When reading a lot of small press authors you don’t always get the feeling that you’re reading something that will stand the test of time. You don’t get the feeling that what is happening on the page is something that could possibly measure up to the writers that you read when you were younger, the ones that made you fall in love with the form. Often times, books on small presses feel like writers are just spreading their wings, a first attempt after years of formative writing, the first step in a long journey of book publishing and storytelling. They’re still experimenting and mostly failing. That’s why it’s a jarring experience to pick up How They Were Found and find yourself in the hands of a storyteller as gifted and dedicated as Matt Bell.
The shorter pieces in Bell’s collection are are wildly imaginative, slightly dark, with a hint of humor to them, calling to mind the better films of John Carpenter and the twisted detective stories Brian Evenson. A cartographer charts the path of his wife’s disappearance, a group of soldiers isolated in an arctic outpost are slowly driven mad by memory loss, a young man preserves the dead body of a girl as he searches for her killer, a religious zealot beckons his community to build a massive engine to facilitate the second coming. The longer stories are where Bell spreads his ambition. Wolf Parts is the Little Red Riding Hood tale thrown in a blender and show through a gory lense reminiscent of Todd McFarlane. The Collectors, probably the most stunning achievement in the book, shows the demise of two hoarders populating their estate house with possessions until it buries them alive in a dark green decay akin to David Fincher. The names of graphic artists and film directors immediately come to mind when drawing comparisons to Bell’s writing, simply because of his dedication to evoking visceral imagery.
Bell attempts and succeeds at a crucial, yet risky, concept that’s essential to great writing: the concept of fusion and hybrid. First and foremost is the magical formula that most young writers have a hard time grasping, the fusion of style and substance. The style in this case being the fantastical elements of each story and the substance being the human connections and emotions that Bell endows his characters with. While most all of the stories in HTWF could easily be filed under the fantasy section, don’t let the nerdish connotation of the genre fool you. Bell’s characters are undoubtedly human, dealing with everyday feelings of loss, change, heartbreak, hope, ambition and discovery.
How They Were Found is a triumph of a debut collection. Bell has a command over story far surpassing anyone else in his league. Don’t miss this book.