The bones are rattling from inside our own skin in Michael Carter’s delightfully depraved, creative flash fiction collection out this year, Boneyard Tales. I mean that in the way “the call is coming from inside the house” kind of way: The real monsters are sometimes the ones bone deep, tucked away in the marrow we don’t speak about. But Carter is something of an excavator of the twisted tales we tell ourselves to obfuscate that fact.
I don’t want to compare his collection anything else because it’s uniquely his own style and voice, but to help ground you in a sense of what to expect from this collection, I thought it was a mash-up of The Twilight Zone meets Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein, which is the most famous offering that we are the real monsters and the “monsters” we create the tragic figures.
Perhaps my favorite story among the collection (a hard choice to make!) is something in the vein of The Twilight Zone, “Hansen Halloween,” about a man who has purposefully cast himself on an island away from “normal” people because of the disfigurement of his face. On Halloween, he figures on getting into the spirit by wearing a mask, but is bummed when nobody else seems to be playing along when they come to his house; he thinks they only want candy. As it turns out, everyone is playing along because all of the trick-or-treaters are wearing “human” masks! What a delightful story upending what it means to be “normal.”
I also don’t know if writers, like Carter, plan to create an overarching theme with collections or it’s something my own mind uncovers because our brains like patterns, but I couldn’t help but notice that the earnest, desperate and perhaps delusional father was a character that popped up a number of times. First, in, “Revenge of the Ponderosas,” when the trees fight back (which, I think could also be a metaphor for humans encroaching upon nature, and not just a metaphor about fathers), and in, “The Grind,” when a father futilely thinks he can drive his family away from a seemingly apocalyptic scenario.
The creepiest story by far, and one in which I literally had a visceral reaction to, because bugs freak me the heck out, was, “Caddisman.” “
“He gets closer; a stone toss away. I hear his skin fluttering.”
Emphasis mine, eek, what a awful line, which I mean in the most complimentary way. I’ve read that line three times now: In the book, upon writing it here and upon re-reading it when revising this post and each time I shudder. Ugh, I’m serious. But then, this is the story where I thought about Frankenstein because there is something oddly beautiful about the final scene to me. The Caddisman falls into the water and the man reaches in to … save the Caddisman only to then become the Caddisman himself. For some reason, I find that attempt to save something horrible-seeming like the Caddisman, and it transferring to him, lovely.
But gosh, there is so much creativity throughout the collection that I just wanted to keep my feet propped up under a blanket in Carter’s brain. Again, these are flash stories, so by they’re nature, they are short, albeit some are longer than others. Even so, even with the shortest ones, Carter is able to create such vivid, lived-in worlds, whether it’s the ghost town in, “Bannack, Montana,” the back country of, “To Joshua Tree,” or a few decades into the future with, “Body Parts Jewelry,” that you believe these worlds and the characters who inhabit them.
Carter’s writing is tight, smart and ropes you in from one story to the next.
And even one-off quirky pieces, such as, “My Interview for the People Remover Position,” still feels apiece with Carter’s overall universe. Heck, that position requires a Mack-Five truck and in, “Parole Denial of Doctor Alec Kaiser,” they use a Mack-Five truck to reap benefits of creating snow in California! I smell a shared universe!
One of my favorite simple, but sharply effective one-off pieces that felt something out of Chuck Palahniuk’s twisted mind was, “Choking Instructions.” Carter is so adept throughout the entire collection at inverting expectations with such creativity and awfulness. The visual with the hotdogs will stay with me long after I close the book on his collection.
The best part about Carter’s awfulness (which I mean in the most complimentary way? About his scavenging for bones? It doesn’t need to be gruesome. There is not a lot of detail at all that’s overly violent or anything. Sure, a little girl gets her foot run over, and another one gets eaten by a lake monster, but there is nothing graphic in here because there doesn’t need to be. The monsters within these stories live and breathe between the lines. Plus, as I noted, there is also plenty of loveliness here that’s unmistakable between the snarls and the flutters.
If you’re looking for a few dozen flash stories to make you feel something, viscerally, emotionally, creeped out, “Whoa!” at the creative inversions, and marvel at the little horrific universes tucked into such short spaces, then I highly recommend giving Carter’s flash fiction collection a read. You won’t regret it.
Aside from taking a short break to eat some fried chicken, I read it one sitting and was left wanting more (of the book, not the chicken).