Wrong Guy, Wrong Place, Wrong Time: New Stories from Elizabeth and Mary and Elle

by Jerome Spencer


This is how I fell in love; sober with a walking drunk. Neither of us had a parent to call and tell. I guess that was what we had in common.

-Elizabeth Ellen, “Ted the Golfer”


While the title itself insists on fiction, all three of these short stories feel very real, very personal and very authentic. Featuring three of the most exciting names in contemporary fiction, “Elizabeth and Mary and Elle” promises three compelling shorts and adequately delivers. All three of these writers contribute riveting stories about love and the unenviable situations it puts them in. Each story is an honest portrayal of the most primal human instincts and are woven together by the common thread of wrong guy, wrong place, wrong time; although, that is completely up for interpretation. Maybe everyone is exactly where they’re supposed to be.

Elizabeth Ellen’s contribution, “Ted the Golfer,” is a classic boy meets girl tale except said girl is currently living with an older Republican titular character and said boy is a classic bad boy if that bad boy is a genuine trainwreck. It’s a romance that unfolds quickly and intertwines with the narrator’s obsession with Kurt Cobain and his recent suicide. The romance escalates quickly, fueled by a sudden and unexplainable desire, a manipulative acid trip and culminating in attempting to cross the country in a used Dodge van. Now, I’ve obsessed over Elizabeth Ellen enough to know that “Ted the Golfer” is at least mostly based on reality, but that doesn’t make the story any less relatable or universal. Whether you’re the trainwreck or the romantic, anyone who’s ever been doomed in love can find themselves in these words. “Ted the Golfer” is accessible for all of the wrong reasons and painfully empathetic, but that’s exactly what we’ve come to expect from Ellen and precisely what makes her such an imperative writer. And that’s just the first story.

Mary Miller’s “A Thing of the Past” maintains the book’s momentum with a gripping, downright stressful story of a young woman who drives to a small town a dilipatated, downtrodden house to stay with a dilipatated, downtrodden man. This story is all-too-familiar; the story of a girl falling for the run-of-the-mill guy in a band only to find that, outside of the bar and in the daylight, he’s just a troubled man that pays for things with his laundry quarters and doesn’t clean his bathroom. While “A Thing of the Past” takes a (sort of) dark turn, it’s also insightful, funny and all too relevant. Like the first story, the reader is either one or the other characters in this tale and it almost hurts to realize it. Miller says a lot in these 26 pages, though, exploring a darker side of modern dating and the dangers of wanting love so badly that you give people credit where it’s clearly not due. Miller’s prose is masterful and her sentences are rapid-fire, producing a kind of dark-humor and unnerving astuteness that will keep you glued to the page and ready for the next.

The next being a new masterpiece from Elle Nash, “A Deep Well.” Since reading last year’s incredible “Animals Eat Each Other” I’ve been salivating for anything new from Nash and this short does not disappoint. An incredible powderkeg of emotion and suspense about a little apartment complex and the kind of neighbors that come and go, Nash’s narrator is like a character from an edgy YA novel; all grown-up and pregnant with the lovechild of some misguided father figure. This one makes me the most uneasy and fearful, eliciting genuine concern for it’s narrator and her fucked up little kitten. At only 18-pages, it all happens too fast and leaves the reader feeling helpless, unable to stop the events as they unfold and gritting one’s teeth as the foreshadowing captures that gut-feeling all to well. I’m already waiting for the next work from Nash with baited breath.

“Elizabeth and Mary and Elle” is a quick read, yet it showcases the full gamut of emotion and the need for love in all of us without sugarcoating all of the bad decisions along the way. All three of these writers say so much with so little and create genuine and intense connections that are hard to shake once you’ve reached the last page.

buy the book from witch craft here


‘Riddance’ Review: A Group of Stutterers Is Called a Collage

by Katharine Coldiron

Where to begin with Riddance, a book that calls on an extraordinary plethora of resources and introduces a set of circumstances almost too complex to explain? An exhumation of influences—19th century spiritualism, Moby-Dick, Jane Eyre, Dennis Cooper, H.P. Lovecraft—would be a start, but it wouldn’t do justice to the author’s incomparable inventiveness. A tagline—”it’s about a school for stuttering children, and the premise is that stutterers can speak to the dead”—does not communicate that collage drives the novel far more potently than plot does. A background on Shelley Jackson might interest some readers, but honestly, this book exists on a plane independent of its author’s history. It’s a totally unique achievement, coincident with Jackson’s status as a writer of the postmodern weird, but not dependent on it. However, it is not a book engineered to satisfy a reader—merely one to occupy her slavishly until the final page.

