- Haunted Forest
In no time, three years and change, J.A. Tyler earned himself a place in small-press paradise. His ticket was Mud Luscious Press, which balanced on its shoestring just long enough to bring a few remarkable titles into print. My favorite remains Matt Bell’s Cataclysm Baby (2012), an alphabetic improvisation on the theme of apocalypse, though others prefer Alligators of Abraham (2013) by Robert Kloss. Alas, Tyler wasn’t much of a businessman, as he admitted in a May interview (on the Melville House website). He came to publishing as a writer, with several books on his own, and his latest is Colony Collapse (2013), a novella for lack of a better word. It appeared shortly after Mud Luscious folded and proves the value of experience from both sides of an editor’s desk. A forest ghost story, it manipulates an animal’s point of view in a hair-raising perversion of Bambi (1942), sustaining a twilit wilderness tension while its reiterations toll like a funeral bell across the woods. And what I admire most is the conceptual control.
Such control might be termed “setup and pacing” in a more ordinary text. Tyler’s reiterations extend even to his chapter titles, which, though tricky typographically, build on each other: “[the first house]… [the second house]…[the first fox///rebuilt]…[the second fox].” The titles also underscore the limited set of elements in play. Most brief chapters sketch, amid abundant white space, the lifecycle of another rustic dwelling. The hut goes up, with “a chimney for the snow and gutters for the rain,” and then goes to pieces, and that rise and fall always entails killing some animal, a fox or bear or fish. Indeed, the sacrificial creatures usually include the homebuilder, our narrator. A deer in search of his runaway “deer-brother,” he succumbs with each house, only to come back to life at the start of the next chapter, and start his search anew.
The reading experience, in short, feels unified even in its like of reader-friendly signposts, such as names or dialog. The internal consistency holds even when, towards the end, two or three blocks of prose suggest the subject may be, at bottom, familiar human passions. That too remains only a suggestion, as from first to last Colony Collapse keeps its materials sparse. It might be some ancient quest-tale (“only always the moving on”) come down to us in fragments.
Few elements contribute so much to this fairytale quality as the insubstantiality of death. Colony collapse fits the cycle of endless return, as house after surreal house goes down and takes the narrator with it. Another chapter ends, but the death in it become just another part of the chorus. The line most often repeated begins “In these woods” and concludes with dying or its metaphoric equivalent. Yet this refrain itself creates a paradoxical vitality. It turns up in poetic variations like: “In these woods, where fire is truth to trees, where I burn down.” More than that, the memento mori always appears in a line off by itself, a pause in the experience, gathering up motifs that chapter has put in play. Granted, other lines are set apart. Tyler likes a straightforward declarative, surrounded by silence. But those moments tend to carry the latest catastrophe forward, containing some turn of events or telling detail; they don’t create an opportunity for reflection.
Reflection on redemption, principally. The novella begins with the last glimpse of the brother, handing the protagonist a “note”—though don’t their limbs end in hooves?—“that cried out my dying.” Thereafter our narrator tries to expunge this “black dot on a square of white,” a damned spot that sets off more bloodletting than Lady Macbeth’s, all in an effort to purge: “I…build and burn houses,…I skin open foxes looking for…deer-brother hiding, hoping for a moment of redemption, a truth that isn’t.” That missing predicate provides a clever telegraphic touch, since the truth in question would be the final one, death. The...