Clare Beams’s story collection We Show What We Have Learned* is gleefully good reading—and, as the cover suggests, mighty creepy too. I mean that in the best possible way. Horror isn’t my cup of tea, but suspense is another matter. You won’t find gore in these nine stories, or monsters, really, except those we carry with us. However, each of Ms. Beams’s nine stories (some historical, some slipstream, some contemporary) offers tension so acute that I often found myself squirming in my chair.
A boarding school’s promise of “transformational education” isn’t limited to the mind in “Hourglass.” An unnamed landscape architect with a talent for making his clients’ desires to rtakes on the project of a lifetime in “World’s End,” but finds himself bewildered by the orders he’s given. A young woman decides to reclaim childhood happiness and demonstrate her own giving nature by taking her elderly grandmother back to the country cabin where they vacationed long ago, but the excursion does not have the effect on “Granna” that she expected. In the haunting “All the Keys to All the Doors,” an older woman in a small town wonders if she could have done more to prevent a horrific act of violence. In “The Saltwater Cure,” a Depression-era Plymouth health resort is the setting for a young man’s coming of age. Two sisters love the same plague doctor in “Ailments.” A teacher falls apart in “We Show What We Have Learned,” while a new bride becomes more and more concerned about her wedding dress (made from her husband’s wartime parachute) in “The Drop.” Finally, in “The Renaissance Person Tournament” we meet another teacher—this one holding herself together as she coaches a promising student.
All nine stories are affecting and beautifully written, the sentences crafted for maximum impact without calling attention to the writing in a way that would pull a reader out of the world of the story. Take just one example, from the opening of “Hourglass,” which drew me in: “With its damp-streaked stone and clinging pine trees, the school looked ideal for transformations, like a nineteenth-century invalids’ home, a place where a person could go romantically, molderingly mad.”
I love that sentence, which I read with an equal measure of delight and apprehension–exactly what I think you’ll feel once you start reading this fabulous collection, which I highly recommend.
And three cheers for small presses like Lookout, which published this book! What small press books have you loved this year?
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.