Riddance itself is a collage, a book assembled from multiple sources; all of these sources appear to be created by Jackson. Certainly all the text must be, but it’s accompanied by photographs, diagrams, maps, architectural drawings, and other visual ephemera that go uncredited on the book’s title page (the book’s design and physical qualities are sumptuous—even the paper stock is rich and wonderfully smooth).

The pictures are suitably old-fashioned to the book’s setting (New England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), and might have been staged by their author with models. They might have been sourced in antique shops and digitally altered to add bizarre devices attached to mouths and ears. They might truly derive, unaltered, from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a time when spiritualism was widely practiced and studied, and when medicine experimented with all manner of devices that harmed more than helping.

Aside from the visual aspects of the novel, the chapters are collaged as well, assembled from an infrastructure of books and documents that Jackson has invented altogether. These include a book, Principles of Necrophysics, that explicates the land of the dead dryly and without clarity (“when we say that the dead are in the recent past, we do not mean the past present that preceded our own present…We mean the past past, the present’s past”); a series of letters from Sybil Joines, the headmistress of her namesake school and one of the book’s two protagonists, to Gothic authors and characters; and three lengthy, first-person narrative documents. The three documents are “The Final Dispatch,” a record taken of Sybil’s last hours by her stenographer and successor, Jane Grandison; “The Stenographer’s Story,” an autobiography by Jane, who is the novel’s other protagonist; and “A Visitor’s Observations,” a collection of notes by a guest at Sybil’s unusual school. All of these sources are broken into small pieces and gathered in clusters of chapters.

Mystified yet?

  credit: Zach Dodson and Shelley Jackson
credit: Zach Dodson and Shelley Jackson

The infrastructure of these fictional sources gives Riddance a powerful authority and confidence. World-building is a tough thing to keep interesting, and Jackson’s method—to obfuscate, via a formal, Victorian prose style and a complex network of documentation, the dull task of putting together an alternate universe that the audience will understand—is successful, but not new. However, her execution, and the world she builds, are definitely new. She posits that stuttering is a method of stopping time, and that it opens, inside the stutterer’s mouth, a portal to the land of the dead.

Although the book spends a great deal of time and energy on the land of the dead, it never becomes a recognizable landscape. It doesn’t resemble familiar underworlds from Western sources; not Hades nor Dante’s nor the Bible’s. It’s partially this lack of familiarity that contributes to the book’s pervasive and deliberate mood of unease. Another contributing factor, though, is child abuse, which appears in the book with extraordinary frequency, in forms from blatant to implied. Both protagonists are victim to it, and perpetrators of it; Sybil is not kind to her students, but demanding and aloof, while Jane, a student, bullies and jockeys for superiority among fellow students and even staff. Both characters offer a window on the ambition of women, on seizing power despite profound powerlessness.

Which brings us back to spirituality. Barbara Goldsmith’s Other Powers pointed out that the 19th century spirituality craze was meaningfully linked to women’s empowerment. Women dominated the séance table, and it was partly out of those gatherings that early suffrage and temperance movements grew. Jackson is well aware of these connections, and they enrich the context of the fiction she builds. Women – ambition – witchcraft – spiritualism – speech – necromancy – education – Riddance.

  credit: Zach Dodson and Shelley Jackson
credit: Zach Dodson and Shelley Jackson

This book does have a plot, involving a missing child, a kind of supernatural drug ring, Sybil’s dead parents, and other elements. The plot loops between and among the book’s chapter clusters, making use of time signposts to orient the reader minimally. It’s still pretty hard to follow. And it’s simply not the point of the book. It’s a book of atmosphere, of fetishistic detail, and of the same kind of postmodern tap-dancing practiced by David Foster Wallace and Dubravka Ugresic.

