In Search of Something Better

Characters trapped in dysfunctional relationships do their best to escape and start anew.

Hub City Press, $16

Writing contests have played a major role in Emily Pease’s writing career. Most have padded her resume with publication credits and well-deserved acclaim, but one award sidelined her progress for years. In 1999 she won the Missouri Review Editor’s Prize in Fiction for a story featuring Abraham Lincoln and his youngest son. The prize drew the attention of literary agents, which spurred Pease to lengthen the story to novel length. She worked on that novel for 10 years before giving it up and returning to short fiction, for which her success has been off the charts. 

Her debut story collection, Let Me Out Here, is not only the winner of the $10,000 C. Michael Custis Short Story Book Prize, but it contains two stories that also won national contests—“Foods of the Bible,” which won the Crazyshorts Fiction Prize, and “Church Retreat, 1975,” which won the Bevel Summers Fiction Prize from Shenandoah

Pease, a former William & Mary professor, had originally titled the collection Submission, because most of the characters in her stories are submitting to some person, idea, or value, but she changed it to the current title at the publisher’s behest. “Hub City [Press] immediately asked for a new title,” she says, “since ‘submission’ will take you to a porn site online pretty quickly. Looking at the stories as a whole, I began to see that many characters were looking to escape—to ‘get out of here.’ So that became the title.”

The stories range in length from novelettes to flash fiction, tiny vignettes that showcase a single moment. The setting is the backwoods of West Virginia and neighboring states. Pease paints the rural landscape with a wild beauty and draws her mountain men and women with a verisimilitude that makes them live and breathe and leap off the page. Part of that is due to the author’s innate ability to notice fine details, but most credit lies in her assiduous research on all details of a story, no matter how minor. Some facts she uncovers are critical to a story; others never make it onto the page but still influence the way a character behaves. “So much of this kind of ‘research’ is just looking around,” Pease says. “I like to say that research has a way of opening possibilities as you write.”

The characters that populate her stories either come from hardscrabble origins or are stuck in miserable situations that they desperately wish to escape. In one, a 30-year-old daughter returns to live with her parents after being fired from her job for a criminal offense; in another, a boy wants to run away from his strange family but is too scared of his father to actually do it; and in another, a college girl is seduced by a much older man who vanishes after she gets pregnant.

In all of them, Pease writes with a hypnotic prose that features a modern, truncated style and love for imagery. In “Anything,” a mousy man rides with a hulking stranger to pick up a feral cat for his girlfriend. When they arrive at the stranger’s cabin, Pease describes the meek fellow’s impressions: “I stood listening to snow falling through the trees. There was sleet mixed in, so it made a nice sizzling sound. Everything was gray. Gray sky, gray houses, gray sheds, and an empty pen with one of those gray plastic doghouses shaped like an igloo. No sign of a dog, only a snow-coated chain. A little ways off, I could detect something hanging from a tree limb. I walked closer and saw a doe, nose down, inches from the ground. Her two hind legs had been bound with rope, her belly slit by a knife. A fresh kill.”

With so many individuals mired by circumstances beyond their control, it would be easy for these stories to turn into a litany of hopelessness. But Pease gives her characters the glimmer of hope, the possibility that their aching desires might come true. 

In “The After-Life,” Pease writes, “Sometimes you do things you think you’ll never do. You zip up an invisible costume and pretend you’re someone else, and when you take it off, you really are someone else.” Perhaps that is what is so great about a collection of stories like this. In each one, we inhabit the lives of these pitiable characters and imagine what we would do in their place. When we unzip the costume Pease provides and return to ourselves, we hopefully come to a self that is wiser and more compassionate for having lived in someone else’s skin. 

This article originally appeared in our December 2019 issue.

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