Saturday, November 2, 2013
The Little Boy Inside and Other Stories
You pick up a book and read the cover and see that So and So, a practicing doctor, has written a medical thriller. Ex-cop Whoever has released the third in his series about a particular group of police officers. Former prosecutor MC (let's stick to initials) has written her latest legal thriller. Write what you know, draw from experience...all that. Yes, but what about the writer who uses his area of expertise to craft stories intimately linked to his field but not in a way any reader would expect? The writer's specialized knowledge is merely a springboard for a weirder type of fiction. Imagination is king, grounded by the specialized knowledge. It's a fertile mix in the right hands, and it's what you get when you read the stories in Glenn Gray's brilliant collection THE LITTLE BOY INSIDE AND OTHER STORIES.
Gray is a practicing physician. He does write about doctors and patients and the body. But in his world, the body is entirely unpredictable, and that wonderful and terrible unpredictability is the main feature of these stories. We get bodybuilders obsessed with pumping up for muscleman contests, pushing too hard to "perfect" themselves. We get a medical intern doing his training, encountering a series of patients who produce fluids, smells, and sounds that test even his resolve. We get physical transformations occurring to people, often doctors, and how the recipients of these changes deal with them. I don't want to give away too many details because that would spoil the fun, but suffice it to say that a lot of these changes are both horrifying and funny. I mean, hysterically funny. While reading the book on the subway, I found myself laughing out loud quite often. Gray's timing is impeccable, and what makes it work is his compact deadpan style. It's a style that suits his material perfectly. He has learned a thing or two from past masters of the fantastic, like Kafka, who know that when material is outrageous, there's no need to indulge in stylistic fireworks. Keep the writing "simple" (how easy to say that word, how hard to achieve in writing) and let the tales themselves dazzle the reader.
I know that a number of these stories first saw the light of day in online publications specializing in noir/pulp/crime, but virtually none of them read as genre pieces. Gray mixes aspects of noir with horror, speculative fiction, pure fantasy, and black humor. I haven't encountered so many bodies in revolt against their "owners" since the early films of David Cronenberg. Indeed, he seems to me much more in the tradition of Kafka and Cronenberg and other creators of the dark fantastic than he does in the crime tradition. But then again, several of the stories do involve crime. Then there's the one about the intern, "Diary of a Scutmonkey", which essentially, for all its grotesque doings, is realistic.
See what I mean? You can't put these stories in any one literary niche. Because they don't hew to familiar tropes, they defy easy categorization, and for my money, that's exciting. Exciting and all too rare. Gray's stories provoke laughter, amazement, disgust, sadness, delight. They're suspenseful. So if you like to explore when you read, if you like to be kept off balance, if you enjoy the feeling of cringing one moment, laughing the next, and shuddering with apprehension the next, these stories are for you.
I can't wait to see what Glenn Gray will dream up and write next.