Publisher: Ballantine Books, 2012
Genre: Fiction, Short Stories
Where I Got It: LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program
Why I Read It: Someone recommended Chaon’s Await Your Reply to me (which I still haven’t read) so I thought I’d try this as well
My Rating: 4 stars
A collection of disturbing and unsettling short stories dealing mostly with death, loss and grief, Stay Awake is short on words but long on atmosphere, dread and strangeness. The tone of each story is like a horrible bad dream. In fact, the epigraph that begins the book sets the tone quite effectively:
I had a dream I was awake and I woke up to find myself asleep. — Stan Laurel
Here are some brief descriptions of the stories to give you a feel for the tone of the book. In Stay Awake, a young couple’s baby is born with two heads (one is considered the “parasitic” twin) and they must decide what to do about the second head. In The Bees, a father is haunted by the family he left behind years ago, in ways that are very dangerous to his current family. In Long Delayed, Always Expected, a divorcee faces a loneliness that is mitigated when her brain-damaged ex-husband comes to play a surprising new role in her life. In To Psychic Underworld:, a widowed man becomes a magnet for notes written by desperate people. In Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted, we meet a young man trapped in his family’s decaying home, haunted by the double suicide of his parents.
This book was extremely unsettling. Most of the stories left me with feelings of dread and uneasiness. All of the characters are haunted—by their past misdeeds, loss, memories. Although the stories are not interconnected, I often found myself thinking “Wait … is this the woman with the pears from the other story?” It happened often enough that I began to think that perhaps the stories were intertwined in a loose way. Certainly, the stories are tied together by recurring themes and images: suicide, car accidents, falling from ladders, the death of children, loss, alcoholism. This is a bleak and dreary landscape that Chaon is working in, and he treads this ground like he is a regular inhabitant of this type of psychic place.
Although short stories often leave me wanting more, I found myself willing to leave these poor tortured souls at the end of each story. The endings always left me with a sense of melancholia. I was content to tiptoe away and return to my happy, sunny life. In a way, these felt like stories by Stephen King without the gore and supernatural elements. At King’s best, he captures the pain and horror of life in a way that feels inhabited and real. Chaon does the same, and I found myself glad I was reading these stories in short doses.
If you’re in the mood for highly atmospheric and unsettling stories filled with loss and dread, I’d highly recommend this collection. It would be a perfect RIP read. The writing is very good, but the subject matter is so dark and depressing that I’d wait to read these for when you’re in the proper mood. I will definitely be reading more of Chaon’s stuff, and I’ll be curious to see if his novel is as dark as these stories.
Readers who appreciate short stories dealing with unsettling emotions and dark themes such as death, loss, grief and loneliness.
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