What happens when tales of the paranormal and supernatural are shot through with an air of melancholy? Rita Bullwinkel’s new collection Belly Up does a fine job of answering that question. Bullwinkel covers a lot of stylistic territory here—some of these stories deal with the uncanny, while others fall in a more realistic vein—but the emotional consistency that carries through the book helps it to achieve a welcome unity. Alternately, consider these variations on a theme regarding mortality and isolation: timeless themes, rendered in an unpredictable manner.
A sense of mortality is ever-present in most of these stories. “Phylum” is told in a succession of paragraphs, many of them beginning with the phrase “I was the type of man who…” or “I was the type of woman who…” The note on which it ends, however, takes these two archetypal figures past their death and past the scattering of their remains. The closing words bring this tale to a harrowing conclusion: “in the end we were both taken by the sea.”
A different form of life and death takes root in “Burn.” Here, the opening line is disconcertingly evocative: “People kept dying and I was made to sleep in their beds.” In the midst of all of this death, the narrator gets married, eats badly, and ends up keeling over. His description of death is surreal and prosaic: “Savoring a cold glass of water and then being a cold glass of water.” His arrival home finds him greeted by the ghost of his wife’s past love, who’s been there all along. While the metaphorical aspects of this are pretty clear, Bullwinkel doubles down on the surrealism, emphasizing a world in which the living and the spectral intermingle, and old rivalries don’t end at the grave.
There’s a tincture of body horror found in these stories as well. “In the South, the Sand Winds Are Our Greatest Enemy” tells the story of two imprisoned brothers, Gleb and Oleg, with a talent for repairing damaged bodies in strange ways. The narrator of Black Tongue” licks a series of exposed wires, transforming her tongue into something bizarre and unmanageable. For all of the phantasmagorical elements found in this story, there’s an undercurrent of despair, characterized best by one late paragraph, consisting of a single sentence: “There is only so much of your body you can ruin.”
Bodies are malleable in these stories. “Clamor,” which closes the book, includes a long sequence where many of its characters interact with a medium. It ends on a disquieting note, with the medium imagining herself “cutting open each of their brain containers so that what was truly in their heads became revealed.” A close cousin to this imagery can be found in “God’s True Zombies,” which imagines Florida as a refuge for the undead.
Even the more nominally realistic stories carry similar elements of unpredictable alienation. The narrator of “Decor” works in a high-end furniture showroom, and begins getting requests for samples from a prisoner. What he wants them for—and why he’s imprisoned to begin with—take this story to the precipice of the Gothic.
Even when Bullwinkel heads into a more sentimental vein, as with “What I Would Be If I Wasn’t What I Am,” that sense of being somehow divided from the rest of the world persists. Late in the story, the narrator observes, “One of the rotten things about having a body is that you don’t realize how many parts you have until they’ve all gone wrong.” Here, there are no mysterious resurrections or spectral visitors, just the story of a woman’s life, her talent for art, and her management of loss. Still, the overlapping language and the shared themes make it of a piece with what’s come before and what will come after; there’s nothing supernatural, but in the context of this book, an unearthly visitation might be just a page turn away.
Consider the title of the book: Belly Up is a jovial phrase, and one’s that’s fun to intone in a comic voice. It’s also one that hearkens to mind an image of death, especially for anyone who kept fish as a child. It’s neatly matched to the stories in this book: there are moments of childlike wonder to be had while reading this book, blended with the kind of dread that comes from an awareness of mortality. That there’s plenty of vibrant and fantastical imagery present along with that dread is no surprise; in the end, Belly Up is a haunting carnival, a celebration in defiance of extinction, and an embrace of the weirdness of life, and what might come after.
Belly Up is available from A Strange Object.