All The Things We Never See is a journey through Michael Kelly’s writing process with pieces published between 2002 and now. Spanning more than 15 years, the stories in this collection demonstrate Kelly’s evolution as a writer. We get to see his rookie moves (probably not the worst rookie moves a writer has or can make but the ones that can still get published) give way to a more patient and loving storyteller. This collection is an honest and open look at a writer coming into his bigger humanity.
Kelly has a knack for the short-short form. I am sure they are technically flash fiction but they feel somehow meatier than flash stories, they just happen to be very short on word count. He is also quite good at summoning atmosphere in his spare prose. I was repeatedly amazed at how much story came to life within the span of a thousand words.
Sprinkled in between are poems, which walk the line of being flash pieces, and two sets of haiku. Part of the fun in reading this collection is to see a writer at play. Rarely in a collection do we get to see all the forms a writer dips into when they are creating work. This collection feels like a really thorough portfolio of a writer who loves the weird fiction realm and wants to see it occupy all forms. It also feels like an invitation to open up your definitions about what qualifies as a story, especially a weird story.
There are a couple longer stories in the collection and one of these, “Pieces of Blackness,” came out as my favorite. This is the penultimate story in the collection and I just loved it. I found it to be a great piece about masculine fears and the danger they pose to the man himself. In this story Peter suffers from perceived sexual inadequacy, jealousy, being a terrible father, guilt over violence committed in childhood, and not being able to talk to his partner about his emotional state. He is emotionally stunted and often this type of story turns to the family annihilator story (see Amityville Horror, The Shining, etc.) arc but Michael Kelly sees a different arc for his protagonist. Which brings me to another of Kelly’s strengths, and that is finding new territory in well worn horror tropes. He has such a huge narrative vocabulary that he can twist and twist the story until it is something quite different from what you thought you were reading. His stories end up in fresh places even when they start out with a familiar premise. I found this particularly true and delightful in “Bait,” “A Crack in the Ceiling of the World,” “Absolution,” and “A Quiet Axe.”
My other favorite stories were the titular “All The Things We Never See” (though to be fair the unseen is a concept he returns to again in “One Final Breath”) and “The White Face at Dawn.” I don’t want to give away the thing that I found in common with these stories because it felt quite fresh to me as a reader. There is in these two stories a sort of dark imagination realm that feels particular to Kelly. I love when writers send us to their nightmare/dreamscapes. When they can render that on the page it feels like you are dreaming even though you’re awake.
As I read through the collection I was wishing for illustrations. These shorts are practically begging for art responses. This book is going to be a great read for people who like to make response art. If you draw something for “Hark at the Wind” and “The Face that Looks Back at You,” I want to see them so send me a link on twitter (@gemmaweb) or put it in the comments. Actually if you make response art to any of these stories please share. I think these pieces are great creative springboards of all types. Dark as it is, this work felt like an invitation to play.
Michael Kelly is also a collaborative writer. That he seems to enjoy working with other writers is probably what makes Undertow Publications such a marvelous endeavor. In this collection, there are two co-authored pieces and in my opinion one is great and the other one not so great. The first collaboration of the collection is “Desert of Sharp Sorrows,” with Jonathan William Hodges. In general I like the idea of the story but it makes several cringe worthy mistakes that often happen when male writers try on female protagonists. The other stories in the collection lead me to believe that Michael Kelly has rectified this problem in his own writing. For the most part his other female protagonists do not merit a lecture or the following PSA: I do feel as a critic I can offer a little teaching moment to readers who may take to their pens upon reading this collection. This advice comes from my white cis female able-bodied experience, we do not generally notice (or touch) our bodies unless we are experiencing pain, we are experiencing a new (and likely uncomfortable) scenario, or something (particularly) someone makes us aware/uncomfortable about our bodies. I’d offer those as general rules when writing in a skin you do not inhabit. I would also recommend reading writers whose identities you are curious about to see what their lived expertise can tell you about a character you are considering exploring.
In “Other Summers,” Kelly partners with Ray Cluley (author of maybe the most amazing and disturbing stories from New Fears 2 ) for a beautifully sad story about a teenage tragedy. The carousel as the central set piece is used so well for plot, action and romance and then it also speaks to the shape of the story as well. This is a longer piece and it was just gorgeous.
The novelist Dana Spiotta gave a talk in Denver a couple years ago and she said something to the effect that in a novel we are granted access to a writer’s consciousness. I agree and I think that is true of most art. Michael Kelly is a writer whose consciousness you will enjoy dipping in to. With him you will explore the fear of losing your most important people, the doubling of self as you age or change into someone unrecognizable, and to look more mindfully at the world around you. I will also say that this book should be read slowly. The shorter the piece the slower you should take it. This is a perfect book to read a little bit at a time and then go make something!