When I was in grad school, we were assigned The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction: 50 North American Stories Since 1970, edited by Michael Martone and Lex Williford. It was a treasure trove of excellent writing, and I consumed the book entirely. Later, I went on to teach from The Scribner, which resulted in interesting, engaging essays from students (especially at the all-women’s college) eager to consume fiction not by and about old men and/or the sea.
One piece that students repeatedly chose to write about was “The Caveman in the Hedges” by Stacey Richter (she/her), a story about a cohabitating couple with a mortgage. She wants to get married and organize the spice cupboard, he wants to pretend like they’re still twenty-one and anti-establishmentarians. That is, until a portal opens up and cavemen roam the city, with one particular caveman lurking in their backyard. As time progresses, the wife forgets her desire to create a home and becomes feral. It’s a great story.
With cavemen in mind, I ordered a collection by Stacey Richter entitled My Date With Satan. This short story collection, published in 1999, captures that feeling from the 90s experienced by most Gen X-ers like Richter: that adult life is a box to trap you, that heavy metal and no rules mean freedom, and that it’s not worth looking to the future because everything is screwed, man.
And yet there are times when Richter subverts expectations. When the Swedish death metal band Lords of Sludge invite a new member to the group, a pixie of a woman, the result on her “manly men” bandmates is too terrible to consider: “I [the lead singer] couldn’t help it then; a tide of pent-up joy washed over me. It was uncontrollable, it was uncool and wrong, and I was so happy. I was so happy I felt sick.” Everything about this band, we are told, is macho, manly, dude-like, until she ruins it all!
But there is no shortage of women who don’t know what happiness is, per se. The story has already been written: feminine joy is “. . . married and living in the suburbs, fretting over carpet stains. I’ll be one of those hollowed-out zombie wives, filling up a grocery cart, dimly wondering how I ever let some guy lure me into his dream life.” The 1980s told women they could do it all — be full-time workers, mothers, wives, keepers of the home — and when it all became too much, women in the 1990s became something else entirely. We got Winona Ryder, Daria, Janeane Garofalo, Juliette Lewis, and Christina Ricci. These are types of women who embody Richter’s work.
Richter might have been obsessed with rejecting adult norms, because in another story the character complains that “by the time I reached that advanced point in my life, I wouldn’t be able to imagine making things for beauty or meaning or relief. I’d crochet coverlets that fit the arms of my chairs exactly. I’d make extra, and sell them at church bazaars, and somewhere in the little warrens of my mind there’d be a memory of having once been a wild, bohemian artist . . .”
Each story is something entirely different, from the woman who lands on a supposedly deserted island to discover it is populated by men, and she’s going date them all, to a woman who wants to become a future cat lady, collecting all sorts of cats, much to the chagrin of her upstairs neighbor, one of “those boys” who has a pet rat. Only he has several, and an all-out war takes place until tragedy occurs. The titular story, “My Date with Satan,” isn’t demonic, it’s about online usernames (fairly new in 1999) and how the newfound anonymity of the internet adds something intriguing, something that real-life can destroy.
Overall, love Richter’s work, reads like a time capsule from the 1990s, unique voice and plots, wish she didn’t use “fat” as a way to make someone bad or gross (this is just lazy writing).
CW: fat shaming, animal death