The Creepy Girl & Other Stories, Janet Mitchell, Starcherone Books, 2009
Janet Mitchell’s short story collection, The Creepy Girl and Other Stories, goes beyond creepy. At times it is deeply disturbing and shocking, but not in a good way. Many of the stories are undermined by the flat and affectless narration and lack character development. With few exceptions, the narrators’ voices throughout the collection are indistinguishable. The stories in the first half of the collection deal with rape or incest but we have no idea who these victims are. The stories lack a strong narrative voice and almost all are too short to include back stories for the characters, leaving little for the reader to engage with.
All of the stories are short and many in the first half are no more than sketches. A number appear to be exercises from a MFA workshop (Mitchell received her MFA from Columbia University.) “The Dialogue Story,” is yes, a story told entirely in dialogue, but the story isn’t about anything. It reads like an exercise in style with no regard to content. Two people are having a conversation about a third friend’s death, possibly a suicide. The speakers may be drunk or stoned during this conversation as it loops around going nowhere before coming back to the dead friend. In the four pages of dialogue the reader learns nothing about the people talking. Or about the woman who died. The dialogue is neither enlightening nor well crafted. Lacking both interesting and well-written dialogue “The Dialogue Story” fails.
The title story of the collection is “The Creepy Girl Story,” which exemplifies a number of problems with the collection as a whole. In the story, the daughter of a home gardener makes increasingly sexual invitations to the hired grounds keepers until they rape her and leave her for dead in the house. She has offered herself to these men, even opening the sliding glass door for them to come in. And yet she is left for dead. “She puts her fingers inside her and feels it. She is more than wet. She feels herself stiffing.” Why they treat her with such violence is unclear, except as a lead up to the last paragraph – she needs to be dead for it to work. The father, we are to assume has long ignored the daughter. It is only once she is dead that he sees her and mistakes her for a garden ornament:
The daughter is still lying there when the father comes home with the sealant. He hoists her up to leans her against his shoulder and carries her in to the garden. (snip) He stands the daughter behind Sue Yen and Michael Yang. Even close, he can tell she’s not right. He steps back and looks at her. No, she’ll never do. She’s much too tall. He lies the daughter gently down on the grass. He takes out the sealant and rubs it on Sue Yen and Michael Yang. They glisten. He tells them not to worry, t he won’t be wet long, and if he can think of where it was he went to, to find this girl, he’ll go back and get her mate. She must have been part of a pair. Funny, though, he can’t think of what he looked like. Always, get the pair, they are easier to arrange.
We know nothing about the father other than he loves to garden and nothing, not even the name, of the daughter beyond her weird dress up games and that she performs lewd acts to attract the workers. The last paragraph begs for a more complex and detailed beginning. Instead it is preceded by short, at times graphic, paragraphs that lack any kind of storytelling connectivity.
The second half of the collection is more interesting. The strongest story in the collection, “The Momma Story” succeeds at being creepy and unsettling. The narrator is planning to have her mother stuffed after she dies from breast cancer,
As for the top of Momma, George cannot touch the top of Momma either, what after her refusing to have another one put in and her locking the bathroom door on me, who always used to go to the bathroom as she sponged along her body, but who now goes to the bathroom looking into a bathtub without Momma, and now with Momma sponging, with me talking to her from the others side of the door.
This narrator does have a voice. A weird voice, one that is off kilter, but it does make her character stand out and reveals much about her relationship with her mother.
Unfortunately as a whole, the stories lack complexity and depth and are more shocking than interesting. The writing is all surface, visceral and at times vivid but only about the blood and the violence. The characters are never written as well as the violence. The book is not enjoyable, but I believe it would have been more effective if the stories had been printed in reverse order. The Creepy Girl begins with sketch after sketch about sexual violation. Yet the tone remains detached, without affect, with little to no variation from story to story. We can at least see in the last half of the collection, the beginnings of real stories. Stories with characters and history and yes, a creepiness that while it may make us uncomfortable may also make us curious to read more.
Pamela Mann is the Reference, Instruction and Outreach Librarian at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and the liaison for the Arts and Humanities. Before moving to Southern Maryland she was the Librarian for U.S. Latino Studies and the Caribbean at the Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas at Austin.