“They been testing bombs on the moon, and no one cares, though we didn’t get a chance to vote on it. Democracy, my ass.”
—Chavisa Woods, ‘A Little Aside’
Things To Do When You’re a Goth in the Country, the latest short story collection by Brooklyn-based writer Chavisa Woods, focuses on those who feel separate from society. Whether they be queer artists or trailer park residents, these are paranoid, poverty-stricken people preoccupied with the myths and mistruths that have filled the vacuum left by an absent government which promised to protect them. Woods’ stories exist beneath the suffocating grasp of convention, detailing the mental gymnastics required to support supposedly moral institutions built on bigotry and hate, in places where residents proudly wave a flag even as the neighbourhood kids are blown up by IEDs in a desert 7,000 miles away.
Opener ‘How to Stop Smoking in Nineteen Thousand Two Hundred and Eighty-Seven Seconds, Usama’ tells the story of an artist returning to their hometown to visit their two brothers. It begins as a classic small-town-outsider-turned-cool-NYC-artist-returns-to-depressing-backwater, with the appearance of an edgy half cousin on the run from a manslaughter charge acting as the desperate illustration of why the artist left town in the first place.
But Woods isn’t satisfied with such black and white distinctions, and paints everyone, even the “bad” characters, in a pretty sympathetic light. There are reasons why people live the way they do, whether that’s rejecting the conservative values of their hometown and moving to the city to make art, rejecting mainstream morals and turning to crime, or adopting a worldview full of intolerance and mistrust. It’s a story that works particularly well in light of Trump’s America, the characters struggling and lost, turning to myth and conspiracy to foster some semblance of excitement or meaning in their lives.
“For months my brothers had been telling me about these green floating gaseous orbs they are coming out of the woods that they think are coming from UFOs out there. But I think it’s more a combination of mold, the meth kid cooking out in the field, and also, last year the EPA cleaned off about fifteen miles’ worth of toxic topsoil from this area…Oh well. Green, glowing orbs are a lot more fun to think about of as alien life-threatening than all that other crap, especially if you’re living with them. Especially if there’s nothing you can do about them.”
There are several stories which take a big step into the weird—be it because the main characters drop acid (‘Take the Way…’) or get steered towards magical realist allegory (‘A New Mohawk’)—but these too are rooted in a malaise that’s very much real. Even the short and furious rant ‘A Little Aside’ feels distinctly of the here and now, taking the narratives spun by Alex Jones and David Icke and countless Youtube channels and presenting them from a raving first person perspective (“I know when it’s coming. I know when it’s gonna happen: 12/21/2121. We don’t got much time left”).
Also told in first person, the title story is one of teenage rebellion, of trying to carve out a niche for yourself in a world that isn’t interested. Narrated by a sixteen year old girl, it tells of huffing whipped cream fumes on a merry go round, urban myths and haunted bridges, smoking beneath the bell tower because there’s nothing else to do. She has plenty advice for any budding rural goths, from harassing army recruiters in the high school canteen to etching pentacles into your forehead with a razor blade (pentacles preferred to pentagrams as she finds pentagrams “a bit of an overkill, and rather silly as satanism is so blasé and reactionary an endeavour”). But perhaps the most striking scene is made when she reads a passage from Ezekiel to the local congregation as part of enforced Bible study:
“I approached the pulpit with my big red bible…chains rattling from my hips,and fucked-up Barbie doll necklaces hanging around my neck; Vietnam ear tokens honouring the violence of girlishness. There I stood before the congregation in the small steepled white church, under the empty cross, exposed rafters echoing barnyards, my eyes painted thick with black curlicues swirling up from my lids to around my temples, and upside-down crosses resting like tears on my cheeks…And I read them their Bible. I read the congregation their sacred text, dressed that way on their pulpit. I spoke in a booming deep-throated voice that, at moments, devolved into a growl, echoing through their sanctuary like it was a black magic road show we were doing […] I read their sacred book and I made it mine.”
The stories are a reminder that despite much of the bluster and bravado it presents internationally, America is a dense mosaic of misfits, many of whom are trapped in damaging cycles by powers beyond their control. Whether dealing with war, drugs, queer relationships or, well… being a goth in the country, Chavisa Woods achieves a tone that’s simultaneously streetwise and sympathetic, and is exactly the kind of fiction we’re going to need to get us through currents times.
Things to Do When You’re a Goth in the Country is out now on Seven Stories Press.