Samantha Hunt could be called an aficionado of the liminal: the fuzzy border that divides human from animal or machine, the real from the unreal or hyperreal, life from death. The author of three acclaimed novels, including 2016’s marvelous “Mr. Splitfoot,’’ and the winner of a 2017 Guggenheim Fellowship, Hunt, with the publication of her first collection of stories, “The Dark Dark,’’ is poised to break through as one of our major fiction writers.
The volume’s 10 stories explore the darkness within and without: nightmares, hysteria, visions and visitations, fantasies both paranoid and ecstatic. Darkness ramifies widely, as mystery, secrets, horror, the illicit, mental illness, freedom from conventional categories, rules, insight, truth.
On the one hand, Hunt’s eclectic roster of protagonists shy away from, tremble in the face of, and deplore darkness; on the other, they are irresistibly drawn to it. Oppressed by domesticity or accumulated failures, they yearn for “bursts of freedom,” even though their “self-indulgence could tear holes in evenings, marriages, families.”
Hunt’s suffering, struggling characters seek or succumb to “trancelike” or altered states, turning to music “hot with promise,” drugs, alcohol, or other people to get beyond the constrictions of mundane life. They wish to assuage their insecurities or existential ache by temporarily plunging into oblivion, denial, or transcendence. Extreme situations — a hurricane in “The House Began To Pitch,” the death of a dog in “The Yellow,” an FBI stakeout in “Love Machine” — bring “unexpected coupling[s].”
The fragility of identity, its vulnerability to circumstance and situation, haunts Hunt’s characters even as they experiment with new modes of being or give themselves over to metamorphosis. In “Beast,” a woman who recently cheated on the husband she loves finds herself inexplicably turning into a deer each night and wonders how to share the bizarre development with him. In “Wampum,” a 14-year-old girl flirts shamelessly with a 38-year old man, only to have their mutual dance of seduction fizzle out in a disorienting way. And in the tour-de-force “A Love Story,” recently published in The New Yorker, an erstwhile pot dealer turned writer, wife, and mother who fears everything from coyotes to intruders to “dangerous scenarios involving [her] . . . children,” finds “the night’s untethering” turning her “into someone . . .[she’s] not,” her “own private Greek chorus” of female voices.
Procreation and pregnancy, miscarriage and maternal anxiety are recurring preoccupations in these stories. In “The Story Of” and “The Story of Of,” Norma, who can’t get pregnant, is infuriated by the ease with which other, less deserving, women conceive. In “All Hands,” a 40-year-old high school teacher narrates the uncanny tale of 13 girl students who get pregnant simultaneously.
Mortality shadows even the most ordinary outings; in “Cortes the Killer,” the tragic demise of a brother and sister’s horse outside a Walmart sheds new light on their father’s death from lung cancer.
These are stories about fear, what engenders it, how it is magnified, mitigated, or aggrandized into something at once annihilating and sublime. Insight is partial, transport ephemeral but resonantly strange. Uncanny moments of honesty or “bright rawness” stud the experiences of Hunt’s characters like flashing gems.
Hunt is by turns hilarious, wry, wrenching, and lyrical. Her ability to make a deft turn from the comic to the poignant is remarkable, her humaneness sometimes incongruous but never in doubt.
For all their eeriness, their unwavering, unrelenting confrontation with defeat, disappointment, and despair, the ultimate effect of the stories in “The Dark Dark’’ is inspiriting, nourishing, and finally comforting. Hunt seems to be asking: Who’s to say who’s sane and who’s not, what’s real and what’s false? It is a vision of the mysterious, perverse, and bizarre so congenial and matter-of-fact that it becomes almost utilitarian.
And its utilitarian premise seems to be that all is there to be used and can be useful. The world that opens up here is multiplied in its accessibility; there are simply this many more possibilities at hand, however fractured or fractalized. Why not take advantage of them? Hunt’s subtlety of vision, her embrace of her panoply of oddballs and misfits, her willingness to make leaps of logic and association in order to link diverse phenomena — these virtues of empathy make her darkness, against every grain, a place of original and truly radical connectedness.
THE DARK, DARK
By Samantha Hunt
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 241 pp., paperback, $15Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’