On The Winding Stair by Joanna Howard. BOA Editions, $14.
Reviewed by Maria Ribas
Joanna Howard’s short stories flit about like phantoms--just as her characters are ethereal and haunting, her stories are framed by an aura of mystery and romance, with fleeting peaks of action. The 14 stories in On the Winding Stair range from a vignette of an encounter to a “novel in shorts” that encompasses several generations. Howard imbues all her tales with dream-like action and sidelong description, which creates a haze around the narrative that, rather than disorient, lulls the reader into her sometimes euphoric, sometimes tragic world. Her careful and practiced dismissal of the concrete allows the reader release from conventional concerns of plot and conflict, and ultimately celebrates the unknowable. Few of her stories have happy endings and none need them; they offer glimpses into reveries, into intrigue, into rediscovered pasts and unreadable futures that dispel our world and offer another. Unwinding it all is futile, and Howard poses the question in one of her stories: “Is there still the pale hope to unknot the bind? Again, I count out the factors, moving across the horizon, now, with bright allure. Forever vulnerable to the seduction of cool fingers and warning hands which announce, as though inked: Fictitious! This way does not go through to action.”
The fictions Howard inks often focus on the silvery shadows of the world rather than on the searing realities of existence. The collection opens with “Light Carried on Air Moves Less,” a tale of an unnamed pale beauty, alone in the cross section of a ramshackle farmhouse in the middle of a deserted plain, and her desperate affair with the powerful prairie wind. Watching her is a specter, who pumps a handcart along a dead-end strip of train track and wonders if it is possible “for a ghost to combust to light and ash from sheer will, just for the sake of finally being seen.” There is a scarcity of wind and, desperate to regain her lover, she strips to a chemise made of rainbow scarves and strikes seductive poses in the farmhouse turned stage. Tortured and desirous, the specter pumps his handcart ever harder until he is finally able to create an “elaborate fantastical cyclonic whirl” for the pale beauty.
The romantic, idyllic past in which many of the stories are situated is saved from garishness by a thread of the macabre that winds through the collection. Nieces dig graves for their recently murdered uncles; the body of a man swells in a canal; a Hungarian sailor poisons a gentleman and steals his daughter; the dead are ever abandoning the living, and yet their specters abound. In “Seascape,” a woman settles into the home of a dead sea captain and, even after the love between the woman and the ghost fades, still has the home: “I married the place. This was the more lasting of the two liaisons. Loving so solitary a horizon, when one has been abandoned, proves some compensation for absence.” The relations between the departed and the remaining, the sought and the searching, and the past and the present spur the charm and mystery behind these stories, which explore the intertwining of our world and a parallel mystical world.
Yet not all the stories are overtly cryptic. “In Guffy’s Plum Cricket” reveals the spiraling delirium of the narrator through a stream of consciousness, as he attacks his fellow diner, Marty, for not truly understanding the difference between the movies Guns of Navarone and Spellbound. It becomes an inner battle between Spellbound, “which marks well-reasoned, even-keeledness, understated good taste,” and Guns of Navarone, which is “hysteria and backwardness.” The narrator unwinds into insanity, ending his rant, “I know now I must be quiet if I want to move into Spellbound, a space where the bar is quite white and the floor below me is pitched and I am either scaling or slipping.” Iterations of a clash between normalcy and absurdity overflow in Howard’s prose, as it veers first to realism and simplism, then to florid fantasy.
Howard’s linguistic maneuvers are what primarily account for the vertiginous, sensory deluge of her prose. The words tumble forth, trumpeting their full sound and heralding attention: “Even Loba came down from the porch in sisal-soled slippers each spring to shake the tall branches of the mulberry tree so the dark berries would collect in the yard, so we could scoop them up in handfuls into stone bowls, our bare feet spotted bruise black with ripe mulberries.” Then each successive sentence adds to the onslaught, creating a surge of meaning, with few pauses: “Eyes like a name, her eyelids flicker. The iris capsizes. A murderer is rarely moved. Behind him, the trail of his reflection in shards. The pursuing inventors. Forward, the ruined beach.” Howard’s prose alternately whirls and unwinds, contributing to the overall aura of emotional catharsis and unrestraint.
While her words and sentences thatch together perfectly, her characters often fall to pieces, uncertain and broken. The femme fatale of “She Came From the East” views her own death in mirror shards, as a bullet rips through her body and into a funhouse mirror; the young girl of “Captive Girl for Cobbled Horsemen” wanders endlessly through a threatening wartime landscape, and the gourd farmer’s orphan ward in “The Scent of Apples” is just barely resuscitated by the neighborhood dandy. The girls, women, and phantom women of Howard’s work perpetually mourn a loss, whether it is of a lover, a family, a past, or a future. They are haunted and they haunt, flitting through the sometimes ethereal and sometimes all too real worlds of Howard’s creation. There is no end and no beginning for Howard’s stories, only a perpetual suspension in a gloaming.