Stories in the Dark: A Review of Dwight's House and Other Stories by Meredith Sue Willis

Margaret Quamme

Short story collections are a hard sell. An even harder sell are collections such as Meredith Sue Willis's Dwight's House and Other Stories, in which the title novella takes up nearly two-thirds of the volume. It's followed by a surreal short-short story, not even four pages long, and then by three stories of normal length, which vary widely in tone, voice, and subject matter.This structure makes it difficult for us readers to get our bearings. In most short story collections, we learn to read an author by reading the first story or two, and then arrive at the rest of the volume with a set of expectations that will be more or less fulfilled.

Not so with Willis's volume–but that's one of its strengths. Each of these stories seems to fid its own proper length, whether that fits into a conventional structure or not.The novella is a particularly challenging form. Not as concentrated as the short story or as wide-ranging as the novel, it offers too many opportunities for self-indulgence and stagnancy.

Willis's "Dwight's House" avoids these perils. Like most short stories, it focuses on a short period of time and a limited cast of characters. The occupants of two summer lake houses in western Massachusetts spend a couple of stormy winter days coping with their own problems and getting involved with each other's. Privileged Elaine Roth, a housewife whose children have grown, has fled to her summer home to escape the twin revelations that her husband has been committing adultery and that she has a lump in her breast.

Next door, in a rundown fishing cottage, jobless Dwight and Susan huddle in blankets trying to avoid the cold. Their two young sons and Susan's adolescent daughter Fern haven't gone to school in weeks, since Dwight's truck stopped functioning. When Elaine impulsively invites Dwight's family over for brunch, the situation turns explosive.

Willis breaks out of the narrow borders of the short story by switching among the points of view of Dwight, Elaine, frazzled Susan, and obdurate Fern. She develops the four corners of this stubborn rectangle with equal care. Although Dwight is the obvious candidate for the villain of the piece, even he is not a totally unsympathetic character. Willis nicely balances empathy with implicitly moral judgment.

The plot of "Dwight's House" ventures into Stephen King or movie thriller territory. It hums with barely repressed anxiety and hinges on a collision between people whose ethnic background, religion, education, and dreams fate them to misunderstand each other.But this plot is in some sense a tease. Even the longest of Willis's stories don't quite resolve themselves, but leave characters suspended in the traps they have spun for themselves.

"Dwight's House" is, among other things, a commentary on the effects of reading. Fern, the best developed and most likeable characters, is named after the character from E.B. White's Charlotte's Web (1952), and h as much of her namesake's clear-eyed resilience and resolve. But the same mother who gave Fern her name has now descended into devouring "yard sale books."

"Susan bought them by the bagful," Fern notes. "She didn't care if they were romances or science fiction or mysteries of best sellers of How to Keep Your Man. Bags and bags of damaged books on every subject." These books are as much of a drug for her as Dwight's alcohol is for him. "It's chain reading," Fern tells her mother. "You know? It's like chain smoking, and it's going to give you lung cancer of the mind."

The other characters may not read as much as Susan, but they're equally occupied with telling stories to themselves. Dwight dreams of the fantastic house he will build some ay, Fern of escaping from the family. Elaine of a pleasant reunion with her husband. These stories insulate them from the realities of their lives, while preventing any real communication

The other stories in the volume, all set in summer house territory, range from science fiction to domestic drama, but they sustain the same mood of unresolved dread. In the brief "Attack," a summer community is unaccountably bombed by airplanes, leaving one mother to complain, "I don't get a vacation up here, you know. I have to make meals without using the kitchen. I have to remember to bring crayons and get them to go potty between raids."

The young mother in "Tiny Gorillas" faces a more familiar terror: an unhappy mother-in-law. Other stories fucus on the memories of a pedophile and of a fourteen-year-old dog walker, both of whom arm permanently altered by difficult relationships.Willis regards all of her characters with unsentimental compassion. Her fiction leads us by the hand into dark places, and then leaves us on our own to find our way out.


Margaret Quamme reviews books, movies, theatre, and concerts in central Ohio.