First Fiction Fridays: Cretacea & Other Stories from the Badlands

August 5, 2016

Alberta's Badlands missed the memo when Canada was deciding on becoming a verdant, forested country: dusty, barren, cruel and gorgeous all at once, they're the perpetual backdrop of Martin West's debut collection,  Cretacea & Other Stories from the Badlands (Anvil Press). From delayed threesomes to failing gas stations to workplace experiments, West's stories are as raw and beautiful as the place they source from.

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What:

Cretacea & Other Stories from the Badlands (Anvil Press, 2016)

Who: 

Martin West was born in Victoria and spent his youth drifting throughout BC, the Yukon, and Alberta. His stories have been published in magazines across the nation, and twice included in the Journey Prize Anthology. He currently calls Calgary home.

Why You Need to Read This Now:

Through dark humour and sharp prose, West will bring you into Badland territory, where dust and sweat envelop everyone and everything. While the circumstances and actions of Cretacea’s eccentric characters are extraordinary and strange, their longings and fears, loneliness and despair, are not. The inhabitants of the Badlands remind you of the most murky, unknown, and sometimes dangerous parts within yourself and others. These stories are clear and comic, stirring up discomfort and tension, pushing you to question where exactly you stand in relation to these characters, their confusion and curiosity, and the lines they cross—or, seem to leap over with their eyes shut!

Most of the stories take place in hot weather, and like West’s characters, you’ll be offered little relief for the Badlands can be a merciless place. This is shown in “Dog’s Breath” where the plans of a primed-for-action threesome are suddenly derailed when a badly beaten dog is spotted tied up to a parking metre. The narrator postpones his sexual pleasure to care for the sick, angry dog, but is punished nonetheless: “Just when I thought his one good eye was showing a splinter of compassion,” he says, “he reared up and buried those diseased teeth into my groin…” In “Not a Bad Man,” a teenage boy spends a summer with his hard-livin’, hard-drinkin’, messed-up uncle and has to fight for a position in his new, temporary family—perhaps in this world. Uncle Dale has some wisdom to impart as he demands the boy to hit him: “There’s monsters out there. Waiting to peck your soul out. I’m doing this for your own good. Hit me.”

In this sweltering and cruel place, what is your ultimate fate? Gartner, in “Open Soil,” seems to consider this question as the owner of a failing gas station. Fascinated by the persistent up-and-down bobbing of a wooden cuckoo next to his desk, he spends an entire weekend filling the bowl with water ”just to see how long the bird could go on for.” Attributing it to perpetual motion, his employee tells him perpetual motion is impossible. “Thank Christ” Gartner says, relieved to know that “nothing can go on forever. Like if you don’t put anything into it.”

Among the fossils, highway gas stations, truck stop diners, dead-end jobs, and unfulfilled dreams, there is the scent of sage, the buzz of cicadas, and a deep sense of hopelessness. West challenges his reader, evoking unease and uncertainty: where does one find hope? Or human connection? Or mercy? In the Badlands, it seems that redemption is nowhere to be found. Or, at best, it’ll take a lot of digging to find it.

X plus Y equals:

Cretacea & Other Stories from the Badlands is a combination of the brutally frank and biting insights of Matthew Firth’s Suburban Pornography and the irony and humanity of Andrew Forbes’ What You Need.

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Thanks to Anvil Press, especially Anastasia, for sharing Cretacea with us! Once you've sated that Badlands hunger, check out more debut fiction here.


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