Curious Creepiness: Pamela Mann on Janet Mitchell’s The Creepy Girl and Other Stories

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.

They Are All Fiction After All: Daniels Parseliti on Donald Breckenridge’s You Are Here

you are here

Donald Breckenridge, You Are Here, Starcherone

When I was an undergrad studying philosophy I had a friend who used to insist that time didn’t exist. “It’s a function of us as organisms, as humans, not an actual property of the universe like mass,” he would say. We would argue; Time a physical dimension. No. Time was simply an illusory conceptual/linguistic construction, with its sense determined by the role it plays in inferential relations . No. Time was more Kantian, to be construed as a metaphysically necessary condition of possible experience. No. After much debate we never came to an agreement about the ontological status of time. However, both of us managed to agree that the perception of time is malleable, and it was this very malleability that gave way to questions about the properties – and indeed, reality – of time itself

One of fictions great freedoms is that definite answers to questions such as these are not required in order to exploit the flexibility of the notions involved. Indeed, one need not even attempt to answer these questions in order to engage with the slipperiness of the temporal – the knowledge that this slipperiness exists, and the ability, and will, to play with it, is enough.

Time, and more particularly, a feeling of simultaneity, permeates Donald Breckenridge’s You are Here. This sense of simultaneity shows itself as a resonance resultant from Breckenridge’s pinging of connections between characters through time, which in turn creates a standing wave of content.

And ping Breckenridge does. Throughout the novel connections abound. Janet and James are dating, she a well-to-do divorcee in her mid 40s, he an aspiring writer in his 20s. Alan and Stephanie are having an affair, he a married man of some wealth, she a temp. Stephanie used to date Cindy, who is directing a two act play entitled An Old Lover and written by a character named Donald. The first act of the play involves two characters, Janet and James, having dinner, based on the first set of Janet and James, and a dinner they shared. Moreover, James has written a short story which involves Alan and Stephanie, based on “something that…almost happened to someone [he] didn’t know very well.” The second act of Donald’s play takes place on a park bench between Alan and Stephanie. The play, however, never actually happens. As the Donald character says when asked if he is turning his play into a novel, “There isn’t really going to be any play…it’s all fiction.”

The metafictional knottiness serves a key role in the book, blurring the distinction between events and their replication/reenactment. This impact is heightened by a technique Breckenridge employs throughout, that of inserting fragments of dialog in the middle, beginning, end, or some variation thereof, of narrative description. Not only does he do this with the conversations and actions at hand, but also with flashbacks and memories, material tangentially related to the conversation or action at hand but directly related to the makeup of the characters. This disruption to the “normal” flow of the narrative and dialog creates a fractured, modular, “slippery” quality to the prose, rendering our curiosity about the status of the text (is it the play we’re reading, or the events the play was based on, or the story which takes place in the second act of the play, or the events the story was based on…) at times almost painfully acute.

Roughly, the novel takes place during two time periods, in the months before September 11, 2001, and in those leading up to the re-election of G.W. Bush, and directly after. However, the book is laced with unannounced flashbacks that penetrate conversation and narrative description, particularly as one reads into the second half of the book, where all the characters have been deployed and their various circumstances brought to light.

Placing the re-election of G.W. Bush and the September 11th attack on the Twin Towers at the end of the course of actions of the characters renders the activities of the characters up until these points the events leading up to just these huge, catastrophic events (though of course not in a causal way – the lives of the characters are not instrumental in the catastrophes, they are simply the lives surrounding them) Consequently, the articulation and reconstruction of the characters’ actions serves as a snapshot of the surrounding terrain.

The snapshot is less than pretty, and the relationships contained within are a reminder of the wages of consumption. James is looking to siphon off of Janet’s life and love experience in order to benefit his writing, while Janet appears for the most part to be biding her time, killing boredom and loneliness for a lack of anything else to do. Alan approaches Stephanie and sleeps with her in a fashion that strikes the reader as a rather garden variety form of sexual predation, which, of course, it is. Stephanie strikes the reader as aimless and looking for a sugar daddy, spending her time shopping and paddling around in her relationship with Alan, then discussing its ins and outs with her friend Karen. These relationships are not special in any dynamic sense, and in most cases their consequences are what we might expect. Janet tells James he’d be happier with someone younger and James is in fact surprised how much he’s fallen for Janet. Alan discards the relationship between himself and Stephanie as casually as he acquired it. No, these are not special lives; they’re just the lives of New Yorkers, and that’s part of the point.

The other part of the point, however, is that they are lives whose events are articulated and rearticulated within the novel, and as such, they accrete ironic meaning within the text. Consequently, intertextual questions of the status of actions and events (what is the play, what is the novel, what is the initial event) become almost if not totally impossible to answer – they are all fiction after all. We see the texture of lives and events not as life but as life reconstructed. This is life as we imagine it, and Breckenridge has provided not a reconstruction of things as they were, because this is impossible, but as things as the novelist must present them. The extra work involved is because he has chosen to let us know.