It’s October—the month of decaying leaves, jack-o-lanterns on front steps, howling winds, and Halloween spirit. It’s the month made for horror movies and visits to haunted houses and attractions. It also happens to be the release month of Suicide Woods, Benjamin Percy’s new collection of weird, disturbing stories, published by Graywolf Press and available October 15.
Over the course of 10 years, Percy—a fiction, nonfiction, and comic author, among such other titles as Minnesota Monthly contributor—has published many short stories with publications like the Virginia Quarterly Review, Missouri Review, and Orion, to name a few. Now, 10 of those stories debut as a collection. This has given Percy the opportunity to approach his writing with a new set of edits from Graywolf and a wiser perspective from himself. The result? Polished, sharper stories that touch on everything from loneliness to weird happenings in the woods, reshaping how crime stories are constructed with some and creating an epic in 15 pages with others.
The collection starts with “The Cold Boy,” which peeks into an isolated event of negligence that leads to a frozen boy unable to wake from his dazed state. It follows with stories like “The Mud Man,” which explores the haunting notion of being replaced and becoming invisible to the ones who matter most. Still another, “Writs of Possession,” takes on the Great Recession’s housing crisis, told in multiple points of view. “It’s like I took this larger portrait of America and dropped it, and it shattered,” Percy says. The namesake of the collection, “Suicide Woods,” is one of the strongest stories in the collection—and the most devastating.
“My Graywolf Press editor, Steve Woodward, and I talked about how different themes could unite this collection,” Percy says. “You’ll find a fairytale quality that runs through many of them. … There’s also the encroaching wilderness—the man in the wild, and the wild in man.”
For Percy, the woods are like a second home. He grew up in eastern Oregon and even spent a little time off the grid, in the wilderness, with his family during childhood. Every family vacation was outdoors-focused, too, whether it was camping, hunting, hiking, or fishing. It’s a place of calm and escape, Percy says. But he also recognizes the threat of it.
“When you’ve worked in places like Glacier National Park, as I have, you see what happens when civilization and the wilderness crash against each other. You see people getting lost on trails; you see people getting eaten by grizzlies. You have encounters that imprinted themselves on you for a lifetime.”
One of the most heart-wrenching, fairytale-like stories is “A Heart of a Bear,” which Percy says was inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
“I’m fascinated by chapters 6–11 especially,” Percy says. “In them, the creature—who is on the run—snuggles up against that cabin for the winter and spies on the family, listens to the conversations, and comes to understand language, human customs, and behaviors. He basically tries to insert himself into the family with tragic results. And [Frankenstein’s creature] has sort of a similar realization as the bear in my story. They see him as a monster—and he treats them as such. But in his heart, he wants to connect with them.”
Through all the stories, Percy’s mastery of the horror and thriller genre, paired with his literary fiction background, create complex storylines and even more complicated characters. While he experiments with his craft, the artistry never gets in the way of his frank, spine-tingling storytelling. Each story is alive—equal parts disturbing and satisfying, and his words will stay with you long after you finish the last page.
“This is definitely an October book,” says Percy. “There’s a Halloweeny spirit.”
You can attend a reading of Suicide Woods at Next Chapter Booksellers in St. Paul on Oct. 22.