Review: The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories by Will Baumgartner

Review by Will Baumgartner. Visit Will’s Author Page here


By Nancy Stohlman

               Nancy Stohlman’s flash story collection The Vixen Scream has been screaming off the page and through my mind for the last two weeks. There’s a kind of cannibalistic glee in digging into another writer’s work, and there’s so much meat between those two covers that I’ve felt like a very lucky cannibal, and realized how hungry I’d become for something new and different. That’s exactly what I found: new and very different flavors, the excitement of masterfully prepared combinations of sweet, savory and spicy, a feast for the starved literary soul.  A lot to chew on.  

               Start at the beginning, with Death Row Hugger, a quick punch to the gut. In three short paragraphs, Stohlman gives us enough potent imagery that we can feel the inmates’ suffering, and the sometimes tender surprises felt by the narrator, the person hugging these people before they walk that last mile. Does the narrator talk about emotions per se? No. She does what any great storyteller would do: give the reader a visceral picture and let them feel the thing. Besides, the emotions that Stohlman evokes in this and all the stories that follow, are complex. Subtle. Rare. And therefore they can’t be named so easily, which is a good thing. Don’t tell me about the meal—put it on the table.

And there it is, on your coffee table, your desk your nightstand, or maybe you like to read at the kitchen table. Still hungry? Keep reading.

The promised Bible Stories are here, and they’re mostly hilarious. You’ve got your well-known episode—Lazarus, Jonah, etc.—and you don’t really know what to expect, what Ms. Stohlman’s going to do with it. Turn it on its ear, that’s what—usually with an acerbic punchline. There’s a serial about a Red Fox—not to be confused with other foxes: the narrator of these stories clearly knows where her affections lie, and gives the reader textbook information on her beloved Red, as well as on fox life in general, and that information helps enhance the flavor of the series—spread throughout the book. The fox stories are perfectly spaced: they provide a mysterious thread through the collection, and act as a kind of palate-clearer, the ginger between your different types of raw fish.

Or meat. I know it’s the second time I’ve mentioned meat, and started the review with that cannibal thing, but I can’t seem to stop these references. They fit the material being reviewed. There’s a ferocious intelligence at work in these brilliant shards, and like a broken mirror, those flashing pieces are both fascinating and dangerous. There isn’t a whole lot of bloodshed in these stories, but a detached violence is often suggested, that of a carnivore. I’m not saying there aren’t flowers to nibble on here—there are, definitely, moments of tender beauty throughout the book—but their beauty is more striking when placed against the cool darkness of a lot of these stories. There are also lots of laughs: a week after reading what Mary said when she realized she was pregnant, I’m still laughing about that one.

This collection has an order and shape to it that compels me to strongly suggest reading as I did, from beginning to end. The structure of the book feels intentional, like Stohlman wanted to weave all these smaller stories into one larger one, and as each story has a shape, so does the entire book. Most of the stories are less than a page long, and there are about 80 of them, so the whole book could easily be read within a day or two by a hungry reader, but again I have a suggestion: don’t do that, do what I did. I took about a week and a half to do it,  because I wanted to let the stories sink in, try to “get” where the author was coming from, and let the over-and-undertones expand in my imagination. Like I would imagine a good Paleo meal would, this book seems to require a good digestive process: there’s a lot of raw stuff, and some flavors that may feel somewhat shocking to the system, but it all ends up feeling surprisingly health-giving.

Flash fiction engages the reader, encourages a participatory relationship with the story, more than any other form of fiction I know of. It’s feels a very near cousin to poetry, where all that space on the page feels like a snowfield you can run around and play in—and where you absolutely should, because otherwise that space would be wasted. The way Nancy Stohlman writes, that encouragement to play along, let your imagination run wild and foxy, is almost palpable. The voice heard under these stories breathes in our ears, and says, “Look at this, look at this weird world. And then that one. Come on and play in them. Consider this. Consider that. And that over there—ain’t that a kick. Is that crazy or what?”

I can’t resist, who would want to, so I enter the playworld. And the first thing I know, I’m face to face with a Red Fox, who says, “Bet you wonder why I’m here.”

I did. I found out why the fox was there, and one of the reasons was to feed me.

“That’s some mighty strange and wonderful food you got there, Mr. Fox,” I said.

“Ain’t it now,” he said with some satisfaction.

April 2015

The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories is available at The Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver, through Amazon, or from Pure Slush Books: