The stories in Laura Ellen Joyce’s The Luminol Reels read like a series of inverse flashbulbs. There’s encroaching dark matter on every page, clouding the reader’s headspace with snapshots of autopsy, incest, coat hangers, and blood splatters. Make sure you’re up for it. This book ain’t for hemophobes.
Joyce’s collection has moments of light, so don’t get the impression that it’s all hack-and-slash Saw-style carnage. However, as her title suggests, light is only momentarily comforting; readers quickly see that the luminous bluish hues come from luminol-spritzed splashes of blood. The light is always fleeting; the blood seems permanent. Still, brief glimmers are enough to keep this book from devolving into gore for the sake of gore; The Luminol Reels has layers and subtlety on its side.
Stories are presented like reels, and you can almost imagine the whir and tick of an old projector as each image pops up. The Luminol Reels has an old-school crime scene vibe to it. You won’t find the sexy soft-filter lenses and TV technology of CSI Miami, but you’ll get the sense that some grizzled detectives might study these reels in smoky rooms. Most of the crimes in The Luminol Reels are crimes against women. Each one can be taken individually, but Joyce’s book is more satisfying if you let the projector spin through each reel in quick sequence. In a front-to-back read, Joyce’s reels become something like a documentary about violence in contemporary society. This particular documentary is the kind that doesn’t offer much speculation; instead, it presents crime scenes and lets the audience complete its own examinations.
The evidence bags include multiple accounts physical abuse, references to rape and incest, plus the ever-present blood, blood, and more blood. Amid these grotesque stories comes some interesting transpositions. Throughout the book, Joyce inverts Catholic imagery. Furthermore, she upends motherhood—Joyce changes motherhood from a life-giving prospect to a series of miscarriages in “Mothering,” “Flesh,” and “Stillborn”—deliberately contrasting these narratives with references to the Virgin Mary in other stories.
Rites, rituals, and the natural order all intersect in The Luminol Reels. In a way, Joyce’s book explores the ways that humanity has twisted the natural order, but it simultaneously explores the ways that the natural order can be animalistic and cruel. Pieced into this mosaic are those constant images of violence against women: parental abuse in “Daddy,” a strangled and eventually dismembered woman “Snuff,” a pile of dead girls in “Mass Grave.” These violations remind readers that The Luminol Reels is a series of crimes, and readers ought to avoid too much abstract intellectualism. While the book subtextually comments on oppression and the evils of patriarchy, its main purpose is to offer viscerally resonant snapshots rather than any concrete treatise.
Joyce ends with a section called “The Dead Return.” While this section is still bleak, readers are left to consider the resilience of Joyce’s collection. People are hurt over and over in The Luminol Reels, but Joyce reminds readers that each person leaves behind a story. In a book built around crime scene photos, a happy ending is out of the question, but Joyce lets her readers walk away with a sense that telling and sharing these stories generates critical conversations about violence, religion, and gender.
The Luminol Reels, by Laura Ellen Joyce. New York, New York: Calamari Press. 100 pages. $13.00, paper.
James R. Gapinski’s fiction has recently appeared in Line Zero, theNewerYork, and the Pink Fish Press anthology, Involution. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College, and he currently teaches at Pueblo Community College. James lives in Colorado with his partner and the standard hermit’s assortment of books, video games, and cats.