Girls in Trouble

Winston Ward


Girls in Trouble
Douglas Light
University of Massachusetts Press
130 p.

In the opening scene of the first story in Douglas Light’s new modern Gothic collection Girls in Trouble, an estranged father enters his young daughter’s room in the heat of the night and carries the crying girl against her will out into the family’s tool shed. This first drama, enigmatically titled “Echo Sounder,” is equal parts Night of the Hunter and Twin Peaks. Provocative and tremendously unsettling, it primes the pump for the stories to come.

The heroines of Light’s stories are just as the title describes them, very much the victims. They are adolescent versions of Carmen Westwood or Blanche DuBois, hoping to rely on the kindness of strangers, only learning that the strangers in this ominous narrative world are not so kind after all. They are sometimes allowed to escape one nightmarish scenario only to see the sinister undercurrent of the new reality reveal itself. These girls are trapped between worlds of desperation and fear, panic and icy resolve. Although young, they are old souls, their essences cracked and bleached by the caustic nature of life’s treatment. Light crafts worlds in which comfort is extraordinarily rare, and peace a myth. The protagonists are victimized and abused with an almost sadistic consistency. What makes the reader so uncomfortable here, though, is not that terrible fates befall the majority of the girls (in truth, the men in these stories do not fare so well themselves either), but that the fates the befall them are commonplace in the real world. These characters are not the victims of elaborately designed plot devices, a favorite of modern shock cinema, but are left scarred and heartbroken nonetheless––their clothes ripped and their innocence lost to the simple, everyday mechanics of life.

Light’s style is terse, bringing to mind shades of Flannery O’Connor and hardboiled crime novels of Chandler and Hammett. His stories take us to dark corners of his imagination where ghastly events are routinely referenced but rarely brought to light, remaining obscured from the reader––an enigmatic informant, smoking cigarettes in the darkest corner of the narrative’s parking garage. Light’s characters, often young women battling to come to terms with their developing bodies and imperfect appearances, struggle through their tales, practically holding their breath against the tension. And it’s this tension that sets the tone for Light’s prose.

Characters do not simply ‘do a thing’ in a Douglas Light story, but instead stand just outside of that thing’s fire. They lower their hands over the flame slowly, as the reader waits with morbid curiosity for the burn and the recoil. In most of his pieces, the burn never comes. The characters feel the Sword of Damocles swaying above their throats but he chooses not to illustrate the beheading. Readers are instead left with a picture painted in the hues of disturbing possibilities. Little is explicit here as Light opens fire with his twin pistols of allusion and implication. And when Light pulls the trigger, he’s squaring his weapons directly at his reader’s gut. His stark portraits of emptiness––“Driving home, he throws the brochure and condoms out the window. A flood of emotion takes him. It isn’t grief or anger or though; it’s relief. He’s filled with relief. He’ll die.”––and disappointment––“Her eyes cup with tears. Eighteen days until she’s married and she’s eating frozen food from a coffee mug.”––take a back seat to the events of each story; events which, in many cases, are left unspoken. Here is where Light shows the most talent, illustrating haunting scenarios while leaving even climaxes to the reader’s imagination. If some writers write between the lines, Light rights between the words. His stories remain fulfilling, though, despite the omission of the shocking details. We see in Light a great talent for the unspoken. A writer who learned early what could be spared. And by working so well with things unsaid, Light is able to deliver potent doses of the unspeakable.

Girls in Trouble has its faults. Light’s residual characters often seem formulaic, caricatures that need fleshing out. Some of the book’s flash-fiction length vignettes fail to carry their points effectively home, instead delivering half–cocked lessons in morality and irony. But the work’s strengths easily outshine these missteps and the read is chilling and effective. When I set it down, exhaled and finally allowed my jaw to unclench I felt as though I had just been whispered a grisly secret, one too shameful to repeat.