What Happened Here, a book review by Michelle Vardeman
What Happened Here, a collection of linked stories by Bonnie ZoBell, can be said to be a meditation on chaos. Like passengers on a plunging jetliner, the characters within flail about. They rarely know who they are, why they do what they do, where they are going, or how to proceed. They are plagued by self-doubt, fear, anger, and loss, and are so confused that the readers who briefly share their world might genuinely ask, “What did happen here?”
The novella “What Happened Here”—which opens the collection, serves as a narrative “home base,” and links the short stories that follow—is based on a real-life air disaster that occurred in September 1978. PSA Flight 182 collided mid-air with a Cessna over the neighborhood of North Park in San Diego. 144 people died, both in the aircraft and on the ground. Thirty years later, Zobell’s residents of North Park are gruesomely spellbound by it. The narrator, Lenora, tells it this way:
“The explosion was instantaneous—an enormous fireball whooshed into the sky, a mushroom of smoke and debris. Scraps of clothing leaped onto telephone poles, body parts fell on roofs, tray tables scattered across driveways. Airplane seats landed on front lawns, arms and legs descended onto patios, and a torso fell through the windshield of a moving vehicle . . . The accident was posed to me as a ghoulish fringe benefit by the previous owner of my house . . . I did my part to maintain the lore, relaying details I’d read online to curious visitors.”
The residents even throw an “anniversary party” to commemorate the event. The question that ZoBell leaves unanswered, however, is, why? Lenora says, “I worried about how the annihilation of these bodies that landed on my property would affect me. Would I feel engulfed by doom simply living on this patch of earth?” Spoiler alert: She doesn’t. Nor do the other residents of North Park. So therein lies the mystery—Why are these characters obsessed by something so wholly disconnected from themselves?
For the reader in search of neat and tidy character arcs, such a contradiction can be unsettling. But perhaps that is the point—to be unsettling, chaotic, mysterious. Indeed, there is an unmistakable note of the gothic throughout the collection. While the many, repetitive descriptions of dismembered bodies in “What Happened Here” is more akin to horror, allusions to Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” are explicit. Take this scene where Lenora first meets the man who will become her husband:
“What’s your name?’ he said, teetering dangerously far back on the legs of his chair.
I burned everywhere. “Lenora.”
. . .
A strange expression materialized on his face, before he said, “’And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, ‘Lenore!’”
That sewed everything up right there.
“Merely this and nothing more,” I replied, smiling back.
The allusion is not quite “sewn up” for the reader, however. In the end it is John who succumbs to his bipolar disorder while Lenora, contrary to Poe’s “lost Lenore,” survives his ups and downs quite well.
Nevertheless, the gothic tropes of dread, doom, and fantastic events pop up in various stories. In “People Scream,” the main character, Heather, herself a “goth” in dress and demeanor, hears disembodied screams behind the doors at the Center of Life—a meeting place for addicts, alcoholics, gamblers, overeaters, sexaholics, and rageaholics—where she works as a receptionist. Are the screams real or imaginary? Clarity comes at the close of the story. They are emblematic of the many who are lost, like Heather herself: “Then she hears it, the scream, the inconsolable cry of a child who has lost both her parents forever, a girl irretrievably alone, a woman trying to accept this but who still yearns for something more.”
In “Sea Life,” we meet another “teen-angst” character. Sean is a would-be surfer who spends the weekend in horrible dread of Monday. His inability to surf and his mistaking dolphin fins for shark fins, much to the delight of the true beach bums, serve to dramatize his internal struggle: “Sean’s head throbs not only from the last night’s ecstasy, but from the nameless infinity he faces now that he’s spent four years getting A’s in classes he didn’t like for a degree he wasn’t sure was his idea and has ended up with a girlfriend who wants to buy matching dinnerware.” The impending doom he feels approaching? A job interview that his parents expect him to attend; this is the gothic made mundane.
Gothic-esque literary allusion also features in “This Time of Night.” Husband and wife Willy and Annie go camping to San Onofre State Park: “Everyone in Southern California calls the big concrete mounds on the San Onofre Nuclear plant near Camp Pendleton the boobs.” The two mounds loom menacingly over their campground, a radioactive symbol of Willy’s impending death from HIV. One cannot help but be reminded of the spectacles of T. J. Eckleburg in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which loom over the Valley of Ashes, bearing sullen witness to the corruption of the American dream.
“A Black Sea” is the most overtly gothic tale, featuring a fantastical creature from south of the border. Artist Alexa and her business executive husband, Eduardo, attend a business conference in Baja, Mexico. Married just one year, there is already tension in the marriage. Eduardo is handsome and attracts the attention of other women. He is the breadwinner, working long hours while Alexa teaches art classes to kids part-time. Alexa’s temper rises to the boiling point when a blond woman from El Paso flirts openly with Eduardo. “I’m feeling wild,” Alexa said, “locked up. I need to get outside and smell the ocean.” The friction is palpable as they head out into the late afternoon for a drive:
What she wanted was for Eduardo to feel what she felt when she was alone with a canvas in their garage, boxes piled up in the corners, old sleeping bags, golf clubs. She needed to be able to see without interference from the world, to see inside herself, to see what mattered . . . She longed for how he used to be the one person she could count on, who shared her belief that life was bigger than all the daily nonsense.
As they bicker, Eduardo veers from the highway, steering “them off even the side road, as if he could get away from the argument altogether, stopping abruptly in a dirt gully, the tires hitting loose soil, whirring, not going anywhere.” It’s near dark now and we are fully in the realm of the gothic. The landscape is wild and threatening: “Spiky trees ben[d], trying to reach them.” Soon they find a dead, mutilated dog and blood spattered around an abandoned campsite. As they explore the area further they find another dead dog and a burro. “Blood seeped from the neck of each of the dead beasts. The skin around the wounds was ashen. They’d been exsanguinated.” Then, out of the murk springs a creature—“An owl with an incredibly large wing span? . . . A kangaroo?” No. It’s a chupacabra! When they make their escape and later tell their tale to the manager of a ratty roadside motel, the creature that pursued them is named: “They live in the hills and leave goats and other animals in their paths. They suck the organs of the animals through very small openings. Especially the heart. They like the heart.” In “A Black Sea” ZoBell departs from the symbolic use of the gothic and veers into the literal. Alexa is “mesmerized” by the chupacabra, “even attracted to it—the passion, the way it ripped what it needed from life and moved on.” The story closes with the couple finding their hunger for each other again, as they make “love for hours, scratches swelling on each other’s skin from holding each other so tight, their blood leaving its mark on the sheets.” Who knew a creature from nightmare could serve as marriage counselor?
From beginning to end ZoBell’s characters in What Happened Here struggle with themselves, with each other, with the world at large and the meaning of life. Very little is resolved, but perhaps that is the point of the collection. “Shit happens,” as the saying goes, and there is very little we can do about it.
Michelle Vardeman earned a Master’s degree in English literature from Southern Methodist University. There she specialized in creative writing, medieval and gothic literature. She worked as a writer and editor in educational publishing for more than a decade, developing print and digital textbooks in the humanities. Michelle continues to write and edit on a freelance basis from her home in Dallas, Texas, where she lives with her husband and six dogs.