Carefully crafted tales of the supernatural, thought-provoking introspection, and relentless black humor can be found in this eclectic new collection from American author and professor emeritus at Boston College, Michael C. Keith. Perhaps best known for his memoir, The Next Better Place, and his two dozen books on electronic media, Keith has authored some fifteen story collections. The latest, Stories in the Key of Me, which contains more than one hundred and twenty pieces of prose, with most somewhere between one sentence and one page in length, offers a mix of speculative fiction, memoir, lyric and narrative poetry, and philosophical musings. Although most of the content has been culled from the wide selection of literary magazines that have published Keith’s work over the past decade or so, this newest volume also includes fresh, previously unseen work.
Arguably, the most satisfying pieces are the longer, more fully formed stories, of which there are quite a number. Keith is well-practiced at instilling his tales with elements of the paranormal and dark, horrifying situations. “The Gomi Sea,” for example, where a Japanese fisherman’s boat gets trapped against a massive island consisting of refuse, is strange, gripping, and chilling in equal measure. Likewise, “Broken Sleep,” an eerie tale of retribution inflicted on the culprit of a hit-and-run accident, has horror, light humor, and otherworldly aspects. Other pieces, such as “Ghost Boy,” which is a slightly altered version of the story first seen in the literary magazine Lowestoft Chronicle, originally titled “Magic Skin,” and “Pájaro Diablo,” also first printed in that magazine, are grim but thrilling, mythical tales. The first is centered on an African boy who is the object of prey for hunters because of his valuable “bone-white albino skin.” In the latter, a brave boy, armed with a slingshot, tries to save his father from Peru’s legendary black-feathered predator. Both tales are strengthened by their vivid, exotic settings and haunting endings.
Equally impressive is the gothic tale “The Waiting Bell,” first published in Sleet Magazine, about a little girl who is pronounced dead, but whose parents cannot accept the doctor’s verdict and have the body consigned to the famed Waiting House to make certain she is “truly departed.” This disquieting story is Keith’s longest piece of fiction and perhaps his most captivating work. In a similar vein, “Robin on Air,” a shocking and heart-wrenching story of grieving, guilt-ridden parents struggling to overcome the tragic death of their eleven-year-old boy, a shortwave radio enthusiast who was electrocuted while attempting to “strengthen the receiver’s reception,” has death and mortality as its theme, but also a bittersweet and haunting quality.
Speculative fiction aside, by and large, Stories in the Key of Me retains the style, tone, and structure of the author’s previous collection, Let Us Now Speak of Extinction. Essentially, it comprises a large selection of very lean and varied narratives on the human condition. Sometimes provocative, absurd, or unsettling, Keith endears many of the pieces to us through his frequent use of black humor. In the amusing “A Kind and Dapper Perp,” a murderer wins public sympathy (to the extent that people fund his defense ) through his “deeply touching and eloquent” remarks and his abundance of natural charm. No more than three paragraphs long, it is a good example of the author’s sardonic wit and honed faculty in the art of succinct storytelling; yet one might argue that it is also a tale that cries out for expansion.
Other exceedingly short but memorable pieces like “What May Rise from an Impulse,” the tongue-in-cheek chiller “Ever Ready,” and “WYO 287” are the type of bare-bones, twist-in-the-tale efforts that seem to fit the ultrashort format perfectly. In the first, an inquisitive traveler pays the price for his inadvertent trespassing. In the next, an overly cautious father finally gets the opportunity to justify his obsessive behavior. In the last, a traveler on the hunt for dinosaur parts to “complete a set of bookends” observes something interesting in the “world’s oldest building,” which is manufactured out of dinosaur bones. “For a time, I peruse the site, wondering why such a unique place would be abandoned,” the narrator remarks. “Sad, I think, returning to the building that was the store. When I peer through one of its dust-covered windows, I can just make out the pelvis of a Stegosaurus.”
Keith’s more down-to-earth narratives prove just as provocative and just as effective. In “When Change is Mistaken for Improvement,” for example, a botched restoration of a water-damaged work by a famous early Northern Renaissance artist finds the remorseful painting’s conservator plagued by guilt, convinced she has “defiled the classic work.” Instead, however, she is surprised to learn that her superior is delighted, believing she has “improvised on the eyes,” and he encourages her to “improve” other cherished works of art.
Much like a game of darts, where some darts miss the intended mark, some hit the bull’s-eye, and others miss the board completely, it’s only natural that a fair portion of the many pieces in Stories in the Key of Me either won’t resonate with every reader, or will fail to move, captivate, or linger long in the mind. Pleasingly though, much of this rich and diverse collection of imaginative, humorous, and philosophical thoughts, and strange, spooky, and bewildering tales is sure to move and delight and undoubtedly leave behind a lasting impression.
About the Reviewer
Nicholas Litchfield is the founding editor of the literary magazine Lowestoft Chronicle, author of the suspense novel Swampjack Virus, and editor of nine literary anthologies. He has worked in various countries as a tabloid journalist, librarian, and media researcher. He writes regularly for the Colorado Review, and his book reviews for the Lancashire Post are syndicated to twenty newspapers across the UK. He lives in western New York and can be reached online at nicholaslitchfield.com.