By Robert Dunbar
Uninvited Books, 2012
63 pgs; E-book
Blessed is the creature that knows its purpose.
If there is one thing that can be assured, it is that Robert Dunbar—author of the The Pines, The Shore, Willy and Martyrs & Monsters—can always be counted on to challenge his readers, putting forth works that are not only creepy and frightening, but thought provoking as well. And his latest entry, the novella Wood, is no exception.
Moody, atmospheric and at times laugh-out-loud funny, Wood is in some respects a modernistic retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. However, instead of Perrault’s moralistic telling (or Grimm’s more overtly happily-ever-after derivation), Dunbar sneaks up on you, delivering a subtle, wry examination of what it means to be alive.
The story itself is rather simple. Rosario, a young girl, has been banished to what can only be called an institution for wayward girls. Her crime…nothing more than resisting the advances of her mother’s latest boyfriend. Smart, feisty and, sadly, cynical at far to young of an age, Rosario knows her lot in life and, in some respects, is resigned to it. She knows her mother cares little for her, but her one refuge—her devoted grandmother—has, uncharacteristically, gone silent. As the novella opens, Rosario begs with the keeper of the institution to let her go visit her Nana. But her plea falls on deaf ears, the adults of the institutions far too immersed in their own personal agendas to even consider the wards under their charge. So, with the help of her friend Bianca, Rosario sets to break out of her prison and it’s off to grandma’s house we go.
Meanwhile, we discover that the woods surrounding our unnamed city have given birth to something…something dark and sinister and ravenous.
Out in the city, we meet the unfortunately named Dick Wood, a gay man too close to middle age to care anymore. Cynical, Dick has become a recluse who lives “on pills and scotch and dreams he seldom permitted himself to recall with any degree of urgency.” In fact, he has become such a recluse that he didn’t even notice (until pointed out by his friend, Queenie), that nearly everyone in his neighborhood has vanished…or is it that they have been devoured?
As jaded as Dick has become, when Rosario—frightened by something that seemed to be following her down the dark streets on her way to her grandmother’s house—shows up on his doorstep, something in him awakens, a concern for someone other than himself…and he sets off to make sure she gets where she is going. Together they face what has slithered out of the woods.
Like all of Dunbar’s work, Wood is full of beautiful detail: the decaying city, the burgeoning life in the woods, the desolation that takes bloom in the human psyche. His prose is rich and moody without ever turning into the dreaded purple, setting both mood and an ever increasing sense of foreboding that drives the novella.
Towns and cities grow in spurts, sometimes encroaching upon places better left alone, areas that through a sort of negative geography remain neither forest nor park, neither rural nor urban. No proper designations exist. Unnamed and unclaimed, such regions appear on no map; the never have. Perhaps they always seemed too insignificant: half a lot, a strip of woodland, and acre of bog. Dead space. Easily overlooked or deliberately ignored. As though, all along, people knew…or at least suspected.
Dunbar’s characters don’t get short shrift either. Both Rosario and Dick are outsiders, people who live their lives on the fringes of society. They’ve been beaten down, but Dunbar doesn’t portray them as one-dimensional losers. Through their interactions with their respective friends—the sweetly annoying Bianca and the lovably eccentric Queenie—we see the embers that still burn in them…the desire to connect with others. With these relationships laid out, even fleetingly, we see full human beings who need to interact with like minds. It’s a testament to Dunbar’s talent that he can draw these friendships so deftly within so few pages. The connection between these friends is lovingly palpable.
Now, there is one thing that made me cringe and I would be remiss not to include in this review. Not just because it made me cringe, but because Dunbar manages to win me over with a device for which I generally have little patience.
I am not a fan of anthropomorphic prose: essentially, telling parts of the story through the eyes or animals to gain a perspective that would otherwise be too difficult to accomplish within the span of time desired. Most times this is used, I find it to be an example of lazy storytelling. And I stand by that statement. But Dunbar always manages to surprise me and here is no exception.
In one instance, Dunbar feels the need to tell a portion of the story through the eyes of a cat, a tack I found totally unnecessary and utterly distracting to the story. And, when Dunbar started telling the story from the perspective of the creature born of the woods, I must admit I shuddered. Yet, it totally works in this case, serving to advance not only the development of the creature, but also the thematic thread underlying the novella.
This creature—an eating machine, in essence, at the beginning of the work—grows, not just physically, and that is something that cannot be seen from those observing it. It is a metamorphosis the reader must experience from within the “eyes” (and there are many eyes) of this creature. It’s an interesting twist, and knowing Dunbar’s work as I do, I should have had more faith that the device would have been used well.
When Rosario and Dick face the creature, it is as if their souls are reinvigorated. They come alive, the passion and desire to live that had nearly been extinguished within them, reborn. Their personalities blossom; the use of humor to belie the deadly seriousness of their situation comes forth in a uniquely funny and yet totally realistic way. We get to see who they were before the malaise set in, a fact that makes them even richer characters. Likewise, the creature grows from its experience with them, it becomes more sentient, more motivated to explore, to understand, to become something more than it is. This is something we as readers would not have been able to experience had Dunbar not used anthropomorphic prose so well (other than that whole cat thing). All of them…monster included…have purpose again.
In the end, Dunbar takes a modern twist on a familiar fairy tale and he gives it a thoroughly moody and tension-filled retelling that is nothing short of entertaining. But like all of Dunbar’s work I have read, he gives us layers to pull back should we so choose. In essence, Dunbar reveals to us an absolute necessity of any living being: the need to interact…the need to be exposed to others who are different than we…the need to be constantly challenged—by goodness or evil—in order to evolve and survive. Without others we—any form of life, be it human or monster, the life of a city or a neighborhood—simply waste away, becoming nothing more than urban decay that litters the world.
Blessed be the creature that knows its purpose, indeed.