Things Withered is a brilliant collection of short horror stories, in which Susie Maloney plays on the anxieties of everyday life to deliver horrifying chills. Whether it’s the need to hold onto a job, unfortunate deaths in the neighborhood, or competition between friends, the drive of each story is grounded in human beings with their own frustrations so that by the time things get really weird, the reader is already on edge.
Take, for example, “The Audit,” in which a young woman faces a growing mountain of paperwork as she attempts to prepare for being audited by the IRS. Taxes are an ordinary kind of fear, but the story manages to build an increasing tension through the escalating mountain of papers that need to be addressed combined with the indifference of the people around her.
In “Petty Zoo,” a mother and her son are stationed in a line of families waiting to get into a mall petting zoo that is more than an hour late from opening. The growing anger and annoyance of the parents, who are caught between their desperation to keep their children happy and their their own desire to leave is the vivid center point — at least until things go terribly, terribly wrong.
Another kind of anxiety is offered up in “Poor David, or, The Possibility of Coincidence in Situations of Multiple Occurrences.” David has the misfortune of finding the dead body of his girlfriend’s aunt, a traumatic experience that’s quickly compounded by the discovery of another body. There is nothing suspicious about these deaths, all due to natural circumstances — and yet it seems to be David’s misfortune to discover them. The story beautifully portrays his escalating anxiety, which makes it difficult for him to function in the world. And yet, it’s also about his relationship with Myra and how the two of them continue to build a life together through this trauma.
“Reclamation on the Forrest Floor” also deals with relationships, in this case between two girlfriend and the brutal outcome of their ongoing competition with each other. The story opens with murder and evolves into a stunningly written body horror as the consequences of that act reveal themselves.
Some of my favorite stories in the collection, are those that features older women as their protagonists. “The Last Living Summer” is a story of three little old ladies in continue on in a beach town that has emptied out since all their neighbors abandoned the place in the face of a strange, unsettling apocalypse. It’s a story with such melancholy beauty.
In “The Neighborhood, or, To the Devil with You,” a woman who has lived on the same block well into her old age relates the history of her neighborhood, which carries a series of tragedies. With it’s meandering style and “times have changed” tone, the story balances between the events being simply the horrifying misfortunes of an ordinary or all part of some larger, sinister design.
On the whole, Things Withers is a phenomenal collection of stories — highly recommended.