A woman is delivered to love—and, later, to grief—by the powers of the moon and the sea; a father who can speak for the dead, and a son who can speak for animals, find that they can’t communicate with each other; Death, in his adolescence, moves reluctantly toward adulthood and his powers of annihilation.
These are just a few of the characters and situations that figure into Kellie Wells’s fabulist story collection God, the Moon, and Other Megafauna, winner of the Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction. Although this book is slim, its stories are as detail-dense and strange as an enchanted forest, and they are nothing that can or should be rushed through.
Several of them read like fairytales. And like the best fairytales, these stories give character, form, and emotion to things that we fear or struggle to understand (such as God, death, loss, love), making these things more approachable—and sometimes nearly human—if no less mysterious.
Love and loss are the central concerns of “Moon, Moon, My Honey.” In this story, the narrator mourns the death of her husband, a one-time teller of “improbable jokes,” who had discovered her with his metal detector after the moon-pulled ocean delivered her ashore.
As the previous description suggests, this story, like the collection as a whole, is quite surreal. But the narrator’s grieving feels deeply real and recognizable. Holding a velvet bag of her husband’s cremated remains, she reflects:
“Moon, Moon, My Honey” has a Q&A structure, which Wells commented on in an interview with the Kenyon Review. The story suggests, she says, that “life and love are full of many unanswerable conundrums, but that doesn’t stop us from posing the questions. These mysteries and the shifting hunches we have about them are like prismatic jokes with many punch lines.”
The story “Animalmancy,” introduced as being “after Italo Calvino,” explores the disconnect between Nikolai, a stage-show performer, and his more understated (but no less talented) son, Busby. Nikolai’s act centers on his ventriloquist-like ability to get the freshly dead to speak. As Nikolai encourages his son to develop this talent, Busby discovers his own gift: an ability to understand, and translate, the language of animals.
Far from being pleased with his son’s talent, Nikolai says, “There is no wisdom what passes from birdly beak to human ear!” We learn that he is wrong, and we also learn of the potentially deadly lengths to which he will go to get through to his son. Through fantastical twists and turns, the story conveys the destruction that can be wrought by tunnel-visioned exertions of will, however well-intentioned they might be.
One of my favorite stories in the collection, “The Arse End of the World,” personifies Death—specifically, Death in adolescence, when he finds himself struggling to understand the mission he’s been given, and to embrace it. The world is depending on Death to carry out the mission, because the growing human population is diminishing the food supply. Yet he is unsure that he can rise to the occasion.
“Death,” Wells writes, “was … irremediably despondent, for there was no creature who could truly empathize with his singular plight, and what is life without the companionship of a like-minded misery?”
After seeking advice from a wolf, who fills him in on the “art and methodology of predation,” Death falls in love with a creature he stalks to a cave, where she shifts in shape and purpose. She turns out to be a “thwarted cadaver rolling longingly toward life.”
This encounter seems to leave Death more disheartened than ever, but wiser. An observation he makes toward the end of the story feels painfully authentic and relevant:
Like many other stories in Wells’s collection, “The Arse End of the World” reveals truths in fresh and unfamiliar ways.
Would My Pick be Your Pick?If you're interested in ________, the answer may be "Yes":
▪ Fiction like that written by Angela Carter, Shane Jones, Kelly Link, Rusty Morrison, and Alissa Nutting
▪ Surreal stories and/or fairytales
▪ Stories that experiment with form