[Wow, it's been a hot second since there's been one of these, but you all haven't stopped writing stories. I had all these traditions. Let's see if I can remember any of them. Uh, I need a catchy opening...]
Greetings, spooks and specters!
[There's one. Not bad, I don't think! I usually had some sort of opening gag. A silly joke of some sort ... but I don't know if I'm feeling that right now. We'll call this meta narration the opening gag for today, shall we :P]
[Let's see. After that I introduce the author whose work we'll be reviewing. This doesn't need to be flashy.]
We'll be checking out a small sample of the work of Kolpik today. Kolpik's been with us since 2018 but has made an impressive 14k edits since then, and around twenty two stories! (if his author category page is to be believed).
Last time we showcased SoDaft Potato, and you can read that showcase here.
We don't have the time to analyse all twenty two of his works, and if we did, who'd want to read that! I much prefer you go off and read his actual stories, and in fact, if you find that my summaries intrigue you, and you have a choice between reading this post and the actual stories,
READ THE STORIES
We will be covering each of the four tales in depth, and although I won't necessarily will spoil each of the endings, these are analyses of the themes and plot elements in these stories, so I won't shy from any details that help to explain my points. If you prefer reading things without specific expectations going in, or don't even want to risk reading the shocking plot twist to any of these before reading them....
READ. THE. STORIES. FIRST.
[And, at this point, I had that running joke where I say:]
This is your spoiler warning, everything I say after this could potentially spoil the story involved.
[And then I spoil some detail of a random unrelated story, like this:]
('Red rum' is 'murder' backwards, in The Shining!!!) *
We'll be reviewing the stories in no particular order.
Beyond the Thicket is a story in which a character goes for a midnight stroll along his neighborhood, and never returns. Finding himself turned around in the dark, Carl has to contend with a mysterious moaning sound while trying to puzzle out which direction he came from. There's only two options to choose from, but how important is that choice when you're not the only one on the sidewalk?
This section will be longer than normal because really exploring the themes presence requires deeper than normal explanation of the actual plot.
More than anything, this story excelled to me in crafting a chilling atmosphere. It's a remarkably short, easy read with a hell of a strong foundation, and it places new details for the reader to ponder over at a very methodical, effective pace. It revels in its ability to get the reader as lost and panicked as the protagonist, even on a two way sidewalk, as it throws all these different directions and ideas at you, and starts ramping up the presence of the strange, moaning creature.
The story is over before it's even began, and there's more attention paid to the initial confusion and terror than there is to the weighty, big plot twist and conclusion, so the reader is left sort of shocked by the abrupt end. It builds up towards a strange narrative, then mid-build-up the story dumps some new information on you and comes to an ambiguous close. Despite personally enjoying unclear endings such as this, I found the way it wrapped up to be more frustrating than bonechilling, but that doesn't detract from the spooky thrills of the rest of the story.
The abruptness of the ending, however, beckons a second read of the story, especially coupled with the shortness of its length and the plot twisty nature of the conclusion. Like I said, the writing is ambiguous but from I could tell, Beyond the Thicket is a ghost story in which the spirit only discovers they're dead as the narrative itself comes to a close. This is a very classic ghost story archetype, and the characterization of Carl could be seen as very generic as a result. The reader is meant to project themselves onto Carl before they're meant to interpret any thematic details from his personality or actions. That being said, there are a few scant details that serve to humanize him scattered about, and he doesn't feel one-note or disposable.
I interpreted the moaning to be coming from Carl himself, as he moans to himself in the final lines of the story, a manifestation of shock and despair at his own death. The narrative, then, can be seen as of the protagonist's ghost repeating the final actions of his live self, before being caught off guard by the sounds of his own wailing, which come from the direction of his house (the setting where the story ends). Returning in the direction of the calls, he discovers his own death, and falls onto the lawn, moaning. This creates a sort of time loop, although there's no indictation that it repeats after the story ends. I found it to be a very thoughtful, creative vision of the afterlife. Haunting in its simplicity.
You can also read the ending-moan as coming from the supposed creature stalking him through the rest of the story, finally catching up with him now. Perhaps a grim-reaper like figure, meant to guide him into the afterlife? Or some other more sinister entity that roams that other plane where spirits go when they die. Either way, the presence of a moan rather than a roar or more threatening sound makes the presence of the moaning-being more shocking and unsettling. It's a fine interpretation, but I prefer the takeaway I had.
