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.
“The Site of Three Cities” is about losing one’s eyesight, and it is also about the city of St. Petersburg, and its violent history. Gustav Brewer lost his eyesight in the war and is returning for the first time since the war. Like many veterans who undertake a pilgrimage like this, Gustav’s not sure why he is on the trip. As he travels the city via taxi, paying with cigarettes, and experiencing the city’s changes, the man grows confused, upset even, so much so that his cab driver abandons him. Shortly after, he is mugged by three men. The tale twists with low grade surrealism, the three muggers come from three different cities and “that Gustav lost his sight in each one.” The eyesight, at the end of the curious tale, becomes metaphorical and literal. The utter chaos and confusion of St. Petersburg, the old man’s memory, and the sensory overload he experiences coalesce into a kind of paralysis. He is exposed as frail, broken by war, deprived of sight. Also, Gustav is enlarged by this experience. Gustav can see all three cities, or all three timelines if you will, converging and mixing and offering truth; for a moment, anyway, Gustav discovers the remarkable ability of the human being to time travel.
The final tale in this curious volume is the Italo Calvinoesque “A Theory of Music” about a concert band composition that goes on too long, on a bright sunny day, on a grand estate that seems to stretch on forever, and that might as well be set in Russia, as anywhere else. The tone of this tale is whimsical and is composed of some operatic sentences that recall Borges or Marquez, and short direct statements. Stylistically, Bargen plays the composition like the conductor in the story; the prose goes down smooth.
The conflict begins when the conductor of the band throws his baton up into the air. That’s when everyone in the audience looks up and notice a red balloon, and a figure waving from the basket, hovering over them. “ For a quarter f an hour the balloon didn’t move. The men discussed the persistent almost mechanical waving--was it a call of distress, an upward drowning in the pellucid air, or a distant salutation?” Everyone is surprised. When the balloon continues not to move and the figure continues to wave, the oddness of it forces the crowd to call upon the local fakir, with his magic flute and rope, which is really the remains of the Gordian Knot. A local boy is summoned to climb the rope the fakir teases up into the air. The entire tale is narrated with a dry wit; Bargen’s winking at you in this one. It is discovered that the red balloon is in fact a mechanical greeting card, somehow, inexplicably, fastened to the air by a blue pin. Yes, you read that right, a greeting card. The discovery leads many to begin to doubt reality, and a fever pitch of confusion builds until the conductor, using the pin (instead of his baton), commands the band to continue playing. The music snaps people back to purpose, which is to enjoy the music on a sunny hot day on the estate. Here, in this light daydream, Bargen, once again, reminds us that we don’t know anything of reality, that the way people choose to live their lives is the true wilderness, a expansive lawn that magically goes on forever, while we keep playing our roles.
Kingdom’s overall aesthetic offers an homage to European and Latin American surrealists. This little chapbook manages to bridge those traditions in three quick reads. Bargen and El Grito Del Lobo Press have crafted a beautiful open range book, which means there’s no ISBN, dear reader, which is fitting for a chapbook about mystery, illusion, and what we cannot see; in some artistic circles, books sans ISBN are begging to be placed in big box bookstores, forcing the employees to reckon with the book when it is found. In these free range stories no one is safe. Nowhere is safe. If you look hard enough you will find the corners of the world pulling away from the sides. If you pull it, you might go mad.
Stephen Scott Whitaker is the author of four books of poetry. His stories, reviews, and poems have been published in dozens of publications.