At what point does fiction become horror fiction? Is there some immutable border, some checklist of elements to be tallied, that propels a particular story or novel out of the realm of the disconcerting and into that of the outright horrific? Certain notable collections, including Jac Jemc’s False Bingo and Amelia Gray’s Gutshot find a balance between deft narrative construction and something both ineffable and unspeakable. That’s the space in which Natanya Ann Pulley’s new collection With Teeth occupies as well: meticulously written, while all the while abounding with glimpses of the bizarre and brutal.
Pulley makes this clear from the outset, with several of these stories being titled in ways that herald the horrors within. “Survivor’s Guide,” “Cannibal,” “Did You Find Your Killer Yet?,” and “How We Hold the Dead” all make it clear that the reader is in for a harrowing experience; Pulley’s characters, it turns out, are in for something even worse.
“Did You Find Your Killer Yet?” is one of the book’s high points, opening in the aftermath of violence and then taking a turn that puts it somewhere between metafiction and an unlikely ghost story, but eluding either of those categorizations:
For when DeDeAnne died, no one remembered to tell her. She wasn’t a ghost. She wasn’t a memory birthed back to life. She was flesh and bone and all the things a living young girl should be.
What begins as a story about a crime and what follows turns into something stranger, about visibility and narratives and tropes, and of the disconcerting elements of existing in this world at a time when trauma abounds.
It’s also not the only place in the collection where a character’s very nature comes under scrutiny. The narrative of “The Age of Plastic” moves between dreams and reality, exploring sex and intimacy with a human partner and, well, an inflatable one. Here, too, there’s little ground beneath the story’s protagonist; as the narrative slips between the real, the imagined, and the dreamed, there’s a sense of suffocation that runs throughout it.
With Teeth also features no small amount of structural experimentation, from the way the book is organized to some of the works within it. “By the Contents of Her…” tells an unsettling story by showcasing what various items in a woman’s life contain, beginning with a purse and moving on towards more abstract things — and more upsetting ones. It’s in a similar territory to some of Brian Evenson’s work, that space where the formally inventive and the utterly terrifying converge.
As its title, and as so many of its stories suggest, this is a visceral collection in the most literal sense. Pulley rarely offers the reader a sense of consolation, and the uncompromising elements of this book sting even more as a result. It’s an impressive debut that introduces a powerful new voice into the literary world.
by Natanya Ann Pulley
New Rivers Press; 140 p.