A varied cast of mothers, miners, school kids, and mountain folk grapple with desire, poverty, and, yes, even monsters in 15 stories set across Appalachia.
Monks’ stories are so wide-ranging—from all-too-real portrayals of the horrors of adolescence to deep dives into the fantastical—that they’re difficult to classify as a whole. What most of them have in common are characters trying to do the best they can in a landscape often dark and unforgiving. In the opening story, “Burning Slag,” a woman who's lost her son to foster care spies on him from her car and employs a most disturbing strategy to try to get him back. Told in retrospect, “Merope” is about a young man’s kind-of-sweet, kind-of–mean-spirited flirtation with a girl who “wasn’t much to look at.” Poverty is a theme throughout. In “Little Miss Bobcat,” a young girl hopes to “win a genuine quartz crown” by soliciting the most contributions for her school fundraiser, despite her family’s own lack of money. An encounter between a shop owner and a mother using food stamps to buy groceries is the seemingly mundane premise behind the masterful “Clinch.” While many of the stories here are rooted in the everyday, the speculative offerings are equally satisfying. “Rasputin’s Remarkable Sleight of Hand” features a carnival magician who knows, in the age of cellphones and selfies, that he needs to up the “razzle-dazzle” in his act, and he attempts it in a way few readers will anticipate. In “Black Shuck,” a man who tends to and then gives away a stray dog becomes obsessed with the idea that misfortune will befall him if he can’t get it back. And in the hallucinatory title story, inner demons are substituted with actual ones, as an older couple is forced to contend with monsters.
A memorable debut: each of these stories is as original and multidimensional as the characters who inhabit them.