The Dark Dark by Samantha Hunt

The Dark Dark: Stories BY Samantha Hunt. FSG Originals. Paperback, 256 pages. $15.
The cover of The Dark Dark: Stories

It’s fair to say that Samantha Hunt doesn’t care much for straightforward realism. The protagonist of her first novel, The Seas (2004), is a young woman living in an isolated coastal town who’s convinced that she’s a mermaid. The Invention of Everything Else (2008) is set during the waning years of Nikola Tesla’s life, but includes a subplot wherein one of the supporting characters may have traveled through time. And her most recent novel, Mr. Splitfoot (2016), abounds with ghosts both literal and metaphorical.

For Hunt’s characters, belief in a thing may be enough to make it real. As an author, Hunt eschews easy boundaries between the supernatural and the ways in which the supernatural can be echoed or faked in the mundane world. In her fiction, a hoax might reveal the presence of the uncanny; the bizarre may walk among the mundane and never be detected. In other words, questions of the otherworldly aren’t an either/or proposition for Hunt; the existence of one humbug masquerading as an emissary of the uncanny doesn’t necessarily mean that otherworldly beings aren’t out there.

That ambiguity can be found in abundance in The Dark Dark, Hunt’s first collection of short fiction. Here, the quotidian struggles of a suburban marriage ebb into something much more strange, a resurrected dog interrupts an extramarital assignation, and a government agent investigates a Unabomber-esque fugitive with the aid of a sex robot. Hunt grounds these characters in genuine feelings and hangups—frustration, emotional or physical stagnation, or a fundamental incompatibility with the people around them. And that gut-level connection persists, even when the weirdness comes in.

The opening of “Beast” suggests that it’ll be a familiar story of a marriage hitting a rough patch. The narrator’s husband checks her body for ticks before they sleep. She herself muses over their time together, which began with them dating in high school. “I made a good decision by accident,” she thinks. But even so, there’s a sense of stasis: He initially rebuffs her request that he remove his clothing before sleeping. The narrator describes being regarded “as if I were a brand-new flashlight whose bulb, for some reason, has already dimmed and malfunctioned.” It’s a nearly perfect metaphor for a very real mental state. Then he falls asleep and she turns into a deer—a condition to which she’s become accustomed. It’s not really a metaphor; instead, it’s a dose of the strange, a shift into surrealism that only accentuates the narrator’s sense of discomfort and alienation from her body, from her husband, and from the people around them.

Ticks also show up in the beginning of “A Love Story,” as the narrator (a writer and former drug dealer) asks her husband to check her body for them. “I had great hopes the threat of Lyme disease would revitalize our sex life,” she recalls. (It does not.) He leaves their bedroom to investigate a mysterious sound elsewhere in the house, and slowly, the story of this couple and their children ebbs away into other narratives. “I’ve imagined objects and moments into existence. I’ve made humans,” thinks the narrator early in the story—a hat-tip for the fragmentation that comes later on.

“I want you to agree that there is more than one reality,” she says to her husband at one point—and that, too, seems emblematic of the way that some of these stories echo one another. The Dark Dark is bookended by two stories that, initially, play out like mirrors of one another. “The Story of Of” stands alone neatly, and concerns a woman named Norma who’s been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to become pregnant. An impromptu call to a number scrawled on a bathroom wall connects her with a company affiliated with “the Procreation by Division Industries”—“Like the amoebae,” she’s told—and suddenly, that notion becomes a motif that gives the story a surreal energy. A previously-unknown (to the narrator) sibling arrives on the scene, and Norma imagines burying a dissected corpse in the earth, in turn giving rise to “trees that grow babies.”

This theme of rampant reproduction is accentuated and accelerated in “The Story of Of.” Here, characters familiar from the first story interact, and at it initially reads as if Hunt is remixing her own work. Soon, though, the “procreation by division” concept takes on a metafictional dimension: The story itself begins to fragment, offering a host of possibilities to its characters—which seems wholly in keeping with a story that grapples with the anxieties and concerns of someone who wants to have a child. Some versions of the story end with profound realizations; others conclude on a more ambiguous note.

In “Cortés the Killer,” several of the collection’s motifs converge. Hunt dwells powerfully on storytelling itself. Protagonist Beatrice is one of the children of a couple who somewhat arbitrarily decided to become farmers in their early twenties, along with “foregoing regular dentist visits.” Initially, it’s a tale of stagnation: Beatrice and her brother Clement deal with changes in their relationship with their mother after their father’s death. But slowly, things grow surreal. Their mother’s profession of repurposing myths for marketers, for instance, hangs over the proceedings. As the siblings opt to travel to a local mall on Thanksgiving by horse, there’s a sense of the archaic that burns through the nods to modernity.

Here, too, the familiar becomes the uncanny. If their mother is charged with turning myths into the mundane, the siblings encounter the reverse, in the form of a construction site near the mall: “It is tremendous, far larger than a football field, and it is filled with water. In the dark, the hole extends beyond the limit of Beatrice’s vision.” That’s the stuff of legend right there, the kind of thing that early civilizations might have written myths about. The story’s threads converge in a wrenching image that seems taken from some primal folktale—a concept that a futuristic version of Beatrice and Clement’s mother might find a useful template for selling something.

Families fracturing, suburban sprawl, the ways that the sublime can be brought to earth and used to sell the most mundane of things: All of these are familiar notes for many an American writer to hit. What makes The Dark Dark so refreshing is Hunt’s willingness to work in the unapologetically weird. For some writers, the presence of the surreal might be exceedingly metaphorical or heavy-handed. Hunt celebrates unpredictability itself. At times, the dramatic shifts from realism into the bizarre recalls the likes of filmmakers like Richard Ayoade and David Lynch. As much as The Dark Dark compliments Hunt’s trio of novels, it also showcases other sides of her work, from playful metafiction to borderline body horror. It’s a welcome statement of purpose, and a reminder that certain familiar places and themes are ripe for their own fictional revival.

Tobias Carroll is the author of the novel Reel (Rare Bird, 2016) and the short story collection Transitory (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2016).