The Valley of Happiness and Other Stories
By George Williams
Raw Dog Screaming Press – 27th February 2015
ISBN 9781935738671 – 158 Pages – Paperback
Source: Raw Dog Screaming Press
“Striper” (Originally published in Journal of Curriculum Theorizing)
“Televangelist at the Texas Motel” (Originally published in Gulf Coast)
“Slave for a Day”
“The Valley of Happiness” (Originally published in Boulevard)
“The Bay of Drake” (Originally published in Reed)
“Buy Now, Pay Nothing”
“Wabash” (Originally published in Boulevard)
The back cover of this new collection from Williams (Gardens of Earthly Delight) has a blurb of praise from Library Journal saying that he “…shows a darkly comic sensibility more akin to that of the filmmaking Coen brothers…than to more obvious literary influences…” and I agree that this describes his work excellently.
Each of the stories in The Valley of Happiness and Other Stories take a setup or core plot that seems very familiar, classical even in the American landscape of storytelling, but then gives it a tweak into some direction surreal, absurd, or just plain weird. Dialogue spoken with ‘straight man’ seriousness sounds slightly comic, unfamiliar in the surrounding situation.
For instance, the opening story “Striper” begins as a quiet tale of friends fishing, and a sudden tremendous haul of a gigantic fish that seemingly shatters all known records. The folky nature of the story is drawn into the realms of the fantastic, the unusual by the size of the fish, and phone calls from scientific institutions wanting to examine and preserve it. But Williams will take things some steps further, the fish speaking, and the fisherman who caught him struck with novel feelings and needs leading to his physical transformation and refuge in the waves.
“Dummy” deals with a ventriloquist and his dummy who go on a rampage of crime and destruction. The creepiness of the ventriloquist dummy (or dolls in general) have appeared in thrillers and horrors on small screen, large screen, and in print for long enough that it is a common trope. But Williams looks at things again slightly off kilter, in the minimalism of his text not stating outright who these people are, what the dummy is, but linking it into the psychology of the man.
The minimalism of Williams writing is one of the things that I loved most about his stories in his last collection. In this he continues that mastery of staccato dialogue and bare-bones evocative description. Yet, it is also apparent from a couple of the stories that he can do flowery just as well, particularly with “The Bay of Drake”.
With this story Williams seems to have skewing both the story AND his characters into comic absurdity. Narrated by a member of explorer Francis Drakes’ crew, the story is written in a more antiquated and verbose style than all the others. We soon find that the crew has come ashore to California of modern day, with an invitation to a party for ‘play boys’ hosted by one ‘Huey Heifer’. The juxtaposition of the older with the modern, the uncertainty of whether Drake’s men have been lost in time or if they are just method actors REALLY devoted to their role, the calash of modern culture through the eyes of a more repressed age… they all play here to highlight the best of Williams even absent the minimalism.
Other stories here range from social commentary (“Slave for a Day”) to violently disturbing (“Ginny Shay”) to bizarrely empowering (“Beestings”), while others court closely to the literary focus on relationships (“The Valley of Happiness”) or a Bonnie-and-Clyde-esque genre crime story (“Wabash”). At approximately a quarter length shorter than his previous collection Gardens of Earthly Delight, I actually enjoyed this one more, just the right amount of this style for me without it losing its potency.
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Raw Dog Screaming Press in exchange for an honest review.