Walter Bargen’s chapbook of short stories, Perishable Kingdoms (El Grito Lobo Press) offers up tales of frontier madness and the kind of European surrealness one finds in Italo Calvino, or in the magical realism of South America. Bargen’s short story collection is both fresh and comfortably retro. The opening tale belongs on the shelf alongside Jack London, Edgar Allan’s Poe’s forgotten shipwreck adventure novel, and HP Lovecraft’s sci-fi exploration adventure “At the Mountains of Madness”, while the latter two tales in the chapbook offer up a kind of Escher magic where reality, metaphor, time and space box up against each other. The overall effect is nightmarish and full of existential dread.
The opening epistolary tale, “Report from the National Geologic Survey to the Central Committee” is set in Russia, during turmoil. Is this the Russian Revolution? Or some other tumultuous time? Stript of anachronisms, more or less, Bargen lets our imaginations run wild. Is Ivan, the narrator, a criminal or a hero? The letters, written to Natasha, are full of longing for her and descriptions of the brutal survival conditions in which Ivan eeks by. Has Ivan gone mad? For it’s so cold grief is “frozen to the ground”, and that soldiers “melt air over the wood stove so it can be inhaled without lacerating the lungs”. Bitter conditions indeed, and of course there are wolves, and drinking, and suicide. One of the more bizarre situations involves a mysterious stranger either mad with wildness, or from another world, who shows up at Ivan’s post starving and near death.
Bargen’s aesthetic in the opening tale recalls early American short stories, largely due to the passive epistolary structure, and the dash of the surreal. The struggle is between people, and the environment, the micro struggles of the individual slugging it out with himself. The imagery is startling. For example, when blood freezes on the corpses of the dead soldiers, it becomes a red hoarfrost, brittle, tangible in a way that feels wrong in the gut, taboo even. And Ivan narrates each letter with urgent dread. Bargen’s poetic ear is at work and the prose is elegant. “I tell you the beastly wind has fingers” Ivan writes of the cold in one letter, and “The sky has its broad blue boot on my chest,” in another.
“...Survey” is also terrifically fun. Bargen hits the American gothic adventure notes with aplomb. Ivan Kleptovich is a likeable protagonist, who suffers the entire story, but survives; he keeps writing. He has hope, even when starving and striking out on his own to retrieve mail lost in the woods by the resupply convoy. But do you believe him? Is he mad? Is Natasha even real? And the tale, like say an H.P. Lovecraft tale, hinges on existential terror. It’s not the wolves will eat you kind of terror, but the realization that you are small, alone, helpless, in a vast cruel landscape that is trying to kill you kind of terror. Bargen articulates this fear through the hero’s desire for human connection, love, and the comfort and safety of home.
The story is sprung over letters that never reach their destination. The entire tale is a pseudo-document of a mysterious discovery of a door with leather hinges, found leaning against a cliff wall in the middle of nowhere. In the end, there is only one letter to Ivan from Natasha, describing the brutal conditions in their home village. It becomes clear that even if Ivan Kleptovich had survived the wilderness, he would have faced worse conditions at home. The pseudo document states that the government cannot vouch for any settlements in the area, further obfuscating events described in the story.
The two other short stories, while not as ambitious in length or scope, offer up dreamlike emotional distance. On some, level these stories are allegories warning the reader that reality, our perception of the world, is not what it seems; there’s always another layer to perceive and understand. And to even try, to dare to peek at what might be the truth? Well, dear reader, that results in madness.