Elizabeth McCracken doesn’t consider herself to be a particularly dark and twisty person.
“I love my husband, I love my kids, I don’t find life difficult and fraught,” says McCracken, author of National Book Award finalist The Giant’s House. And yet in her latest, Thunderstruck & Other Stories, children disappear. Mothers go missing. Library patrons murder and are murdered, and the children’s room rabbit dies and lies in state awaiting deposition by a Department of Public Works shovel.
She does sound sunny on the phone from Austin, Tex. “If I’m a dark and twisty person—and actually, I don’t think I am—it’s that I’m much more likely to put my dark fears into work than conversation,” she says. “I’m essentially writing my nightmares, which don’t take up much waking life.”
By day McCracken holds the James A. Michener Chair at the University of Texas at Austin, “and boy are her arms tired,” reads her website. Therein lies the rub: Each Thunderstruck story features an indomitable sense of humor that rends sinisterness smilingly awry. Take, for example, “The Lost and Found Department of Greater Boston,” in which a boy turns truant when his grandfather padlocks the kitchen cabinets. “Once upon a time—specifically, Tuesday, September 7, 1982—Asher Blackbird, last year’s straight-A student, got caught trying to shoplift frozen French bread pizzas,” McCracken writes, invoking the saddest of all possible groceries.
This is funny in a way that may make readers suspect that they are dark and twisty people.
Whatever the flavor, McCracken deems humor an essential ingredient of great fiction. “Whenever I read work that seems like it’s been cut out with a scalpel, I really distrust it. Now, personally, I have an overactive humor gland. At the darkest moments of my life, I am joking,” she says. “Even if I’m writing something that I think is so grim and dark, people will tell me it’s funny, and in retrospect I can see that I put jokes in without thinking.”
Her words, however, are chosen with care. Physical descriptions are especially fresh and evocative: “He was a big-boned, raw-faced blond man with a smashed Parker-house roll of a nose, a puny felt hat hanging on the back of his head. His slacks were dark synthetic snagged. His orange cardigan looked like rusted Brillo,” McCracken writes in “Some Terpsichore.” It is the story of a tempestuous relationship between the man, who plays the musical saw, and an unlikely chanteuse. In the aftermath of abuse, “It hurt to sing, with the pearls sticking to the saw cuts.”
“I will fess up to being pleased when I came up with that line,” she says.
Thunderstruck is replete with such pearls because McCracken is a self-confessed logophile. “I’d like to be one of those people that says I just want to tell a good story. I think what readers really want is a good story, but I’m not sure I’m any good at that, so I feel most satisfied with something when I feel like the language is doing something interesting—language and probably psychology afterward,” she says. “I’m happiest when I feel like I’ve written some sentences that get at the heart of characters.”
And yet! McCracken’s ripped-from-the-headlines plot lines with their sickening turns propel the stories forward at high speeds. Doth the lady protest too much? She may be dark and twisty, after all. She does admit to abnormal home decor, including a box of oversized Bakelite teeth from a Paris flea market. “They must have been a dentistry education thing,” she says, although we can’t be sure.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.