PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Take a Vacation From Despair With 'The Dark and Other Love Stories'

Deborah Willis enchants and transports with 11 stories of adolescent friendship, Canada, and birds.

The Dark and Other Love Stories

Publisher: W.W. Norton
Length: 224 pages
Author: Deborah Willis
Price: $24.95
Format: hardcover
Publication date: 2017-02

Like a lot of people, I met 2017 with despair. Reading a short story -- much less an entire collection of them -- felt like an impossible task. I had to force myself to sit down and read The Dark and Other Love Stories. I was glad I did: The Dark and Other Love Stories is reason for hope. Should this sound like hyperbole, I can only direct you to my usual reviews, most often ranging from tepid to outraged.

A shared a penchant for the surreal means Willis's writing sees frequent if topical comparisons to Aimee Bender's. Willis's stories are more subtle, venturing into the paranormal only as far as necessary to make their points. The protagonists of The Dark and Other Love Stories don't fit in birdcages; they aren't kept as pets. Girls aren't possessed of inexplicably flaming limbs as a matter of course. Instead, these are stories about the ways loneliness, isolation, and the inability to communicate throw up barriers between friends and lovers, husbands and wives.

In "The Dark", Jess and Andrea are 13-year-old girls at summer camp. They spend their days dutifully attending activities, sneaking out at night to explore. Then a disturbing encounter on the lake changes everything. If you're a straight female, read "The Dark" and recall your own adolescent self, maliciously eager and able to betray your best girlfriends, all for a fleeting moment of male attention.

Hannah and Lielle, the 14-year-olds of "Welcome to Paradise", are another example of female adolescence run amok. Their original summer vacation plans involved spraying Sun-In in their hair (a temporary hair lightener popular with the teen set) and "making boys fall in love with us." Instead, bored and unsupervised, they begin breaking into houses, throwing the neighborhood into a panic and leaving Hannah unsettled and questioning.

"Girlfriend on Mars" is one of the few stories concluding on quasi-upbeat note. Amber Kiniven and Kevin Watkins live together in a Vancouver apartment, earning their living growing and selling high-grade marijuana. Kevin is startled to discover Amber has applied for a spot on MarsNowTM. A combination reality-television- show-attempt-to-colonize-Mars. MarsNowTM requires rigorous mental and physical training before a live television audience.

Set in Canada's small towns and larger cities, The Dark and Other Love Stories makes frequent reference to Canadian geography and culture -- pewee hockey, Native Canadians ("Indian" is the rudest of insults in Canada), rural youth fleeing to Vancouver. While insider knowledge of Canada isn't necessary to appreciate the novel, marriage to a Canadian deepened this reader's appreciation of passages like this, where Kevin describes his fear of Amber's father, a native Finn now residing in Thunder Bay, Ontario:

When we were growing up, her dad coached pewee hockey and would put me in goal without a helmet, which was supposed to teach me to be less afraid of the puck. He still addresses me by my last name, Watkins, and it still scares me.

All writers have their pet fascinations. Emily St. John Mandel has her shipping containers. Siri Hustvedt writes of neurobiology. Jane Smiley casts a broad net but invariably returns to horses. Willis is a bird freak. In the acknowledgments, she cites Helen Macdonald's H Is for Hawk, along with Esther Woolfson's elegant yet lesser-known Corvus (illustrated, incidentally, by Helen Macdonald).

In "The Passage Bird", Shiri is the teenaged daughter of Holocaust survivors struggling to acclimate in Canada. After a freak accident kills her brother, Shiri seeks the company of Hawk Man, a recluse preferring avian company to human. His company, however compelling, forces Shiri to make hard choices.

"The Last One to Leave" also addresses Holocaust themes. Here, Havryil is a German Jew, now a Displaced Person called Jim. He is sent to Tasis, north of Victoria, to work on a logging crew.

An accident -- The Dark and Other Love Stories abounds in tragedies -- leaves Havryil a solitary resident, speaking to no one. When Sydney, a local reporter, becomes curious about the man living alone in the crude cabin, her human interest story becomes a marriage of long standing. As logging in Tahsis dries up, the population dwindles. The couple lives in the crude cabin, growing older together. If I skimp on detail, it's because to tell more would spoil it for readers.

There isn't a weak story in this collection. An adult alcoholic recalls his charming, hopeless drunk of a father in "I Am Optimus Prime". In "Todd", an alcoholic young father desperately tries to pull his life together when a crow takes up residence in his apartment. All the love in the world can't stop a child from running away in "Flight". In "Hard Currency", a famed Russian-American writer revisits his Russian homeland but cannot summon his beloved grandmother. In "Steve and Lauren: Three Love Stories", a married couple moves with dizzying speed from their early married years through childrearing and midlife crisis, literally waking to find themselves in old age:

Life seemed so solid once, but now it had melted like Dali's watch and slipped through their fingers. They read over their tax returns, looked at the photos, and decided they'd lived a good life, without tragedy or scandal, Did this make them a success? Had it been the goal? Was it enough?

The most skilled practitioners of literature place us in the lived experience of another while entertaining us. For all the times somebody has written of art's critical role in society, thus wearing the words thin, the empathy engendered by fine books like The Dark and Other Stories is as necessary now as it was in 1939. This is most unfortunate. Fortunately, it's a great book. And like all great books, it will outlive this moment in history.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.