Joshua Chaplinsky has concocted a collection of disturbing stories told through voices we haven’t heard from before: serial killers and their mothers, sex cult evangelists and athiest priests, time traveling daughters and undead fathers. Characters are trapped in physical boxes and mental chaoses, unable to escape with their bodies and their lives intact.
Written like a videogame walkthrough, “Homunculoid” criticizes social immobility and the ways that sex, class, and race play into the strategy of winning, or intentionally losing, a capitalism-themed videogame. This piece is an extended joke about humanity’s ever-increasing expertise on streamlining cruelty against certain identities. In a section labeled “Replication,” reproduction within the game is described: “If a Participant is not willing to bring your Progeny to Term, you can enlist the Governmental Hierarchy to modify their Agreements to the Term.” This moment and others make the piece especially timely and terrifying, because the specs of the game are truths in our own reality. “Homunculoid”’s perspective of the human race as an experimental playground calls back to the idea that Americans are an unknown, easily referred to as “Nacimera,” or completely foreign, like in Nathan W. Pyle’s comic series, Strange Planet.
An important question develops throughout this collection concerning the relationship between Christian religious identity and personal security. “The Hand of God,” “The Gospel of X,” and “The Whole Infernal Machine,” all center around believers with varying levels of faith but similar experiences of violence by the church, however that manifests itself in their individual lives. Someone has indoctrinated the characters in these stories so that they believe religious leaders are right to censor information, condemn the living at will, and demand sexual favors from their followers. The writing style is unique in these three stories, especially in the biblical formatting of “The Gospel of X” complete with red words and verse numbers, and the technical language in “The Whole Infernal Machine,” as if the narrator is only a piece of equipment, part of a large circuit.
Chaplinsky manipulates time in these stories to draw attention to certain moments and rush through periods that the narrator sees as a single string of events. In stories like “The Black Hole” and “Whispers in the Ear of a Dreaming Ape,” the narration is highly detailed and honed in on certain body language and speech patterns. Then, there are moments in these stories when time hits hyperspeed, and a span of years shrinks to a few lines on the page. Although the narrator in “Whispers in the Ear of a Dreaming Ape” begins the story with a two-page description of a shopping trip, he follows with a paragraph depicting his daughter’s entire adolescence. Similarly in “The Black Hole,” the narrator is a father who speeds up the retelling of his daughter’s life because he is no longer part of it. In this representation of perspective, Joshua Chaplinsky’s pacing lends to the specialization of voice between the narrators of different stories.
Just as stories are saved by “whisper[ing] them into the ear of a dreaming ape,” the narrator of “Twice Amputated Foot” explains the need for saving stories, that they can immortalize lost people and moments. “Twice Amputated Foot,” written in a more traditional short story structure and style than many of the more experimental pieces in the collection, violates the boundaries of loss over and over again: the narrator’s father loses a foot, and it regrows; the parents get divorced, and the father remarries; the father dies, and his sons immortalize him through retelling the story of his life. In these processes of forgetting and regretting, a pattern develops in the story to emphasize that loss is only complete once it has our consent—until then, it is still something we can fight to control.
This collection enlists several original formats in its storytellings, like the scriptural numbering in “Gospel of X” and the separation of dreams and reality in “The Hand of God.” Chaplinsky uses an epistolary form in “Letters to the Purple Satin Killer” to tell the story of a murderer through the eyes of people who have loved him. As in the rest of the collection, Joshua Chaplinsky is a masterful imitator of voice, here alternating between the loving but fearful tone of the murderer’s mother, the lascivious advances of a deranged lover, and the urgent advisings of an attorney. The alternating perspectives create an uneasy consideration that not only is the addressee guilty of these serial crimes, but that he maintains the power to charm women to their death even from a jail cell.
The final story of the collection, “Nobody Rides for Free,” fits at the end because it is the most horrifying narrative in the collection. If it came earlier, it would give readers a reason to put down the book in disgust. However, being where it is, this piece has the opposite effect. It’s the most gruesome metaphorical car wreck of the book, and you cannot look away. The thorough descriptions of rape and gasoline enema are deeply disturbing, to an extent unmatched by the rest of the volume and any horror movie playing in theaters. Once this story is over, its images become those that characterize the collection, both for their horrific detail and their unnerving context in a cheerful game show.
Around every turn, Joshua Chaplinksy infuses Whispers in the Ear of a Dreaming Ape with surrealism and outlandish scenarios. This, along with the genre selection, could cause a slippery descent into hackneyed territory if placed in the hands of anyone else, but instead every story feels authentic, like a threat that we should take seriously—a warning of the boundlessness of human cruelty. After reading Chaplinsky’s prose, I don’t doubt that there might somewhere be a barn housing a torture game show, or a buffet where you can order human eggs. There could exist a ventriloquist dummy priest and his Vonnegut-obsessed parish member. Unlike mainstream horror writers, Joshua Chaplinsky creates characters so alive that their pain feels imminently possible and their fear feels beautifully contagious.
Whispers in the Ear of a Dreaming Ape, by Joshua Chaplinsky. Clash Books, October 2019. 174 pages. $13.95, paper.
Avery Cook is in her junior year at Hamilton College in Upstate New York, where she majors in Creative Writing with a focus in short stories. She hopes to work in children’s book publishing after graduation.