Friday, March 19, 2010

This Other Eden by Michael Hemmingson (collection of short stories and novellas)

Author Michael Hemmingson, whose works range from noir (Wild Turkey) to erotica (The Amateurs) to pop-culture scholarship (William T. Vollmann: A Critical Study and Seven Interviews), puts his wide-ranging pen to the medium of short fiction in the Dybbuk Press collection This Other Eden. All of the stories in this collection of short stories and novellas contain the word "Happen" in the title, and they all feel linked by tone if not always subject matter (though some themes do recur throughout).

Five of the tales in This Other Eden have been printed (and reprinted) in various media. (Only "What Happens When Things Happen to People" appears to be original to the collection.) Sometimes it feels like Hemmingson is trying to shock with his extreme characters; other times it merely seems like normal people aren't worth writing about (though it's often the "regular guy" who is swept up in the events).

Hemmingson has written over fifty books, and his experience shows. Not only does he inform the stories in This Other Eden with tangible details of the publishing industry, but he also imbues his characters with personalities that are displayed through his skillful use of highly individualized dialogue for each person.

"And Then It Happened" shows the dark side of winning the lottery -- or at least the dark side of people finding out you won the lottery. This story felt so real in the reading that I got stressed out whenever the phone rang for the rest of the night.

Two of the shorter pieces, "Nothing Like That Ever Happened" and "What Happens Between Literary Agents and Clients While in New York," feature barely pubescent bestselling female authors putting their sexual fantasies on paper. But each is approached in a completely different manner than the other, "Nothing" feeling more genuine emotionally while "Agents" takes a more outrageous tack.

In "What Happens When Things Happen to People" Edmond and Ivy move to the city, pursue careers, and get a hell of a lot more than they wished for. It's a terrifically told and totally engrossing story, filled with a detestable yet engaging supporting cast, that would fill a novel in the hands of a less strict prose-wrangler.

The centerpiece, at over a third of the book's length, is "Now That I Know What Happened, Could You Hold Me, Please, and Say This Is Love?" (recently expanded into the novel Shabby Town). It is the story of some time in the life of Paul Augustine, where he begins with thievery and ends with personal fulfillment. Yet nothing that happens inbetween feels forced or contrived purely to suit Hemmingson's purposes. It's a completely absorbing experience filled with real people, real problems, and really bad decisions that sometimes turn out OK.

These are stories of father and mothers, sons and daughters; of writers and teachers, agents and whores; of crack and pizza and champagne; of attacks variously political, physical, emotional, and sexual; of infidelity and loyalty; of friendship and love; of desire, ambition, and greed. Hemmingson covers the gamut of feeling and experience with This Other Eden, certainly the most impressive and consistently high-quality short fiction I've read in some time.

I didn't know anything about Hemmingson's fiction (apart from the private-eye/zombie story in Badass Horror) before I received this copy of This Other Eden for review. But based on the highly effective writing in this collection, I'm going to go searching for more very soon.

Further reading
Other Dybbuk Press titles:
Teddy Bear Cannibal Massacre edited by Tim Lieder
The Big Bow Mystery by Israel Zangwill

Other single-author collections:
The Overland Kid by Max Brand
The Nightmare Chronicles by Douglas Clegg
The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard
Walk in Shadows by Nicholas Kaufmann

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