed they were with the writing, so I recently had the occasion to read it and I’m glad I did. Far from being simply a short story collection that revolves around the theme of terrible things happening to women, the stories are a heady mix of different perspectives that will have you reeling after you’ve finished each one. It’s a quick read, but these stories are very heavy and will definitely make an impact on you.
The first story is “The Paper Bag Princess,” which puts a whole new–and far more disturbing spin–on the children’s classic by Robert Munsch than you would think. It’s about a girl who puts a paper bag on her head when she is intimate with men. She has different faces depending on their preferences. In one way, it’s incredibly tragic that she feels she has to do this and that it’s the only way she can, but in others it’s also her way of getting back some control. This set the tone for the rest of the collection very well.
Next up we have “Blue Hawaii” which revolves around a girl who is a former alcoholic and she now lives with her sister and her baby. She gets involved with a male neighbour who has a different drug of choice and things descend from there, but this story definitely did not end the way I thought it would.
“Tourist” continues the departure from where you think the story will be going and then it goes in a completely differeny way. This time we meet a girl who falls for an older man but lives with her friend and the friend’s husband, who are trying to have a baby. She knows it is an odd arrangement, but doesn’t really have anywhere else to go. The protagonist turned out to be a very disturbed individual, but I liked seeing her journey mapped out. With this story, I felt a bit let down because I was holding my breath waiting for something momentous or earth-shattering to happen, which it never did, but other than that, I enjoyed this tale a lot.
“There’s a certain kind of man who goes for damaged girls.”
The first story of the collection to feature a male point of view is “Grin on the Rocks” about a guy who is pursued by older women, or so he would have us believe. It turns out he has far more sinister intentions and this is a story that is full of trigger warnings for women, so I would advise discretion. It will make you very angry in parts.
Probably the center-piece of the collection comes with “Masturbating Megan’s Strip Mall Exhibition” which focuses on a girl who, ahem, pleases herself to customers at the adult entertainment store where she works. The genesis of how she got her nickname really hit home for me, but instead of bothering her, she seems to have twisted it to subvert her identity as an adult. Readers should make sure not to miss this story.
“College Glaciers” concerns a university student with erotic fixations who is drunk and/or high while taking a cab late at night to get back to her dorm. Once again, the author turns the reader’s expectations on their head with how things turn out, so I liked this tale.
“He’s older because they always are.”
Following that story is one called “Slippery Slopes,” which is a bit on the longer side but is another powerful read. Luke has major anxiety. He has a smoking problem (cigarettes). He also has a wife, twin children, and she is expecting another child on the way. He keeps insisting that there is a child in their neighbourhood who is going around stealing from people and the entire story builds to a crescendo. He crosses so many lines and you will find yourself questioning whose side you are on by the end.
“Thinspiration” plays on our culture’s obsession with girls who go to dangerous lengths to be thin. A gunman takes the main character hostage and orders her to drive, but it’s not clear where they’re going. When he pulls up to a restaurant, something unexpected happens and although I found this tale to be a bit more anticlimactic in some ways as compared to the other stories, there was definitely power in the exchange of the characters toward the end.
Perhaps the most directly horror-related or horror-themed story is “Better Places,” another viciously disturbing tale of a woman who finds herself in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. She finds a haven with a guy, but what he puts her through is worse than what the zombies could do. This is one of the most unflinching and raw stories of the entire collection and again, if you’re sensitive to the subject matter of assault, read this one at your own peril. This one was a far more satisfying read for me and definitely one of the ones I would rate higher.
“Historical Hotties” is the story of two teenaged girls who are desperately freaky. The protagonist is hugely unpopular and she approaches a Goth-type girl in the class to work on a project in pairs. What’s so bad about them? Well, for starters, the protagonist things Stalin (yes, that Stalin) is attractive. Not just a little bit either. This story also examines how strange and fraught with tension the protagonist’s relationship with her parents, particularly her father, is, and will leave you reeling after you’ve read it.
Next up is “Cat Calls,” a story that turns the phenomenon of men calling out crude and lascivious things to women as they pass by or whistling to them on its head by making a man the object of the affections of a seriously depraved young woman on the Vancouver SkyTrain subway. We learn that the male protagonist is married, a bit unhappily despite his insistence otherwise, to a woman with whom he tried to conceive but they’ve had difficulties. She has succeeded as a realtor and the dynamic of their relationship has changed more than he thought it would. This story definitely has a huge gut-punch for an ending and it was also one of my favourites.
Another creepy story is “Modern Beasts,” which is about a young girl, Eva, whose mother drops her off at the public library each day while she goes off to protest against the government. The head librarian, Mindy, isn’t particularly nice but she has a boyfriend, Owen, who is. He takes an interest in Eva and tells Mindy that he can watch her and read to her. This story will destroy any reader who struggled with their parents as a child. Anyone who was desperate to hang on to that special someone, the adult who “got” them and didn’t see them as a hindrance or an annoyance…this story will ruin you.
The last tale, “Ghost Story,” was about a couple who are in London, England, on a trip. It’s the creepy and unsettling tale of what happens when Melody’s lover, Lewis, goes missing, and all the implications of that event.
One of the things that stuck out most about this collection for me is how painfully accurate the author’s depictions were when it came to the decay of relationships between couples who have been together for a while. It’s inescapable in some ways, but there’s nothing sadder than one person in the relationship who is still completely head-over-heels for their partner but the other person hasn’t reciprocated that in a while.
The unifying thread of the entire collection is how unflinching and honest these stories are. They are raw. The author does not hold back her punches. At all. They are devastating and they can contain many triggers for women, but they are a fascinating look at what happens when characters do the things they know they are not supposed to, but they do them anyway and cross the lines into the furthest reaches of themselves, which makes for a gripping and fascinating book.
I would not classify this book as a horror collection, but many fans of horror, mystery and suspense will enjoy it. Others still who like contemporary pieces of women’s fiction that are the furthest thing from romance will also enjoy this book. But really, anyone who wants a substantive collection of short stories that explores the furthest depths of the human psyche needs to pick this book up. It is a book that will challenge you as a reader. It is not easy to get through, but ultimately it provides a cathartic reading experience.