A strange young woman wastes a gourmet pie while searching for a man named John, a man she’s never met. A blogger has a torrid affair with an undead man she cannot document. The wife of the world’s tiniest man contemplates her station in life. These are a few of the many odd, surreal, off-putting situations found in The Veneration of Monsters by Suzanne Burns. If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself engaged—even charmed—by these characters, even if (or perhaps because) they are a few degrees off of center.
Burns uses her slightly unhinged characters and stories to explore ideas of desire, loneliness, depression, the staleness of adult life, the unreal aspects of growing old. In the first story, “First Movement,” Burns follows a woman named Cherise, the aforementioned pie-waster. “Cherise wanted to meet a man who would call her mouth a symphony,” Burns writes. What a beautiful way to capture that feeling we’ve all had, that longing to be acknowledged, that yearning to be cherished and fawned over. Cherise’s desire is maddening in its intensity, enough that she self-harms, lovingly irritates her own skin, skips work, walks with candy stuck inside her shoe. This is a woman in a mental pain that seems to only be alleviated by the distraction of physical pain. This is solitude in the flesh.
In “Happy Anniversary,” a married couple tries a new “game” for their tenth anniversary, pretending to be strangers to “spice things up.” “I’ve had enough of everything always being the same,” the husband, Thomas, says the year before. As their night progresses, however, Thomas regrets his desire to change. His wife, Emma, gets so wrapped up in the role-playing that she seems to actually become a different person, legitimately confused by Thomas’s mentions of their “normal” life. Thomas longs for something fresh, but he can’t handle the inherent danger of the new. He desires new experiences but can’t let go of the safety of mundanity.
Burns has her finger on the pulse of desire in these stories. Every story has a slight twinge of unreality to it, but at the same time hums with an inescapable, gritty humanity. We all want to know our partner’s secrets, even if it endangers their existence (“Unwound”). We all wish to be thinner, to be more attractive, to connect with someone (“Reducing”). We all think things would be different, be better, if we could change just one thing about ourselves (“The Line of Fate”). What Burns does with such skill is take these common feelings and make them fresh through the lens of the strange, so that we can truly relate with a woman who talks to dolls or someone who wears a ribbon around her neck to keep her head from falling off.
Sean L. Corbin