Author: Bentley Little
Short stories aren’t my go-to in general. I prefer the length and depth of a novel, the ability to create an evocative atmosphere and realistic characters. In particular, I love Bentley Little novels where he morphs the everyday and ordinary into something sonorous and spooky. When I saw Walking Alone free with my Audible membership, I downloaded and then started it without checking-in, without realizing that it was not the usual Bentley Little novel, but instead a collection of 27 short stories. However, my disappointment soon merged into joy as each taut, weird little vignette drew me into the wacky, warped, and sometimes poignant world of Bentley Little.
Walking Alone is one of the few short stories collections I’ve read that was consistently good, with more “great” and “good” offerings than “average” and “bad.” I enjoyed each story and the aura that bound them, as well as the creativity and downright bizarreness that marks a Little experience. Some stories were better than others, but none of them were awful, and overall, this is a great collection that I could see myself listening to again on some bright, sunny spring day when I want to be reminded of the undercurrent of creepy weirdness in the everyday.
This collection boasts an astonishing array of very short, yet very evocative and engaging stories. I’ll just cover a few of my favorites. In “The Feeb” a strange fungus begins to cover rural farmland, eating animals and devastating crops. A group of farmers band together to identify the evil, leading them to an old house, an abandoned man, and a very sick secret.
“Milk Ranch Point” starts the collection in the long ago Wild, Wild West. A stranger breezes through town, heading for a haunted ranch. He ignores the warnings of the populace, and soon we see the reason why.
In “The Car Wash” local children start to vanish, their broken bodies found at an abounded car wash. A little boy wonders about the incident and about his grandparents’ mysterious nightly forays.
In “The Mall” a young boy grapples with the murder of his abusive father, until that father calls to him from an abandoned mall. But can he really do what must be done to get his family back together?
In “the Smell of Overripe Loquats,” a children’s made-up religion gains power. Wishes are granted, but there is always a price. When the one who escaped faces devastation in his own life, the only choice is to return to the fetid god of his childhood and hope that the black magic will work one last time.
In “Pool, Air Conditioning, Free HBO,” Hotel California becomes motel California, as a tired couple on their honeymoon stop in the boonies. A dive motel is better than sleeping in the car . . . isn’t it?
In “Sticky Note,” a more subtle story, a man with marital problems finds a discarded sticky note in the gutter. “Kill her,” it says. As obsession becomes resolution, the man wonders if something or someone is trying to tell him something, something about his wife.
And finally, there is “Hunting,” where the horror is something closer to home. A young boy watches his parents grow apart, seeing his mother’s unfaithfulness through a lens of innocence that is soon to be shattered.
I could go on and on. Each story is fun and original. There were a few that were misses for me. “The Piano Player has no Fingers” is a super weird and utterly goofy portrayal of a gross demon in love with her faithless man. “Snow” tries (and fails) to make snowmen scary; and “A Random Thought from God’s Day” is literarily two sentences and not worthy of story inclusion.
One other issue inherent in this volume is the representation of little people and those with mental or developmental disabilities. It’s bigoted and downright insulting. I am aware that many of these stories are older (although not that old – 90s is the oldest) and some terminology has changed with growing awareness. Still . . . the offending stories would benefit from some editing and the actual plot and vibe would not be harmed.
Still, the vibe throughout Walking Alone is golden. Anyone interested in trying out Little’s style in bite sized pieces should certainly start here. Apparently short story collections can be good – almost as good as novels! Highly recommended.
– Frances Carden
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