If you have already read this story, I recommend going back and reading it a second or even third time. The first go around is confusing and lightly panic-enducing, but with each subsequent read the terror grows subtler, and more sad. Overall, a very interesting experience.
Everyone on the playground laughs or gawks when a little boy eats worms and beetles. But there are other things you aren't supposed to eat, thinks Sammy. And some of them don't taste so bad at all.
Growing Up Hungry is a gross exercise in shock and disgust, painted for the reader by a very sensible and lucid narrator. As you read through the upsetting chronicles of child Sammy's increasingly bizarre and secretive eating habits, it's difficult not to feel queasy or alarmed, and I think half of that feeling stems less from the actual contents of his actions, and moreso from the thought process behind them. For being a relatively short tale crafted around the singularly unnerving premise of a child developing a taste for live animals, it plays it straight, and gets into the philosophy of why a child would want to do that. I particularly liked the line:
"He didn't get what the big deal was. There were plenty of things people ate that he didn't like, but that didn't bother him."
Why is it terrible for somebody to eat something you find horrid? The entire root of the terror here comes from the reader's own visceral reaction to Sammy's account. But to Sammy, he's just indulging his own particular tastes, and those tastes just so happen to involve living animals. The story straddles the line on how far it can take that logic, building up to the inevitable conclusion which implies he intends to move on to even bigger prey than just stray cats.
Reading an account of college-age Sammy kidnapping a classmate with his van and eating them would've been a step too far, and dampened the impact of the rest of the story with its presence, so the author wisely decides to lead up to that conclusion and then end the story with nothing but the implication. I didn't think I'd be as affected by a story about a kid eating rats, but Kolpik cleverly and masterfully punches to the heart of the story, and then pulls it out, and then eats it.
I really liked the naturalistic dialogue and prose, jumping towards very few stylistic flourishes in favor of a more clinical and psychological read. Very well executed story based on a very gross premise. I really liked it.
The opening few paragraphs of Nine O'Clock do a great job at confusing the reader with what reads like a series of unrelated tangents placed rather loosely next to each other, and it's a hell of a first impression. The reader is left scrambing to pick up any underlying context to all the non-sequitur thoughts sprung from the opening narrator, written naturally through very organic, human prose. As the reader does pick up that context, it's all at once ground, absurd, dark, and incredibly alienating. It's a really, really good opening, and as the story pulls back, I was immediately intrigued.
Here we have a bizarre, down to earth, and lightly disturbing tale. It ends unresolved and begins unexplained, and somewhere trapped in the middle is an odd, vexing tale about abuse and torture. The excellent narration never breaks after being established in the beginning, and its this deft, storytellers hand that carries the story even as it would otherwise feel pointless and lacking a punch. I loved the human insight into the protagonist's predicament, being able to read as his hope and entire mental state begins to slowly die, lending a sense of weight and realism to the proceedings.
Perhaps one of Kolpik's more experimental short stories, it still carries all the personality and narrative playfullness that defines his style. I'll keep this segment brief so you can go read it for yourself and draw your own conclusions. To me, Nine O'Clock is a chillingly brutal mystery story. told all out of order and ending before it's resolved. Defintely one of the weirder experiences, made even stranger by how mundane it really is.
The "suicide letter" is a story format that's probably as old as actual suicide letters are. But although The Final Words of Lacey Stroh technically does qualify as a suicide letter, the narrator would tell you it's not the account of a suicide victim. It's the account of a murderer, telling you how, where, and why she did it. And, even as the 'where she did it' comes with some intriguing, subtly supernatural occurances, told in the background and left to the reader's imagination, and the 'how she did it' is a disturbingly grounded display of self preservation, made chilling in the mundanity of it, the heart of the story lies in 'why she did it.'
"Ask yourself what you would have done in her position," the story literally beckons as it comes to a close. The human element lies in the narration of our female protagonist. There's a resentment for herself and her actions that comes wrapped up in the horrible question at the root of the story. But when you look past that, you can see the dreadful scrambling sense of self preservation that drove her actions, and that depth drives the armor piercing question deeper into the flesh.
Our narrator is hurt, filled with self hatred, and definitely not in a great place mentally, and this is all harder to work out mentally because she also has a point. As she says,
"I prefer to believe that most people are cowards, or to put it a better way, realistic. Self preservation is deeply embedded in our instincts, is it not? I feel this way, because I am a coward, the worst kind."
