Mrs. Schrom wore a black halo the day before she died. Raymond saw it when she spiked her tomatoes out back and when she walked her dog. The next day her husband drove their horse trailer off the road. On Route 50 just past Gunnison. He lived because he was thrown from the truck, but Mrs. Schrom was wearing her seatbelt and she was strapped in tight. His mom told him not to draw any lessons from the accident. You should always buckle up, she said. Mrs. Schrom was the exception that proved the rule. Sister Mary Bee up the street wore a halo, too, but she was old and Raymond didn't notice at first. You had to watch carefully if you wanted to see them. They looked a lot like shadows.
The first time he saw one he reached for it, but his fingers went right through. His mom apologized. He must like your hair, she told old Mrs. Dreisser, who died the next day. She went to sleep and didn't wake up, and her daughter said it was a blessing. His mom had scolded him afterward. She shook her finger and said it wasn't nice to point, and Raymond knew then she couldn't see the things he saw. (p. 93)
Back in 2010 when I was reading through dozens of lit journals and genre magazines to highlight stories for further consideration for the later-aborted Best American Fantasy 4 collection, I encountered L. Annette Binder's "Halo" in Green Mountains Review, XXII, #2. The first two paragraphs immediately grabbed my attention, as the balance between the fantastical (the ominous black halos that seemed to foretell the bearer's impending death) and the mundane (a young boy trying to make sense of life and death) was very good. The reasoning behind the halos is never explained, but instead of jarring the reader from a story about a boy coming to understand what death was, this narrative device served to strengthen it, to give it a more numinous quality than it might otherwise have held.
Therefore, when I learned several months ago that Binder's debut collection, Rise, was set for an August 2012 release, I quickly placed a pre-order because I was curious to see if the other stories in the collection would be of similar quality to "Halo." What I discovered was a wide spectrum of tales, some of which contained elements of weird fiction, that use metaphor and symbolism along with elements of realist narratives to create tales that haunt the reader long after the story is read. Very few writers, especially those with only a singular collection, manage to release such a uniformly strong collection.
Some stories, such as "Dead Languages," strike at the hearts of parents or would-be parents who have ever worried that their child might become "lost" to them:
She hadn't put down the grocery bags when her boy finally began to talk. She hadn't even closed the door. He stood there sure as the pope and pointed at her with sticky fingers. Apo, her little Nicholas said. He looked at the ceiling, and his eyes were shut. Apo tou nun epi ton hapanta. It sounded like a song. It sounded like the martial arts movies Gary liked to watch. She dropped her bags at the sound. she let them fall to the kitchen tiles, and the eggs broke and seeped through the paper. (p. 73)
Here, instead of a toddler being walled away due to autism or deaf-muteness, he speaks in a mixture of Attic Greek, Etruscan, Ligurian and other languages long lost in antiquity. The heartache it causes Nicholas' parents is real, but the deliver fashion, being so fantastical, prevents it from being just another tale of parents struggling to understand their special child. Binder's matter-of-fact tone to something that is surreal and (at times) slightly uneasy creates a narrative dissonance that forces the reader to consider simultaneously the fantastical and the mundane, before the two merge together to create a short, sharp narrative.
The characters in Binder's other stories are an odd lot: a giantess that is the offspring of an angel and a mortal; a mother haunted by her daughter's death preoccupies herself with numerous plastic surgeries; a teen who sees angels; and so forth. Yet the strangeness of their situations and characters serves as a contrast to the often-quotidian settings which they inhabit: a suburban housing development or a middle class profession. Yet by the end of many of these tales, it is the seemingly "normal" that feels slightly askew, a bit out of place. It is as if Binder tilted the narrative framework 10° off-center; the reader notices something is awry, but it may take her until the story's end for her to detect just what exactly that might be.
Binder's prose is subtle, yet cutting to the bone when the situation merits it. Her characters often possess this fatalistic sense that things are not right or that something portentous is about occur, but this is in addition to their worries about their lives, their families, and their careers. The quest to understand happenstance lurks beneath many of these stories, such as the grieving mother in "Galatea." What is discovered, however, may not comfort the questing characters, but it is that seeking explanations in a sometimes cruel, capricious world full of haunted memories, recriminations, and weird developments that makes Rise one of the most compelling debut story collections that I have read in recent years. Binder is a rising star (she won the 2011 Mary McCarthy Prize for Short Fiction) and Rise hopefully is the beginning of a long and fruitful career as a writer of fiction that straddles the lines between the mundane and the surreal, the realist and the weird.