The Dark Dark
by Samantha Hunt
Published 2017 by FSG Originals
$15.00 paperback ISBN 978-0374282134
By Noah Sanders
Samantha Hunt’s new collection of short stories, The Dark Dark, looks at the everyday struggles of life through a softly supernatural lens. Her characters, mainly women teetering on the edge between breakthrough and breakdown and their oftentimes oafish male counterparts, find solace and repulsion in their most primal urges, build sex robots to save the nation, and slip between the veil of animal and human. At the core though, Hunt writes about the unknown and its power over us. “The Dark Dark” of her title is a broad spectrum—the shadows at the end of a bed, the affairs of our spouses, the shallow, frightening expanses of our nightmares—and Hunt builds connections to the mundane in every inky, black corner. The very best of Hunt’s short stories use the vaguely magical as an entryway into an exploration of life’s major moments and themes, nearly all of the morbidly beautiful stories held within a flashlight illuminating its own unknown.
If we aren’t all a little scared of the dark, then we’re at least frightened by the unknown. Hunt understands this deeply. The stories in The Dark Dark plumb the depths of what “the unknown” is exactly, but also how the effects of peering into it (or not), affect us, good or bad. In “A Love Story” (the collection’s strongest piece) a woman, paralyzed by her own fears of the bad in the world that could happen, sends her husband to deal with a potential intruder. In the stillness of the night left in his departure, her mind expands, the possibilities of who she could be and who she is now, unfolding outwards. In “Love Machine” a loving relationship between two men never sees fruition, but its damning effect of what it could have been follows them through their lives. What could’ve been sits on one man’s shoulders like an immovable weight, the cost of lifting it immeasurably high.
In Hunt’s words, it isn’t what lies in the closet that’s important, it’s the attempt, or the lack thereof, to figure out just what it is that adds meaning to her character’s lives. Two strangers sleep together after one kills the other’s dog in “The Yellow,” opening a rift in time and space that somehow brings the dog back to life. Instead of finding joy in the reanimation of a beloved family pet, they decide to kill it again, the act peering behind the slim curtain of their lives too much. Even if you finally see the monster that lives under the bed, in Hunt’s world, the best option can be to stuff it back in, try to pretend that everything can, and will, revert back to normal.
Hunt’s writing manages to meld a soft, almost rural feel (her characters seem to always be returning to some Midwestern heartland) with an angular sense of the unnatural. Each story throbs with an existential dread you might find in a schlocky horror novel, but with Hunt’s skill as a writer, it adds a near constant rise to the hairs on the back of your neck. Without rhyme or reason, you worry, from the first page of each story, about where these characters are going to be taken, where they might eventually lead themselves. In “Wampum,” an older suitor’s advances towards a much younger woman are seen as “Either he’ll chop her up into body parts or he’ll drop her off at the house.” Hunt describes the half-consumed carcass of a fried chicken in “The Story Of” as “The hen had been split open down the middle, unzipped like a parka.” And though both stories are apart seemingly simple, human interactions—a man courts a teenager, a woman wants to get pregnant—Hunt’s prose keeps the reader on edge, forces you look over your shoulder, to keep an eye on the periphery.
Finding the balance between definitively supernatural, atmospherically haunting, and genuinely moving isn’t an easy task. The best stories—“A Love Story” amongst them—use the supernatural to propel themselves into new and unusual places, but are still rooted by the presence of simple, universal, human moments. Early on in the book—“All Hands” in particular—Hunt’s scale tips too steeply towards the odd and unknowable, the reader to left to muddle out just what the hell occurred.
In general though, Hunt confidently walks the line between off-kilter and human. The stories in The Dark Dark entertain with their clear-eyed peek into the strange presences looming just out of our sight, but its Hunt’s ability to use these to craft meaningful observations on the shared moments of human life that allows them to transcend. Though not every story shines as brightly as the next, each and every one of them peers into the dark, attempting to illuminate.