MOUNT SUMMER, a short story collection by Travis Dahlke, reviewed by Marin Killen

Mount Summer is the collaborative product of Travis Dahlke, Jeff Dragan, and John Shields—writer, musician, and illustrator respectively. Produced by “the literary arm” of Out to Lunch Records, Lunch Break Zine, Mount Summer falls into the category of “extra-musical,” and accordingly the texture and sound of the prose stands out as well as the accompanying soundtrack. Each story in the collection is dense with strange, loud detail; we follow a trio of roommates on their way to bomb the house of a Sea World CEO, a mover driven deaf by his time spent as a cypress tree in the swamps of Mount Summer, and a dance instructor watching as her Rug Doctor begins to ooze blood on the wooden floor of her studio. The shorter, more abstract pieces in the collection are dizzying with the quantity and quality of detail, and bring us to an aesthetic height that pairs flawlessly with the content and emotional punch of each story. The longer pieces, more traditional in narrative style, introduce the strange and unusual more gradually, building character and place before pulling us into the surreal, highly textured world of Mount Summer. At its core, each story probes the distress of living in a world built on top of ecological destruction, a world in which nostalgia and dread mix in the colors and aesthetics of an abandoned mall; a world in which workers strategize to bring down corporations in weed-filled living rooms and real life seems to glitch, haunted as it is by the buzz of old electronics. In short, this is a world we recognize, brought to life with cunning political commentary and a relevant, thrilling emotional current.

Much of Dahlke’s work in Mount Summer has been featured previously in a variety of journals, but, in addition to Mount Summer, Dahlke has written Hollow as Legs, a fiction collection published in 2017, and Milkshake, a novella published by Long Day Press in April 2022. Based in Connecticut, his fiction balances environmental influences, the strange and surreal, and the texture and detritus of daily, local life. As his illustrator notes in an Instagram caption describing Mount Summer: “Think of stories about your hometown. But if all the folklore was true.” The collection expertly plays with the familiar tropes and scenes of folklore and horror movies—women eaten by lake monsters and haunted apartments that ruin relationships—but charges them with political critique, humor, and a living emotional core. While many of the tropes may be familiar, Dahlke weaves them with immense creativity and to great singular effect—the collection has the feeling of being written directly to the modern audience, particularly to those concerned with the disenchantment and rampant corruption of life in a capitalistic, exploitative world.

In perhaps the most ordinary story, “Hulls,” a woman named Rita names her Roomba Lou and watches him eat crackers off her carpet after taking her daily walk with her friend, Bethany. Even the most ordinary moments in the piece are laden with connection and feeling: “The froth of the day set and turned yellow. Rita went home, where her little robot was making its way onto the carpet. She bent to give it a pat that it almost seemed to pause for.” Where the strange is evoked, it’s always to great effect. Rita’s late husband is embodied by a propane fireplace, and she imagines Bethany “could exist as one of those state-of-the-art dishwashers or a plastic fern from Hobby Lobby modeled after something a wealthy missionary brought his mistress back from taming the Congo.” Though Dahlke’s work shines in his stranger pieces, “Hulls” showcases his ability to work with a slower, quieter narrative, and to pulls us into a great variety of scenes, minds, and worlds.

For those who are more interested in the hyper-detailed aesthetic, the opening story “What Is a Wolf Tree/Wolf Malls/Wolf Beaches” is ideal. The piece is a tour through the philosophical and aesthetic underpinnings of Dahlke’s work. The first segment, “What Is a Wolf Tree,” provides a striking combination of a third person, bird’s eye view of the destruction of our ecosystems with a clear, human voice. The voice is dark but humorous, and provides the perfect tone for Dahlke’s intricate image work:

There’s this tree that appears to have lived its entire life dead. Where a thick branch used to be, there’s a cavity filled in with: BIC lighters, a vial containing the blood of a country music star, Advil, unopened mail, a pocketknife with a faux-wood grip and grandmother model cuts from last fall’s Eddie Bauer catalog. 

The listing descriptions may remind us of a more cynical and less sentimental Anthony Doerr. This voice is flexible and persistent throughout the collection, and holds the weight of Dahlke’s image-littered world with ease.

“Wolf Malls” takes the voice and setup of “What Is a Wolf Tree” and begins to speak directly to the complex nostalgia of the millennial as well as the revolutionary, radical hope of the Generation Z. After the “destroyers” have ruined the environment in “What Is a Wolf Tree,” a first-person narrator emerges in “Wolf Malls” whose spirit “was formed to Dolly Parton crackling across the radio.” The dreamy, muted images of an old, dirty mall lobby are conjured, reminding we internet-savvy of new aesthetics like vaporwave, trauma core, and dream core:

Hard plastic horse snouts from the carousel filled your nightmares before you could remember your nightmares. You balanced on Santa’s good knee and returned to get your cartilage pierced at Claire’s and then Hot Topic for the jewelry … You complimented the Tasmanian Devil tattoo on her throat. She was too busy falling in love with the redneck security guards who strolled by on their thick blue legs.

With appeal to these new aesthetics and mentalities balanced with a true talent for detail, Dahlke creates a world that we never grow tired of exploring. The interdisciplinary nature of Mount Summer only adds to this experience of the work overall—while some fiction could risk being overwhelmed by the additional music and images, the tone and concept of Mount Summer is amplified by the creative layers added by both musician and illustrator. Mount Summer is multidimensional, and exceedingly relevant work that utilizes the strange and liminal to bring to life political and social concerns that desperately need addressing.

Mount Summer, by Travis Dahlke. Out to Lunch Records, October 2021. 163 pages. $14.00, paper.

Marin Killen is a graduate student studying literature at Winthrop University. Though she is currently in a literature program, she spent her undergraduate years exploring fiction and poetry at the College of Charleston, and graduated with a concentration in creative writing in 2020. Her favorite mediums include short stories, flash fiction, and prose poetry, and her most-loved topics are climate change, gender, and mental health.

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