Adam Golaski’s stories in Worse Than Myself are scary. They’re also compelling stories—the word that comes to mind is addictive. I’ve never gone out of my way to read horror stories, but if I saw that an Adam Golaski story had been published anywhere—in a magazine, on a blog—I would go out of my way to read it.
George Williams’ stories in Gardens of Earthly Delight (review) are frightening because they deal with the real horror around us—modern weapons, our growing irritation with each other, the degeneration of civility, our strip-mined landscapes.
Golaski’s stories are scary because each of them hones in on a familiar and permanent source of human anxiety—the fear of sinking into an obsession, paranoia about the opposite sex, the fear of squandering your life, the fear of helplessness.
In “The Animator’s House,” a girl trapped by a demon can’t free herself because her hapless parents never taught her the Lord’s Prayer. In “The Animal Aspect of Her Movement,” a man follows a ghost over a cliff in his car. In “Back Home,” a girl leaves her soul behind in the woods when a version of herself returns to the city. In “A String of Lights,” a man discovers that all the women in his life are colluding against him.
In an especially frightening story set in the woods of Montana, a zombie descends from a mountain peak to a farewell party and guest-by-guest saps everyone’s will to survive:
I heard stones crunch under his shoes as he walked up to Sarah. He looked at me while he put a hand on her right shoulder. And she relaxed completely—I wasn’t sure what kept her from collapsing. He grabbed her hair and yanked, forcing her head to the side. She winked at me as if she were about to get a treat she’d been waiting for all day.
Did I make a move to stop him? No. His eyes locked onto mine. And any desire for survival I’d had, any wish for Sarah to live, just slipped away—was leeched from my thoughts. I reached into my breast pocket, slowly removed my cigarette pack, took a cigarette, tamped it against the box, lit it and smoked. I stood, smoked, watched as he tore a chunk of flesh from Sarah’s throat with those stupid buck teeth of his and opened his mouth to the jet of blood that burst from her artery.
Golaski’s prose is poetic but taut—he keeps the tension building—and he drives his stories with a succession of striking, eerie images—a deer in a bed, a staircase corkscrewing down into the earth, a long bridge clogged with zombies, a trapped child watching helplessly through a window as her parents call for her.
In one of my favorite stories, “What Water Reveals,” a recovering alcoholic is pursued by the monster he once warded off with booze. The monster is the shape of a man, but the entirety of his face is given over to a gaping, rotting mouth:
Nicolas faces the man with the wide-open mouth. A mouth like a rotten hole in a tree-stump, like a sink-hole. It is not a man at all, but something that has been buried a long time. Its body is man-shaped but a shimmering shadow figure lost sometimes in the bright sun reflected off the river. Its mouth is huge and working, twitching at the edges and rotten tongue squirming like an ebon baby snake. Behind the shadow-figure, from the hole it made as it climbed from earth, are gurgling sounds. Birthing sounds. The sealed bottle of gin in Nicolas’s hand feels heavier than it possibly could.
When I was five years old, playing in a field—really just a vacant lot in my neighborhood on the east side of Detroit—a teenage boy I’d never seen before told me that he was my father and that he was going to take me home with him. He was on a bicycle and he rode over to where I had been trying to catch grasshoppers in the dandelion patch, but now stood paralyzed with fear. He grabbed my arm and I screamed. He rode off down the alley from whence he’d come, laughing loudly. I ran home crying, and never returned to play in that vacant lot again.
Golaski’s stories brought back memories of that incident—the feeling of danger you sense as a child when you know that something’s off but you don’t understand the nature of the problem, then the moment when you realize that what’s happening is exactly the thing you were most frightened of.
Golaski is expert at building up his characters’ (and readers’) recognition of danger, and his stories leave you feeling unsafe even after you finish his book, like the kind of nightmare that you can’t shake off after you wake up.