Strange Monsters: An entrancing musical/literary performance

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Strange Monsters by Peter Brewer and Bonnie Jo StufflebeamStrange Monsters by Peter Brewer & Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

I’ve been a fan of Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s short fiction for a few years. She captures a lovely intersection between the mundane and the mythic in her stories, so when she asked if I’d like to review her newest collection, I jumped at the chance. Strange Monsters (2016) is a music-and-words collaboration between Stufflebeam and Peter Brewer, a jazz musician and Stufflebeam’s partner. Over melodies both slow and easy, and chaotic and exciting, a cast of actors reads five short stories and five poems by Stufflebeam. The resulting listening experience is fulfilling, funny, and ultimately haunting.

The first story, “The Stink of Horses,” was inspired by a real-life quote from Chekhov about how dancers stink like horses. It tells the story of Marina Golovina, a mysterious Russian ballerina who inspires obsession, possessiveness, and possibly madness. This story is told in four voices, each of whom has a different experience of Golovina, but ultimately it is Golovina’s voice herself that dominates. Her love of dancing transcends every other love in her life, and she dreads a time to come when she will not be able to dance any more. (And I was thrilled to read, in the free story companion on Stufflebeam’s website, that Brewer based the accompanying music on Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty waltz; Tchaikovsky is my favorite.)

The second story, “Mrs. Stiltskin,” lets listeners in on the pain of not being able to bear children, and the very real attachment between parents and adopted children. Mrs. Stiltskin (Rumple’s wife, I assume) argues with a man who has come to investigate the Stiltskin family about how they acquired their most recent child. I was pleased that Mrs. Stiltskin wasn’t villainized like her husband usually is in stories; instead, she pushed back against the investigator, asking if he “deserved” the children he had.

The third story, “Skeletons,” was perhaps the most opaque to me, although I still loved the imagery and emotions it left me with. In it, a group of friends goes camping. One girl, Cathryn, is adored and coveted by all the other friends, most of whom she has dated at one time or another. Cathryn’s new girlfriend is along on the trip and the narrator tries to understand what this girl has that she does not. In the background of this story about friendship, angst, jealousy, and unrequited love plays another story about living animal skeletons. Cathryn has a couple of her own — a T-Rex and a stegosaurus in a terrarium in her bedroom — but we see others on the camping trip as well. I don’t know what the animals meant (although stories do not have to “mean”) or how they connected to the main narrative but it was an indelible, strange, Kelly Link-ish image … and we all know how much I love Kelly Link.

“No Eyes,” the fourth story, shows us a meeting between Alice and a skeleton who has knocked at her door. Alice’s husband died in the war and she is tempted to let this skeleton in, to try to be what it needs and let it fill her loneliness. She quickly realizes how impossible this is. For such a short story, this was powerful and lovely, a wonderful opener for Stufflebeam’s selection of poems which followed.

The poems were prefaced by a quote by May Sarton which gives the collection its title and its focus on women’s voices:

And all women who have wanted to break out
Of the prison of consciousness to sing or shout
Are strange monsters who renounce the treasure
Of their silence for a curious devouring pleasure.

Stufflebeam’s poems are precise and raw at the same time. My favorites were “Infidelity,” with its image of a wedding ring as “a crackling ember” that “will soon burn out,” and the effortlessly creepy “Dining with Echoes.” Stufflebeam’s delivery (she reads the poems herself) of the line “I lost something too; it wasn’t important” wrenched me with its simplicity and sadness.

Finally, the last story, “Where You Came From,” tells of a girl’s struggle with her provincial hometown and the effort to leave it. In the story companion Stufflebeam describes this as a werewolf story, which I picked up on while I was listening, but I didn’t pick up on the town — not the moon — as the trigger for her transformation. Even without that information, I got a story of love, sex, and destruction. And the final image, of eating red ripe tomatoes until “juice drips all over my hands, my feet, my thighs,” is perfect.

As I was listening I really enjoyed Brewer and the band’s musical accompaniment. The at-times discordant nature of the jazz heightened emotional responses, especially uneasy ones. It also slowed the pace of the stories in Strange Monsters and made them feel like something I was savoring and fully experiencing rather than rushing to the end of.


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KATE LECHLER, with us since May 2014, resides in Oxford, MS, where she divides her time between teaching early British literature at the University of Mississippi, writing fiction, and throwing the tennis ball for her insatiable terrier, Sam. She loves speculative fiction because of what it tells us about our past, present, and future. She particularly enjoys re-imagined fairy tales and myths, fabulism, magical realism, urban fantasy, and the New Weird. Just as in real life, she has no time for melodramatic protagonists with no sense of humor. The movie she quotes most often is Jurassic Park, and the TV show she obsessively re-watches (much to the chagrin of her husband) is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her personal blog is The Rediscovered Country and she tweets @katelechler.

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2 comments

  1. This all sounds fascinating — pairing music with spoken word, especially when the two people involved are also intimately involved. I’ll have to check this out! Thanks, Kate!

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