There are a few misleading things about this book to get out of the way first.
The structure: This is not a novel. This book consists of short stories with a central unnamed narrator (for the most part) who, along with one other character are a part of every story in some way. The description on the back of the book is HIGHLY misleading, as it only describes the first story. It was a little confusing for me, so hopefully that helps other people!
The title: I'm just going to let you know the title doesn't really have anything to do with the book. It is mentioned in one of the stories that a character dresses in the goth style (black clothes, heavy eyeliner, pale skin—you know the type) but other than that, it really is just a cool title. The author even quips about it in his afterword, which I highly recommend reading.
Now, let's get down to the good stuff. This is a disturbingly creepy book. For the most part, the reader is inside the mind of an unnamed narrator who is obviously a sociopath with strange, violent fantasies. He has a fascination with the dark and macabre, to the point of starting his own amateur investigations into the strange murders, missing pets, and other weird happenings that go on in his town.
Sometimes involving the strange girl in class that no one wants to be friends with and sometimes investigating on his own, this narrator has a knack for uncovering other people's weird and dark secrets. But he doesn't want to turn them into the police or really get too involved at all. Instead, he just wants to know the truth or sometimes influence the situation to his liking (or just to see if he can).
The cold almost clinical way the narrator views the horrific scenes he encounters creates a stark contrast between expectation and reality. To the reader, it is crazy and gruesome, but to him, it is like watching insects in a glass jar—even as he grapples with serial killers.
Otsuichi's writing (and/or the translation) is very clean, not a lot of fluff or overwrought detail. He gets right to the point with clear descriptions of what
I tend to go through phases with short stories where I'll read tons and tons of collections, and then almost none at all, and I feel the start of short story obsession coming on.
I believe wholeheartedly that short stories are windows to the inner workings of a writer—in the gross, fascinating way that the Body Worlds exhibits are unbelievably cool and also utterly strange and morbid once you remember you are surrounded by dead people.
Short stories have to be tightly woven—getting right to the heart of who the characters are and what their motivations might be, what the setting of the story is, and the general thrust of the plot without all the long-windedness of creating backstories and flashbacks and interludes and asides that can be afforded to novels.
Short stories also need a good hook. There has to be something almost immediately that makes the reader invested, makes them want to keep reading. So there are a lot of balls to keep in the air when writing short fiction.
Land of Bones is the first book I’ve tried by Glenn Rolfe and he definitely has quite an imagination. The stories in this book all seem to be unpacking some kind of loss and deal with grief, anger, and how people react when faced with traumatic situations.
Though the content of the stories varies widely from tinges of the supernatural, to strange monsters, to a coming of age piece, to a vampire story—it really shows a wide range of interest and versatility. But interestingly, all the stories seem to hinge on the same emotional resonance, that feeling of loss and pain.
The emotion in the book comes from a real place, which makes them resonate with the reader. At the conclusion of the stories, I was often left thinking, what would I have done if I were put in that situation? How would I have handled it? I think one thing that could have made the stories stronger was if the characters could have delivered that emotional punch rather than leaving it up to the narrative. The stories basically all concluded with plot (and some were driven solely by it), more of a "telling" feature rather than a "showing" one, and for me, that really blunted the connection to the characters and their plights.
I read a hard copy of this book, so perhaps there are updates in the e-book version, but there are a lot of spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors throughout. For me, that is an automatic one-star reduction. I can definitely overlook a typo here or there, but multiple errors on the same page is something that an editor would catch. I think this book needed another solid round of proofreading to correct things like all the misplaced commas, helping understanding of possessive apostrophes, and even just simple agreement of subject and verb. These things really do matter, and when they are wrong it is so disruptive to reading.
Overall, I enjoyed this collection and I think it shows a lot of promise. There are so many interesting ideas here, but they did feel a little underdeveloped at times as though the stories were just waiting to really be fleshed out all the way.
My thanks to the author for generously providing me a copy of this book to read and review.
Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.