And her sense of pain over the story she unfolds is very believable and easy to grasp.
It might have been just as easy to grasp if she didn't have to kill herself at the end. It includes some dry, unsympathetic prose about how she'll "press enter, and then do the old gag and dangle." The writing is playful, as always, and includes shocking insight into the human core, as always, but it strikes me as a little distasteful.
Often, people who are suicidal can be especially crass about the idea of suicide, and I'd buy that she cannot properly comprehend the tremendous loss those around her would feel after the story comes to a close considering she has a cripplingly low opinion of herself and is about to kill herself. But the story doesn't touch on her potential depression enough for me to feel that, and the framing, with the narration, are playing with fire in how they touch this incredibly sensitive subject. I don't want to say it's irresponsible, because I think it knows where it lies and I give Kolpik more credit than that, but it misses an opportunity to, perhaps, tie on the nature of her suicide with the previous and outward pontification of self preservation.
There are tragically, beautifully, paradoxically human lines, where she says she'd murder somebody else to save herself again, in a heartbeat. The will of self preservation is so strong, she claims...even as she sits in a room with a noose hanging behind her, typing out her manifesto. This contradiction could be explored deeper, but it would also break the bounds of the suicide letter framing device, and perhaps come off as contrived or overly self-aware. It's a shame because I think it's one of the subtler details of the work, and brushes on a bit of a missed opportunity.
Overall, The Final Words of Lacey Stroh is a very well written, well considered work, that feels as human and natural as it is depressing. I recommend it, obviously. I guess I wouldn't be talking about it here if I didnt, haha, but I feel I need to stress this one in particular.
[So, here we are.]
[The conclusion, where I reintroduce the gag from the intro and try to wrap up my analyses.]
[I struggle to think of a meaningful running theme to this authors work, one that works with a singular narrative. There are over twenty of them, and they cover a lot of ground. Classic ghost stories, mundane real life horrors, shockingly large scale ones, absurdly small scale ones, supernatural and undefinable threats alike. It's a broad corpus of work and it wasn't written for the sake of being categorized and transformed into a narrative.]
[Should I say maybe that his work shows the benefits of experimentation? Should I say he's a great case study for great insight married to great prose? Should I tell people his stories work because they aren't always scary? It feels dishonest to wrap up somebody's work in a neat little bow like that.]
[Why do I like his work?]
[I guess I like it because it speaks to me. Because his stories all shine a light on some surreal element of the human perspective I hadn't considered in depth before. I like them because they feel real, they feel honest, they feel considered. I appreciate how they can be as much or as little as you want, and how you can see the author himself writing them out, in a way.]
[I don't stand to presume my interpretations are exactly what Kolpik had in mind when he wrote his stuff. But regardless, I still feel closer to him now than I might have before, because he let out that tether, that line out into the world, and amidst this massive sea of voices and stories I suppose I happened to grab onto his.]
[Maybe its because his 20-odd stories have been keeping me busy in the year long hiatus since I last wrote a showcase.]
[Maybe I'm just pretentious enough to think I have the right to analyse somebody else's hobby writing.]
[How do I streamline all of that?]
[I guess I have one thing to say, another one of my weird showcase traditions. I'm supposed to open up the conclusion with:]
Kolpik is rad.
[and then i talk about their style]
His style is well developed and brimming with personality. Each story feels half written but fully developed and the reader is forced (or more charitably, allowed) to piece together the scene as they read, like assembling a puzzle, so that by the time a typical story ends you've been immersing yourself in more deeply than you might have otherwise.
The actual process of the writing itself has intention to it and that's what makes his narration work. None of his concepts are that original but he has the unique hand of a master storyteller and he understands when to provide hard details and when to provide all the evidence around a concept without ever stepping foot in the center of the ring. And that effected my reading experience a lot, becau
[so you stay broad, and dont get too personal]
Beyond that, he displays a great ability to subvert expectation without drawing too much attention to what would otherwise be a big dramatic plot twist. You never know what you're getting but the experience of reading a Kolpik story is rarely overshadowed by that intense Not-Knowing-Ness. They all read lightly like mysteries in how they click their factions together, and it makes a satisfying style to read every time.
[and then you say]
Check out his stuff, if you haven't already.
[now pay off the spoiler gag]
(* and that's what the dad tries to do to his family!!!!)
You can read the next showcase here.