— Suicidal Gods, by C.M. Chapman (Unsolicited Press, 2019)
Short story collections can rise and fall by something as simple as the order in which its stories are presented to the reader. A punchy opening tale or an evocative closing yarn can compel the audience to read further or leave an impression that makes up for the weaker stories within its pages. The stakes are even higher when the stories are interconnected like in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, a standard bearer of this subgenre, where a fictional Midwest town is the canvas upon which the characters’ lives unfold, or Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, where its main character and his drug-addled perception of the world serve as the collection’s connecting tissue.
Interconnected collections require an intricate architecture where each short story amplifies a common theme or adds a different perspective that sheds new light on a place, an incident, or a character. West Virginia author C.M. Chapman’s debut short story collection Suicidal Gods succeeds on all of the above with its mix of gritty Appalachian stories in the vein of Ron Rash and more whimsical fantasies like those of Pinckney Benedict.
Suicidal Gods is set in the fictional town of Dogleg Bend, West Virginia. Its recurring cast of characters includes the eccentric Henry Harper, a World War II veteran who escaped a Japanese prison camp, turned Buddhist, and is now prone to spinning tall tales; Dewey Burke, a troubled teen who works odd jobs for Harper when he’s not doing community service or scheming to stop a local company engaged in mountaintop removal; and Betty Hamrick, a young woman struggling with drug addiction and the predatory advances of a local deputy sheriff.
A Self-Assured Voice
In “How to Get Away from the World,” a propulsive story told from the second-person point of view, a world-weary intelligence community bureaucrat plays out his fantasy of living off the grid. The narrator wonders if we “… might remember once seeing a picture of the Earth at night with its spider webs of light and noticing that there existed only one significant dark place on the whole East Coast of the United States. If you then consulted an online map, you might zoom in on that area and discover that there is a town called Dogleg Bend, West Virginia. You will most likely think to yourself, no shi#t? (…) [O]nce you come to grips with this fact, it is likely that you’ll assume that it doesn’t get much farther out than that.”
In “Inky-do,” Henry Harper tells Dewey and his friend Ned Foster his particular spin on the Epic of Gilgamesh, in which he mixes Mesopotamian myth with spaceships and Bigfoot. One of Harper’s outlandish beliefs is that he has a Bigfoot friend called “Old Stinky Joe” that lives in the woods of his mountain property, as seen in the story “Report on the Strange Case of Lt. Henry Harper.” In the novelette “Suicidal Gods,” Ned narrates the coming-of-age tale of his friendship with Dewey growing up as outcasts in Dogleg Bend. The story also chronicles the changes in the national political climate, as 9/11 unleashes a wave of collective, misplaced anger that impacts daily life in Dewey and Ned’s small town.
Prior to Suicidal Gods, C.M. Chapman published the chapbook Music & Blood as well as numerous short stories in literary magazines and online journals. This new collection displays a self-assured voice that can deftly spin stories from faux folk tales to hardscrabble drama.
— Gonzalo is a writer born in Texas, raised in Chile, and currently living in Shepherdstown. His books have been published in Spain and Chile, and his fiction has appeared in Boulevard, Goliad, and The Texas Review, among others.Review by Gonzalo Baeza