Dispatches from the Goodreads Reading Challenge Wasteland: Bracken MacLeod’s 13 Views of the Suicide Woods

(QUICK NOTE THAT I BEGIN EVERY WASTELAND DISPATCH WITH:

(Last year, 2016, I found myself struggling to get through a book as quickly or with as much enjoyment as I used to.  No shade thrown on those books, but my life had become busier and it was easier to read io9 or cruise my Facebook newsfeed than crack open a book.  I didn’t like that and the Goodreads Reading Challenge seemed like a nifty way to get my head back in the game.  Of course, after setting my challenge, I realized I had way overshot my count in comparison to others–some of them reviewers, for Christ’s sake–so this became what will hopefully be a fun, year-long experiment on crashing and burning.

(But, on a related note, I’ve always wanted to see how I read over the course of a year, what my tastes were depending on the time of year, the circumstances, etc.

(So, here’s Dispatches from the Goodreads Reading Challenge Wastelands.)

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In Bracken MacLeod’s first collection, 13 Views of the Suicide Woods, the writer behind Stoker-nominee Stranded and the novel Mountain Home presents 19 stories that are a little too genre-gritty to be “literary”, but also too literary to be full-on genre fare.  MacLeod straddles the line between brutal violence–the don’t-assume-hippies-are-pacifists “Blood Makes the Grass Grow”–and haunting melancholy–the near-flash piece “Khatam” that closes the book.  When the supernatural comes into the story–it doesn’t always–it’s seamless and unobtrusive, almost as if it’s expected to be there.  In other words, if Jim Thompson or Shane Stevens were to write the current genre-darling of the reading class, magic realism, they might write something like 13 Views of the Suicide Woods. 

This is not my first exposure to MacLeod–I sang the praises of his novel Stranded in another Wastelands Dispatch. As such, I had an inkling of what to expect.  Still, however, a reader can marvel at the way MacLeod offers a triptych of viewpoints in collection opener “Still Day: An Ending”–more of a set-piece that a full story–between mundane modern life, natural beauty, and stark violence.  Personal favorite “The Boy Who Dreamt He Was a Bat”–doesn’t grind its message and subtext in the reader’s face, but it’s there if you want it.

If literature is a kind of never-ending buffet, with each little marketing-invented subgroup given its own table for its food, MacLeod’s work bounces between noir, full-on horror, and magic realism.  Often, the characters are more important than the plot (which doesn’t mean that plot doesn’t take place), examining the reactions they have to whatever situation they find themselves in.  MacLeod is interested in this–an examination of reaction in the moment something happens.  He does this without any melodramatic panting and ruminations, not focusing on the before and the aftermath, but that very moment itself, leaving the reader to surmise how (or if) these people recovered from the situation, and when a story lingers (many do) it’s because of this fact.

The stories might not be for everyone–MacLeod goes out of his way to avoid beating anyone over the head and his subtlety might be off-putting to someone looking for gore and violence with both barrels.  When violence does come–in the previously mentioned stories, or in “The Texas Chainsaw Breakfast Club, or, I Don’t Like Mondays”–it is all the more shocking because MacLeod doesn’t telegraph it; he’s not the writer who’s going to hype the awful that’s coming.

Still, though, each of the 19 stories in this collection shines with its own light, distinguishing itself from the others and never becoming that dread of collections–the blurring from one story to the next.  Any one of these could make a reader a fan of Bracken MacLeod and force them to track down his longer works.

You can pick up 13 Views of the Suicide Woods here.

You can pick up Stranded here.

And, hell, you can pick up a copy of Bones Are Made to be Broken here.

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