Such a book is meant to be shown off, if not necessarily enjoyed. Riddance enthralls and engages without delighting. The playfulness of postmodernism has a gritty edge in Jackson’s book, a menace that the reader can’t quite shake. I think the main reason for this is a lack of kindness. No characters are kind to each other in this book—I don’t want to say not once, not ever, because acts of kindness might have slipped by once or twice. But as I think back, I cannot remember a single moment where characters interacted without ulterior motives (or open hostility). Kindness is a difficult thing to forgo for 500 dense pages. Even when the book proves itself metatextual, it does so at the expense of the reader:

“In the land of the dead, a person might well experience her life as a book, and not even her own book, but an anthology of fleeting impressions, speculation, and hearsay taken down by minor scholars and anonymous record keepers. She might, further, go so far as to heap this book with baffles and blinds, introductions, footnotes, etc., so that by the time the putative reader reached the crux of the matter she did not even recognize it.”

This passage appears on page 458. I did not smile in pleasure as I read it. I did not wonder in an intrigued, Matrix-y way whether Jackson was pulling my leg, and whether, if I read it again, I might sort out what was real (in her fictional world) and what wasn’t.

Instead, I felt desolate. Perhaps all of the time and energy I invested in this stunning puzzle-box of a book might have been in vain. Perhaps no meaning, none at all, had been made from Riddance. We will all die, the book reminded me, and no one, not even Sybil Joines, will hear our words ever again.

Heart-On-Sleeve Word Vomit in “Quick Fix”

by Jerome Spencer

“i understand what it means to understand

i’m just tired of using language for it”

There’s urgency in Catch Business’ poetry. It’s as if she just pours her thoughts out as they come with little to no regard for a second perspective. I’m not talking about that pretentious, beat-worshipping, stream-of-consciousness word garble, though; it’s more like unabashedly candid, stark and startlingly intimate. The poems contained in Quick Fix are beautiful in their vulnerability and brave in their sincerity. There’s a cutting familiarity about Quick Fix, as well. Poems that capture that thousandth time you’ve checked your iPhone or opened the Facebook app to see if you’ve been ghosted or are just overreacting hit a little too close to home sometimes.

It would be a disservice to imply that Quick Fix is all heart-on-sleeve word-vomit and odes to smartphones, though. Catch has a knack for capturing the symbolism in commonplace situations, making the very personal appear boldly universal as well. It is because these poems are so current and immediate that they feel so personal. Catch is writing about the kind of things that happen every day and the tiny scenarios that play out in our heads, but she put a language to it. And that language is tremendous. There’s a tercet from “thinking of me” that I can’t stop thinking about:

for shock value we create miracles

i feel so small on my couch

ash on your belly

It’s so deceptively obvious, yet gets more mystifying every time I read it. And I’ve read this whole collection over and over again, each time discovering some new meaning or a different paradox to explore. No matter how often I thumb through the pages, though, Quick Fix never gets any less gorgeous.

“Vanishing Twins” Dances Through A Non-Linear Storyline

by Jerome Spencer

“I didn’t have to smoke these words. They found their way inside me immediately and burned into my chest, drew heat to my face, echoed in my ears. There is no space for me. There is no space for me.”

Exploring common relationship themes and struggles through the lens of a young couple finding their way through sexual identities and polyamory, Vanishing Twins expertly uses ballet metaphors and the blurred lines between twins and soul-mates to walk us through a personal and astonishing story. 

While Leah Dieterich’s writing is precisely executed and peppered with gorgeous prose, it’s the forthrightness and integrity of her words that really make an impact. There’s a kind of ache – a searching – to Vanishing Twins that brings a sense of fluency while simultaneously being wholly disorienting. The plot moves fast, focusing more on the vast theme of self-discovery rather than the details of a too-linear storyline; essentially skipping to the good stuff and getting to the point.

Vanishing Twins is a stark commentary on social norms and expectations, choosing to fully delve into these subjects as a whole rather than focus on singular experience. The narrator’s journey is full of well-meaning, yet uncertain behaviors that lend themselves to an intriguing read, despite being habitually insular.

Dieterich’s detailed research on absorbed twins and expansive knowledge of ballet, art and philosophy pepper the plot, giving symbolism and much deeper meaning to otherwise straightforward themes. This academic and slightly commanding technique could feel overwrought if it weren’t executed so effortlessly and with so much poise.

The topics in Vanishing Twins can certainly be polarizing in the wrong hands, but Dieterich handles them with such grace and studiousness that, whether you agree with her or not, it’s impossible not to admire her dedication to finding the answers to such emotionally-driven fare. At times, Vanishing Twins almost reads like a captivating research paper – citing sources, backing up theories and drawing surprising connections – yet it never loses its delicate touch and expressive poignancy.

