Darkened Paternity, In Multiple
By Jesse Hilson
I wrote a brief goodreads review of Kristin Garth’s story collection Daddy but I wanted to say a little more, since it is perhaps a kind of culmination or focal point to which her other fictions (non-fictions? autobiographical fictions?) have pointed all this time. Those who have read other books of Garth’s know how peopled with abusive father figures her writing can be. With this collection, Garth seems to have shifted the psychosexual gears into overdrive.
A question of unity vs. plurality arises as readers may be questioning how many of these narratives are meant to be clear parallels to each other: the presence of a paternal dominating figure casts common shadows across them all. Eighteen short stories and a chilling, suspenseful novella called “Plaything” make up the book, and Daddy stalks not all but many of the stories like a controlling nightmare demon. Is it all the same man? Are they common facets or distinct faces?
Longtime readers of Kristin Garth may know better than to expect a lot of sunlight in these murky depths. These stories could be “day-ruiners” in that they expose sicknesses and coping mechanisms that many of us wouldn’t want to be trapped in the same room with. But I have to say one thing after reading several of Garth’s books. I read her previous story collection You Don’t Want This as well as the novel The Meadow and wondered at the BDSM motifs: were they bondage and torture, or were they avenues of personal liberation? Are we entitled to pass judgment on how other people resolve personal issues of power and sexual dynamics? At one point in Daddy a character likens her deeply ingrained “daddy issues” to kryptonite, an Achilles heel that renders her helpless to these Mephistophelean men. Garth’s protagonists are heavily affected, scarred by child abuse, and shaped into new personal forms which need powerful men to dominate them for their own ends.
We could see this as sick and pathological or we could see it from a neutral POV — it’s not always easy to see if Garth is a moralist or not over her many books. Or if that is even important.
In Daddy, there are plenty of exposés of not-so-repressed exploitation and victimhood that leave us in an ambiguous state. More than once we are shown the dilemma of the kept woman who needs protection and nurturing from a dominant male figure but has to give up control and power to him, down to what color contact lenses she’s forced to wear, with punishments for being her natural brown-eyed self (“Plaything”). Garth does let the reader’s judgment in but on certain conditions it seems. Upon reading several books of Garth’s before, the challenge has struck me, how much her writing is about curious arrangements between men and women (and women and women) that seem to be like rarefied, alien worlds marbling our own. As long as there are men and women negotiating relationships like contracts, fulfilling needs and giving power to one another, there will be this curious condition of being to be explored. Kristin Garth does this and it’s up to us as readers whether to be morbidly curious, horrified, or darkly illuminated and uplifted by these tendentious fictions.
In terms of form Garth is always a poet looking for rhythms and rhymes that persist outside the sonnet frame she typically specializes in. From “Frights”:
“Lyrics he howls while sweat drips from his baby pink Elvis face. A furious lust he focuses your way until your veins boil in this dark space, igniting your insides with fire — the foreplay of this harrowing chase.
Finds you, braids in your hair, a pale pussy bow as soon as he jumps from the stage. Pushes you against the wall to hold you hard and kiss you so soft, murmurs my little kitten to keep in a cage.”
There are many examples of the “sonnet submerged” in the texts of the stories. I won’t call it entertaining or amusing to spot the rhymes in her prose, exactly, because that would be belittling, but it is a diverting game inset into the fiction. How interesting that the instances of rhyming, semi-hidden within the prose paragraphs, are like a verbal fan dance flourished before an audience, a display. It’s a style that unifies the work, gives the impression of fables recited in a dark fantasia.
Authors Note: I might like to try writing more reviews as I have the chance, and Cody Sexton has offered me the opportunity to write a column for him which I’ll call Ricochets: the second life of the bullet bouncing off some hard surface, still threatening to do damage at some new angle but slowed slightly. I’m not sure what I’d be getting into in my busy schedule but I like crime and dark fiction and experimental works. I try to read things from all over.
Jesse Hilson lives and works in the Catskills in New York State. His work, which includes fiction, poetry, art, comics, essays, and book reviews, has been or will be published at Maudlin House, Rejection Letters, Expat Press, Hobart, Misery Tourism, Excuse Me Mag, Pink Plastic House, A Thin Slice of Anxiety, Exacting Clam, Don’t Submit, Bruiser and elsewhere, including several appearances on L’étranger Radio Panik 105.4 (Brussels). He has written two novels: Blood Trip (Close to the Bone UK) and The Tattletales (Prism Thread) and a poetry chapbook Handcuffing the Venus De Milo (Bullshit Lit). In 2024 Anxiety Press is slated to publish a short story collection She Took Her Half Out the Middle. He can be found on X and Instagram at @platelet60.