Stranger on the Loose
by D Harlan Wilson
Review by Paul Bradshaw
Following on from his first collection The Kafka Effekt, Stranger on the Loose is another offering of weird and offbeat short stories from the unique mind of D Harlan Wilson. In fact his work is so bizarre that, like D F Lewis, he ought to possess his own genre. In certain circles his fiction has been described as 'irrealism'. Whatever you might call it, reading these stories is akin to taking a journey out of reality and into some place twisted beyond recognition.
Wilson is obsessed with weird characters, names, places and situations. All his stories contain some if not all of these things. He is also obsessed with dilemmas, and the more extravagant the dilemma the more at home he feels. For example, in Before the Board of Directors the main character has had his tear ducts sewn shut, no matter how far he drives he can't get away from The House on Anti-Avenue Avenue, he gets out of his car and it is immediately stolen, he can't get into the house because it's locked... and so on. Wilson's characters are plagued with problems and phobias. They are frustrated, paranoid worry freaks who find it impossible to get through each day without encountering some type of absurd impasse.
His fiction is also recognisable by certain traits. Consider the opening paragraph of the book, the beginning of the first story Restaurant.
I ordered a ground beef sandwich with mozzarella cheese, pickles, onions and psychedelic mushrooms. The waiter was a thin, olive-skinned man with a platinum handlebar mustache. After scribbling down my order, he bowed and goose-stepped away, his long rubbery legs flying out in front of him like liquid sling-shots.
There is plenty of information in this paragraph. Let's dissect it and see what we discover.
I ordered a ground beef sandwich with mozzarella cheese, pickles, onions and psychedelic mushrooms.
Wilson enjoys providing as much detail as he can about anything and everything. Not content with telling the reader that a ground beef sandwich was ordered we have to know exactly what he ordered in detail.
The waiter was a thin, olive-skinned man with a platinum handlebar mustache.
Details again, this time of what a person looks like. Wilson is especially keen on this information. It's as though he has a mental picture of each character he creates and wishes to let us know every idiosyncrasy that this character possesses. And they usually do have idiosyncrasies. None of them can be described as conventional, no Wilson creation can ever be a normal everyday human being, it's too close to reality for this writer.
After scribbling down my order, he bowed and goose-stepped away, his long rubbery legs flying out in front of him like liquid sling-shots.
The waiter goose-stepped away. He didn't just walk, oh no, even his character's movements have to be eccentric to some degree. The long rubbery legs flying out in front of him. It's all so visual. Wilson copies and pastes the image of each character and their movements, indeed everything that occurs on the page, directly from inside his own mind into the mind of the reader. And the long rubbery legs are like liquid sling-shots. He adores the metaphor, but not the simple metaphor. He reminds me of Rhys Hughes when he includes these extraordinary similes.
It's difficult to spot D Harlan Wilson's influences. We know that one must be Kafka, but it's hard to compare this unique individual style and content with any other author. In Restaurant, the main character receives his sandwich, which includes a bleeding human tongue smack in the middle of the plate. So begins the dilemma. What follows is a blazing argument with the waiter which results in a mass battle between the waiters and, unbelievably, an army of boy bands. The entire tale reminds me of a Monty Python sketch.
Wilson also cleverly uses the dilemma twist. In Shriek, the shortest story in the book, which is in fact a mere paragraph, a man wakes up to the sound of a shriek. After a brief search around he finally attributes the sound to the bite-size version of himself that is lurking in the refrigerator. Unfortunately upon investigation he discovers that the bite-size man has drowned in a pitcher of milk. However he shows no concern for the tiny man, instead his new dilemma is that he'll be forced to take his coffee black. Wilson offers no excuses for the way his tales end. He allows himself a free reign, concluding them in his personal absurd style with no regard for convention.
Another thing about Wilson's stories is that his characters worry too much, and always over things that are not necessarily important. This demonstrates what a deep thinker he is, I expect. Like in The Back of the Man's Hand the main protagonist is studying and attempting to memorise the back of his hand so that he can tell people that he knows a certain place like the back of his hand. This evolves during the story until the character is in such a state of concern that he decides to come up with some engaging alternative. The trick is managing to make this entertaining, and Wilson succeeds in doing this, and has the reader thinking about it at the same time.
In Wilson's stories you will also find plenty of encounters with strangers. Typical is the title story Stranger on the Loose. A man meets an enigmatic stranger, who mutters the words, 'Wer sorgen hat, hat auch likor', before vanishing into a large metropolis. The man follows him, because he wants to know what these words actually mean. As he pursues him through the city he intermittently comes across newspaper headlines such as STRANGER ON THE LOOSE and STRANGER SEEN LOITERING. Incredibly the newspaper reports are appearing and updating by the minute, informing him of the stranger's whereabouts. Typically Wilson provides a denouement that is truly strange and unexpected.
Stranger on the Loose is illustrated throughout by Simon Duric. The illustrations appear spasmodically throughout the book and are in black and white with lots of use of light and shade. They capture the mood of the fiction tremendously well, Wilson and Duric seem to make a good pairing, and it's good to see such a promising talent as Duric sinking his teeth into a project such as this one.
In this book some tales are stronger than others but I'm not going to dwell on that too much because on the whole it's a thoroughly entertaining collection. If you want to read fiction that is fresh and original then D Harlan Wilson is for you, but don't expect anything normal, this writer defies convention completely.
PRICE: $13.95 Trade Paperback
LENGTH: 220 pages
PUBLISHER: Eraserhead Press
PUBLISHERS URL: www.eraserheadpress.comAUTHORS URL: www.dharlanwilson.comISBN#: 0-9729598-3-1
RELEASE DATE: August 2003
WHERE TO PURCHASE: Major online bookstores; select independent and major bookstores
SUMMARY: Stranger on the Loose is a collection of 28 dark, absurdist stories that satirize urban and suburban life.
AUTHORS BIO: D. Harlan Wilson has published over 100 stories in magazines and anthologies across the world. He is the author of the books The Kafka Effekt, 4 Ellipses, Irrealities and Stranger on the Loose. Currently he lives in East Lansing, Michigan, where he teaches creative writing at Michigan State University. For more information on Wilson, refer to his official website at www.dharlanwilson.com.
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