Commentary Commentary RSS Reviews Podcasts_Audio Podcasts RSS Blog Links Archives Indexes

Aimee Bender
Willful Creatures
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2005

Doubleday / Random House
US First Edition Hardcover
ISBN 0-385-50113-7
208 Pages; $22.95
Publication Date: 08-16-2005
Date Reviewed: 09-27-05

Index:  Fantasy  Horror  General Fiction  Science Fiction  Mystery

It's not often that readers get to explore the uncharted realms of the unconscious with mathematical precision. But Aimee Bender's 'Willful Creatures' offers a selection of short stories which bubble up from an imagination that values clarity as much as color. She'll start from a bizarre, dream-like premise, but her exploration is a model of logic. Her love of language is apparent in every word, every phrase, every choice she makes. She wields her words as if they were variables within inevitable equations, compelling the reader with simplicity and humor. Each story in 'Willful Creatures' adds up to a unique sum, a complex mood that can be expressed only with the words she has so carefully chosen.

Bender's work captures moods and evokes emotions that can't be boiled down. She observes the complexity of our inner and outer lives with simple language and skewed visions. What makes 'Willful Creatures' such a joy is her ability to work across the entire spectrum of life from a series of unique and fantastic perspectives.

Whether she's addressing the longing of a lonely man in "End of the Line" or the cruelty of teenage girls in "Debbieland", Bender seems to paint a precise picture of the ineffable. "End of the Line", in which a man goes "to the pet store to buy himself a little man to keep him company," is alternately creepy, poignant and funny. While the story is disturbing, Bender's concise language evokes more than distress. Underneath the distress are a loving, a longing for companionship, and a desire to yield as well as dominate. Once she's decided that there are little men you can buy as pets, everything that follows is inescapable.

"Debbieland" is based on Bender's experiences in junior high school, but written in a compelling narrative style that allows her to cover much more than the terror of teenage teasing. Bender's prose is so astonishingly clear that the reader can effortlessly experience that multifaceted perspective. She slices time and mood and then folds them into an entertaining literary origami. But though the wounds she inflicts with her literary straight-razor are painless, they cut deep. There's blood, lots of blood. It's rather scary.

Many of the works here have the timeless feel of fairy tales and fables, written with a light, modern touch. In the collection, the stories offer a nice contrast to those with a darker, edgier tone. The fairy tale is a form that Bender clearly loves, and she uses it well. Readers will share her joy, with stories like "The Leading Man", about a boy born with keys instead of fingers who becomes a hero, or "Dearth", in which a woman finds a pot full of potatoes that grow to become her surrogate children. Bender's precise language makes the fantastic feel utterly real, and she evokes a complex mixture of joy, sorrow and laughter. Bender writes the best kind of fairy tales and fables, easily read nuggets with a surreal surface and a universal appeal.

Bender writes more than just dark and light fairy tales. Her mystery story, "The Case of the Salt and Pepper Shakers" is certainly surreally tweaked, but nonetheless a recognizable and very entertaining mystery. She uses the power of details and her transparent style to unmoor the mystery genre from itself and creates a modern classic on par with O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi". Well, perhaps this is not as happy a story. Then, these are not happy times. "Hymn" has echoes of John Wyndham's classic science fiction novel 'The Midwich Cuckoos', but plays out with a poetic beauty that lives up to the title.

No matter what style she adopts, Bender brings a deeply convicted sense of hallucination to her writing. Readers cannot mistake her peculiar mode of perception for anything other than Aimee Bender. There's a hard buzz to these stories, a gripping quality that is impossible to escape. But who wants to escape a world and words so perfectly put together as those by Bender? Few who pick up this collection and start to read it will want to put it down. Bender's pharmacological high is addictive because it hooks up to the reader's own longing for something more than real, something ultra-real. With 'Willful Creatures', readers have the pages, the prose and power to connect to something within themselves, unlocked by Bender's lovely language.

Review Archive
All Reviews alphabetized by author.

General Fiction
Non-Genre, general fiction and literature.

Supernatural fiction, supernatural horror and non-supernatural horror.

Science Fiction
Science fiction, science fantasy, speculative fiction, alternate history.

Fantasy, surrealism and magic realism.

Crime, thrillers, mystery, suspense.

Non-Fiction, True Crime, Forteana, Reference.


Archives Indexes How to use the Agony Column Contact Us About Us