Let's pour one out for the short-story writers. They never get reviewed, their sales figures are generally much lower than novelists', and with the collapse of the magazine industry and the constellations of free (read: nonpaying) literary magazines scattered online, writers of short fiction make less money now than at probably any other point in history. (And we're not exactly dealing with a field that was known for its abundance of respect even in its heyday—ask Edgar Allan Poe how his freelance fiction career worked out.)
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But some authors just have a knack for short stories. Their ideas flow best on a small scale, and they have special gifts of suggestion, ways of leaving whole icebergs of stories submerged under the surface of the narrative. Unlike novelists, short-story writers know when to shut up.
Local author Matthew Simmons has never misused a word in his life, or at least that's how it feels. His prose manages to be economical and exact, while at the same time suggesting a broader universe that ripples out from every sentence. It's like handing someone a few Lego bricks, bending down for a second to tie your shoes, and then looking back up to discover they've built a palace. He's written stories about death-metal bands and heartbreak and perverted takes on the binding of Isaac set on a mountain that a suburban dad builds in his own backyard. These are whole worlds—sick worlds, small worlds, fantasy worlds—that begin and end in a handful of pages, but occasionally smack you senseless like a flying phone book.
Simmons's new collection of 15 stories, Happy Rock ($15.95), is more than just his best book yet; it's also the best book that young local publisher Dark Coast Press has produced to date. Happy Rock begins, as many worthwhile ventures do, with a kiss shared between two young people, described in simple, earnest language: "There was a hint of moisture in the fumbling of soft lips. It lasted a minute or more, an hour or less, and ended. It passed. Things like that will pass. Impulses pass." This story is called "We Never Went to the Moon," and it continues like that, with a pair of teenagers named Sarah and Matthew who enjoy drinking their parents' alcohol and getting high and flirting with something bigger than they understand. It's decorated with enough small detail (a jury-rigged soda-can bowl has "two little dents" and "an indent for the pot on top") that one can't help but detect some autobiography.
Then star-stuff lands on the two teenagers, and they become superpowered. One of them gradually becomes so obsessed with conspiracy theories that an entire life is ruined. But those little soda-can dimples, and all the other details constructed with Simmons's eye for the true and the real, keep things from getting overwrought. Not one word—not a syllable, not a space between words—is out of place.
The threat of violence is never far away in Happy Rock. Some of the shortest stories in the book (a single page, front and back) are explicitly about doing damage to bodies. But it's not a book about violence. Instead, it's about possibilities—roads not taken, yes, but also whole realities in which humans "were born with twelve fingers and toes instead of ten," where "people wouldn't measure their lives in decades. They would gather their lives in dozens." This isn't a book you measure in pages. You gather its many worlds in your arms until the possibilities leave you filled with gratitude.