In the end, it’s a commentary on individuality and self-identity while maintaining a marriage, but it’s also a reflection on love and its boundaries and limits. Dieterich has certainly delivered a timely and vital memoir, but rather than get caught up in its seriousness, she presents a stunning and fascinating narrative that delivers a startlingly touching blow.

“The Garbage Times/White Ibis” Gives Fruitless Perspective on Doomed Beauty

by Jerome Spencer

“The night before, I’d opened an empty dumpster and a tiny rat was at the bottom, jumping up and down, trapped.
So I tipped the dumpster and let him go.
Which, for whatever reason, hurt.
Like hurt bad.”

The energy, pace and stream-of-consciousness writing in The Garbage Times/White Ibis pulls the reader along almost unconsciously.  You’ll find yourself digging in, hanging on to every frenetic word and turn of phrase, laughing out loud and flipping through page after page frantically and genially until – Oh shit. This is really sad.

Two (sort-of) interlocking novellas, The Garbage Times/White Ibis follows it’s narrator from the desolate, frozen streets of Chicago to the swamps of the theme park state without ever losing the author’s dry-wit and distinctive observations. While it goes from damp bar basements, shit-clogged toilets and sharing joints with homeless guys to family parties at the country club, evening bike rides and partying with Girl Scouts, Sam Pink never loses his fruitless perspective on all that is beautiful yet inevitably doomed within both worlds. And, yeah, that sounds fucked up; but is it?

No other writer captures the complexity of human emotion and the rollercoaster that is inner-monologue – particularly while simply observing the most mundane human interaction – like Pink. Often, while reading this book, I didn’t realize my heart had been shattered because I was distracted by my own laughter. Pink’s simple observations become metaphors or, perhaps, the basis for a new philosophy altogether. Whether it’s pessimism or deranged optimism, Pink always manages to sneak the wrong one (?) into every situation, prompting the reader to question everything. Or perhaps just accept things they way they are. The Garbage Times/White Ibis is almost insidious in its power, reminding us to seize and appreciate the beauty around us while it’s there because it’s only temporary. And it all falls apart in the end. Maybe.

It would be a disservice to Sam Pink’s impressive catalogue to say The Garbage Times/White Ibis is his best work, but, if you’ve never read his work before, it would be a great place to start.

“Saul Stories” is an Exercise in Brutally Honest Ambiguity

by Jerome Spencer

“I stood there a long time and Saul stood next to me. I kept waiting for the beauty. It felt like I was always waiting.” 

I suppose if I had to explain what Saul Stories is “about”, I’d tell you something pertaining to a 40 year-old woman who hangs out with her teenage daughter, parties with her teenage friends and has a non-sexual (?) obsession with an underage boy. What Saul Stories is actually about, though, is moral ambiguity, societal expectations/standards and that hazy fog where art and life collide and the rules become unclear.

An imposing collection of short stories linked by the characters, Elizabeth Ellen crafts a relentless narrative that twists and plummets, conflating empathy with enabling and specifically challenging preconceived notions about the unspoken rules that dictate us. In particular, the accepted ideas about friendship, trust, and who can associate with whom. The main character of Saul Stories, an unnamed narrator, is so unlikable – an emotionally stunted “artist” living of a trust fund with no direction while financing a posse of delinquent eighth graders – that distrust for her intentions is imminent and fierce. The stories, however, are told with such brutal honesty and emotional uncertainty that her humanity takes on its own form and that form becomes the most relatable character in the book. It’s so easy to find oneself rooting for the narrator to win although it’s never clear what the stakes actually are or what any character in Saul Stories stands to win. 

Ellen never hits the reader in the face with any of this, though. The stories pummel through time, leaving the inevitable conflict and ugly parts implied like whispers in the community; like dirty looks from illustrious older white men who’ve invested a lot of money in something you obviously are supposed to be grateful for. It’s there. You feel it and everyone else does, too, yet no one ever talks about it. Ellen’s writing is masterful as Saul Stories reads like a candid conversation with an affable acquaintance that just shares too much and doesn’t give a fuck what you think. She never tries to sway the reader’s opinion or stance, merely gives an accurate review of the situation from one side of the story.

Smart without pretense, discontented without angst, uncomfortably funny and painstakingly direct, it’s almost cliché to laud Saul Stories as Lolita for the internet age, but it’s also hard to miss that assessment.