A Tree or a Person or a Wall: Stories

Image of A Tree or a Person or a Wall: Stories
Release Date: 
September 12, 2016
Soho Press
Reviewed by: 

“Spanning a variety of styles and subjects, Bell’s tales are all told in a distinctly confident and haunting voice . . .”

If the title of this short story collection raises an eyebrow, that’s because its thought provoking content is on full display. As with his previous works, including the novels In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods (2014) and Scrapper (2015), as well as his previous collection How They Were Found (2013), Matt Bell blurs the often fine lines between literary and genre fictions, allegory and horror, magical realism and bizarro in these 18 tales.

(A side note to Bell fans: there is a bit of a misleading description to this book. Although A Tree . . . does contain a number of tales from How They Were Found, as well as including a number of uncollected and newer works, it omits several others, making it a worthwhile addition to one’s library, rather than a replacement.)

Fans of Angela Carter, Paul Auster, Kelly Link, Brian Evenson, Haruki Murakami, and Cormac McCarthy may find a particular affinity for Bell’s works. His writing style is at once innovative and emotional, weaving stories that are both fascinating and devastating to read. His prose is lucid and often omnipresent; rarely, if ever, does he use quotes to signal dialogue.

Characters are often referred to not by name, but by definition (“the man with rough hands,” “the men who killed),” creating a simultaneously immersive and removed experience for the reader as the characters take on an almost mythical role.

A Tree’s stories are split up into a total of seven groups, each of which are loosely connected by subtle themes. Part I, for instance, features stories that fall largely under Bell’s twisted take on horror. Part II’s stories are largely existential and metaphysical in nature, and Part IV’s are deeply heartbreaking morality tales.

The other parts are a bit more exclusive. Parts III and V each contain two longer works, including the dystopian “The Migration” and the period-set “His Last Great Gift,” whereas VI and VII consist entirely of novellas, including the previously-printed (and out-of-print) tale, “Cataclysm Baby.”

There are some truly disorienting and unsettling tales in this collection. In the opening title story, a boy has been kidnapped and left locked up in an isolated room, where he finds a desperate companionship with its other occupant: an albino gorilla. In “Wolf Parts,” Bell presents no less than a whopping 40 variations on the tale of Red Riding Hood, many of which are quite gruesome and discomforting. And there’s “Dredge.”

“Dredge” tells the story of a man named Punter, who discovers a dead teenage girl’s body floating in a pond. However, instead of reporting this, he takes her body back to his house . . . where he stores it in his game freezer. However disturbing this premise may sound (and make no mistake about it, it is quite disturbing), the tale takes a number of unexpected turns, revealing the pathetic details of Punter’s background and motivations, building up to a climax that’s every utterly heartbreaking as it is grotesque.

Another example of Bell’s knack for emotional distress is the subtly alarming “Doll Parts.” In this story, a mother creates a life-sized doll for her daughter—a doll that perfectly resembles the girl’s missing brother. As the narrative progresses, the reader is slowly subjected to hints as to what happened to the brother, all while the girl’s own behavior with the doll begins to peel back the layers of her relationship with her brother.

“Although the sister no longer spoke loud enough for the mother or father to hear, she did often whisper to the doll, putting her soft lips to his rubber ear, making the smallest sound she could. She told the doll a great many secrets, almost always having to do with the brother. The very first secret she told the doll was how she—and only she—knew where the brother was. How she knew was because she had gone looking for him, after the brother disappeared, but before the mother made the doll.”

In other tales, Bell’s storytelling innovations are on a more overt display. For instance, “The Cartographer” is a point-by-point series of descriptions of different parts of a map of a man’s doomed romance.

“Her Ennead” is a series of metaphorical (and at times, metaphysical) interpretations that an expecting mother is interpreting of the life growing inside her womb, told in differing phases of her pregnancy.

And “The Collectors,” an unflinchingly empathetic glimpse into the minds of the infamous hoarding brothers Homer and Langley Collier, is told as a series of inventory entries.

Bell’s much-lauded tale “Index of How Our Family Was Killed” is exactly that: an A–Z presentation of various facets in the deaths of a family. Similarly, the aforementioned “Cataclysm Baby,” 26 men relate, in alphabetical order of baby names, their attempts to repopulate a post-apocalyptic world . . . although every child that’s born is struck down by tragic and at times horrifying birth defects.

These tales will not be for everyone’s tastes. They may be too existential and literary for some horror fans, and much too dark and macabre for the more casual fan of literary fiction. Spanning a variety of styles and subjects, Bell’s tales are all told in a distinctly confident and haunting voice, rendering an unforgettable reading experience every time.