Imagine a hybrid of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s dark, psychoanalytic prose and Salvador Dali’s surrealist, dream-like (nightmarish?) paintings … it might look something like Laura van den Berg’s short stories in her new book, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). At first glance, each story features a relatable female protagonist living a relatively normal life in modern society. These stories, however, are cloaked in a misty fog, forcing the reader, despite a chilling sense of dread, to take a closer look at what is really going on. The stories play out a bit like a classic horror movie, taking the reader on a ride filled with mystery and suspense. 

If I had to pick a favorite story, it would be “Slumberland.” The story takes place during the night, while the protagonist drives around the city taking photographs of things she finds beautiful or fascinating, like: roadkill, empty parking lots, a sleeping homeless man, a foreclosed Victorian house, or a creepy motel called Slumberland. She is lonely, and finds comfort in her nightly escapades, although she does at times feel like someone is watching her — or haunting her… She recalls, while driving, “I had an uneasy feeling that something was in the backseat, cloaked in the shadows behind me.” Her neighbor calls the photographs “fucking creepy,” but the protagonist isn’t creeped out — that is, until she looks closer at one photo and sees a boy’s ghost in the backseat of her car. Is this the ghost of her departed son? How did he die? What does he want?

One of the characters in Slumberland has a tattoo of a quote by Edgar Allan Poe: “All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.” I found it reflective of themes of spiritual beings, paranormal activity, or phenomena invisible to the material eye in these stories — which often seem to exist either in dreams, or different planes of our subconscious reality. I first read the story, “Last Night,” as a narrative poem, since it includes repetition, and, frankly, some confusing or cryptic moments. But looking back on it now, I see that it can also be read as a memory or dream (or nightmare).

Other themes in these short stories, including eeriness (dead mother’s tree spirit in “The Pitch”), uncontrollable disasters (the earthquake in “Karolina”), unpredictable loss (stillborn child and sudden terminal illness in “Hill of Hell”), and harrowing grief (woman loses her twin to a mass shooting in “Volcano House”), are all-too relatable to those affected by today’s pandemic and its devastating aftermath. It is times like these that make you feel like you are living in some kind of alternate dystopian universe … or maybe even “just living inside a dog’s dream” …

In I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, Van den Berg is not shy on the disturbing details, sensitive topics, or uncomfortable moments in these short stories. Any possible significance or morals are completely up to the reader’s interpretation, and themes are raw and often nightmarish. But this book is a work of art, after all — and as they say, art should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed.

I Hold a Wolf by the Ears is available for purchase.

Laura van den Berg is the author of the story collections What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, The Isle of Youth, and I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, as well as the novels, Find Me and The Third Hotel, which was a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award and named a Best Book of 2018 by over a dozen publications. She is the recipient of a Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Bard Fiction Prize, a PEN/O. Henry Prize, a MacDowell Colony fellowship, and is a two-time finalist for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.  Born and raised in Florida, Laura now splits her time between the Boston area and Central Florida, with her husband and dog.