Where You Linger & Other Stories is a story collection by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam that explores what remains after loss, and how the future is built out of the strange and sometimes unfathomable pieces of the past. These interrelated stories exist at the multiple intersections of speculative fiction, fabulism, magical realism, horror, and romance, defying existing genres and perhaps creating new ones. They’re expertly crafted and fascinating to read, and they’ll haunt you long after you put the book down.
The stories, which share themes, plot elements, and characters, are all set in a near future where things are a little—or a lot—off. Animated skeletons appear in several stories—including the opener, called “Skeletons.” It’s never quite explained what force animates these skeletons, but that mystery combined with an overarching sense of normality is part of the collection’s charm.
The narrator of “Skeletons,” Emma, starts the story by peering into her one-time girlfriend Cathryn’s “glass terrarium where the skeletons live, three of them: a dwarf T-Rex and two dwarf stegosauruses. The T-Rex stands atop a lonely pile of rocks” (p. 3). It’s a tense, emotional moment, as Emma watches the skeletons and also tries to avoid the feelings she still seems to have for Cathryn.
Soon, they head off for a camping trip with Cathryn’s new girlfriend, Anne, and a group of friends—all of whom are locked in Cathryn’s heady orbit. Animated, talking skeletons wander around the campground as well:
A dodo skeleton hops around the fire pit. One of the bones from its foot is missing. Without the feathers it looks just like any other bird. We only know it’s a dodo from its fat chest, and its dodo beak. Plus, it tells us what it is when we ask it. (p. 7)
These skeletons, in their re-animation, function as a kind of physical embodiment of the conflicted emotions of these friends, who are trying to keep their relationships alive even as, in some real way, they’ve already died. In fact, as the narrator eventually realizes by the end of the story, there’s a kind of cruelty in keeping the skeletons—and certain relationships—in a liminal space of being half-alive when they might be better off dead, gone, and buried.
Back at the terrarium, a T-Rex skeleton pleads for release: “Let me free,” he cries (p. 12). Emma takes the bones and puts them, finally, to rest in the garden. It’s a moment of compassion, of letting go, of allowing death and loss to finally take their course. It’s also a moment in which Emma seems to realize it’s time to let the relationship with Cathryn go, as well.
Many of the stories in this collection use similarly strange and surreal physical manifestations to express complex emotions. In “They Come In Through the Walls,” for instance, a woman, Claire, is caring for her mentally and physically declining father. Each time she serves him a meal, there’s an assortment of “phantoms” who join them, talking with her father and also messily eating the food she serves:
The phantoms will arrive soon, and when they do—Claire hopes—her father will eat. He always eats with the phantoms around. (p. 15)
The phantoms are mysterious beings who—like the skeletons—exist in a borderline space between reality and fantasy. Like the other strange creatures and manifestations in these stories, however, they’re taken as a matter of course in the world constructed by the story.
This is, essentially, a story about a dying father and a caring daughter, both of whom are haunted by the past and are trying to come to terms with the father’s decline; the phantoms physically manifest these emotions and this reality. This is a fascinating use of the “supernatural” in order to tell what is, at heart, a very “natural” story. The physical reality of the phantoms also allows the story to explore the literal and physical messiness of the past and of mental and bodily disintegration:
The phantoms won’t eat the bread, but they’ll devour the butter, leaving greasy stains all over her mother’s white tablecloth. (p. 16)
The phantoms have conversations with the father about people and occurrences in the past, and Claire only partially understands them, when she understands them at all. She’s not even sure where their mouths are, exactly: “It’s hard for Claire to place the voices to the mouths, for they talk even when their mouths are full of food” (p. 17). And she doesn’t really like the phantoms: “Claire never asked them to be her guests. She isn’t quite sure why they’re there, in fact. She wants them to leave” (p. 17).
Her father, though, likes them, and Claire mostly wants them to take him with them when they leave: “The truth is that the phantoms comfort him. When they’re there, he seems less confused, less angry. He eats his dinner to the last bit. He laughs and tells stories. Claire wants them to leave. She wants them to take her father with them” (pp. 17-18).
This is an extraordinary use of fantastical beings to express and embody the conflicted emotions experienced by a daughter in her caregiving role—and like other stories in the collection, this one makes effective use of speculative, magical elements in order to express and explore real human emotions. In the end, the phantoms do take the father away, letting Claire get on with her life at last, death blended with a kind of supernatural passing—which takes the form, literally, of a passing through walls.
Another story that uses this technique of bringing an emotional reality into the realm of the speculatively physical is “The Split,” which interprets literally and horrifically the idea of leaving a part of oneself behind when moving, changing, and growing. This story opens with what seems to be a metaphorical statement: “When Emma moved to Oregon with her girlfriend, she left part of herself behind” (p. 123). Quickly, however, the reader realizes that it’s not just a turn of phrase; it’s a reality:
Here was a chance at a new family, built from the ground up. Emma seized it. But when she and Lin arrived at the rent house in Oregon, Emma realized she was missing half her body. (p. 123)
Emma does not simply feel like she’s left part of herself behind; she literally has. True to form, as well, this story explores both the horror and the grim humor in this realization: “The hard part was getting out of the U-haul with one arm and one leg” (p. 123). Over the course of the story, the half of Emma left behind and the half of Emma in the new life each starts to heal and become reconstructed. They learn to survive in their separate lives, even as each misses the other intensely.
The story is a creative exploration of the mixed feelings Emma has in moving away from her family and into this new world with Lin. The physicality of the split of Emma’s body allows the story to explore the emotions surrounding change, loss, and healing, showing the ways that speculative fiction can be used to effectively narrate a real and human situation.
Another story, “The Mammoth,” returns to those animated skeletons, this time on a camping trip that explores the relationship between a daughter and her father. In this story, too, the walking skeletons embody the peculiar animation present in this reality, and they also express the horror involved in not letting beings die. The father and daughter watch a skeletal mammoth eating:
The leaves collect in its mouth of solid bone. Earlier, it tried to swallow one, but the leaf passed down the throat into the ribcage and then fell from between the narrow bones. (p. 85)
Later, we learn that the daughter is pregnant from an artificial insemination common in this reality, and she manages to tell her father of her pregnancy before his own body begins to become a skeleton at the end of the story:
I squeeze until I feel him crack beneath me, until the bones groan like an antique house. I feel them slipping apart, feel his skin sliding off, but I can’t let go. I won’t. I hear something fall into the dirt, but I don’t look to see. I’ll keep holding onto him. I’ll keep holding on until there’s nothing left. (p. 98)
It’s a poignant moment of death and passing, of loss and moving on. The reality of animated skeletons in this world makes his near-death all the more difficult to bear, and the story’s alternative reality gives it the opportunity to explore the real emotions at the heart of this strange world.
The stories in the collection all weave in and out of the abysses of loss and death, even as they chart pathways into territories of hope and becoming. They explore these themes by using the surreal to look squarely at the real: a haunted house tries to reconstruct the loss it’s experienced; friends smoke a drug called “Nostalgia”; lovers tiptoe through an acid rain that becomes a metaphor for their own toxicity. At every turn, there’s both a dose of the fantastical and a dose of reality, and these seemingly disparate elements end up working hand in hand to tell moving and unforgettable stories about what it means to be human.