Samantha Hunt writes a deeply destabilizing style of fiction, pulling the rug out from underneath readers to remind them the world is a wilder and stranger place than we admit. She’s an expert at conjuring a very familiar brand of domestic disaffection with the superficial aspects of American life, yet this sense of familiarity is simply the prelude to her true subject – the supernatural and unfathomable, the abyss of uncertainty that underpins all human activity and often calls to Hunt’s protagonists in unpredictable ways. These two worlds may seem entirely distinct, but in Hunt’s collection of stories The Dark Dark, the former is merely hastily papered over the latter and characters rarely know how or when they’ve slipped from one to the other. Though its settings vary from Galveston shipyards to vacant lots behind Walmarts, the overall feeling of The Dark Dark (a phrase Hunt at one point defines as the “unknowable, unlit, and mysterious”) is of the familiar and modern falling away to reveal deeper and older mysteries of existence.
Yet the most surprising aspect of The Dark Dark is how, through Hunt’s eyes, the domestic and the unfathomable are not necessarily in opposition to each other. In Hunt’s last novel, the eerie Mr. Splitfoot (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), Cora’s pregnancy runs parallel to her journey away from her alienated life selling insurance and towards the murky unknowns of both her family history and life itself; the pregnancy is an impetus to seek a deeper, more meaningful connection to the world, forcing Cora to confront things she had previously shut out. Similarly, in The Dark Dark, while the miracle of birth may be the foundation on which the domestic life is built, the mysteries of pregnancy and motherhood can force female protagonists into a reckoning with the unfathomable, after which returning to a more pedestrian reality is difficult. As one of her more cynical protagonists puts it in “A Love Story” — “I glimpsed a huge beyond when I became a mother, the enormity of an abyss or the opposite of an abyss, the idea of complete fullness, the anti-death, tiny gods everywhere. But now all that the world wants to hear from me is how I juggle children and career, how I manage to get the kids to eat their veggies, how I lost the weight.”
In another story, the simultaneous pregnancies of 13 teenage girls in Texas becomes a topic of consternation and mystery for the whole town. Hand wringing ensues from parents and their principal, but to most they are a source of wonder, a reminder of the ineffable. The story concludes in a flight of fancy, with the girls compared to the moon – ancient yet still mysterious, universally thought beautiful yet only a screen to be projected onto – with a character asking, “Does he understand what the girls mean or does he, like me, at least understand that he doesn’t understand?”
While Hunt posits that mothers might gain a glimpse at the infinite, she certainly doesn’t romanticize the entirely of it and suggests that whatever glimpse mothers may see is often obscured by the drudgery and isolation of childcare and housework that follows. In one of the funniest and most cutting exchanges of the collection, again from “A Love Story”, after her husband sends her a list of “Life Hacks” while she is home scrubbing toilets, the protagonist fires back, “Or you could just marry a woman and make her your slave.” Here Hunt is again complicating the distinction between domestic and unfathomable; to accept the unfathomable aspect of motherhood can curdle the appeal of the domestic and make it seem shabby and inadequate.
It’s not only motherhood, per se, that can destabilize the domestic in this sense. In one story, a woman uproots her life to move to Florida, telling people she’s a 9/11 widower, when in fact she had a miscarriage on 9/11 and could only understand the world again by thinking the whole country shared in her grief. In two stories (the most uncanny of the collection, repeated with variations at the beginning and end), the protagonist’s inability to conceive leads her into a paranoid hall of mirrors, where fears of infidelity and inadequacy manifest themselves as doppelgangers and her hold on reality is slippery.
Hunt’s complex feedback loop between the domestic and unfathomable might be best expressed in “The Yellow”, in which a man, Roy, accidentally runs over a family dog and upon showing it to Suzanne, the mother home alone for the night, they’re ineffably drawn to sleep together, whereupon, the dog comes back to life. The two share a moment of transcendence from the everyday, but it’s rendered strange and terrifying by the dog’s resurrection. Roy, himself a failed 40-something recently returned to his parents, exiled from a domestic life of his own, stares through the window as Suzanne’s family returns and she resumes vacuuming, “tethered again” to the domestic and banal”. In the dark Roy understood her family’s pact. Work and school, laundry, dinner, the things that happened in their lives were not part of the brightness that she and Roy had glimpsed. These things had nothing to do with birth and death but were, rather, dull, quite expected, and entirely unastonishing. “Nothing strange ever really happened. No, it didn’t.” Roy repeats the last line as if trying to convince himself, or asserting that the quiet domestic sphere is only made possible by ignoring the deeper mysteries of life.
Suzanne, who as a mother must return immediately to her responsibilities, admonishes Roy to kill the dog, to destroy the ineffable symbol of the entire night. Roy doesn’t, but he realizes that the miraculousness of what occurred will inevitably be diminished by the passing of time and resumption of routine. “By the light of day, under the huge yellow, optimistic sun, Suzanne would find it easy to convince herself of anything; marriage is easy, motherhood a snap, and death uncomplicated. But in the dark it was clear to Roy. That “it” is never explicitly defined, but that makes it more powerful, not less, as the repudiation of all the easy certainties that underpin everyday life.
Hunt’s characters are trapped between the light and the dark. To live in the light is simply to be human, to appreciate the nourishing pleasures of the domestic and the everyday even when they’re tedious or trying. But rare experiences like motherhood give a glimpse into the darkness, into the unfathomable expanses of life where both wisdom and terror lie, and sooner or later, all of Hunt’s characters feel themselves called to confront the darkness.