I’m going to admit something to you all: I judged this book by its cover. I saw this cover and I wanted this book. I mean, just look at it. If I could just hang this book on my wall, I would. I would hire an interior designer and make it the focal point of my living room.
But anyway, adages aside, the actual contents of this book did not disappoint. The Wilds by Julia Elliott (published by Tin House) is a short story collection unlike any I’ve ever read. The blurb on the front cover from Publisher’s Weekly hails it as a “modern spin on Southern Gothic,” but that doesn’t begin to fully cover it. I even started trying to think of a “it’s like Neil Gaiman meets Karen Russell meets…” style description, but it seemed not only unfair, but ultimately futile. Elliott skillfully uses elements of science fiction, Southern Gothic, and fantasy to explore themes of contemporary culture, the trajectory of our future, gender and sexuality, and the complexities of family. The stories in this book thread a really interesting space between technology and nature, and in doing so, they feel like they’re reaching into both the past and the future at the same moment. Even with the fantastical elements at play, the stories and characters feel not only real, but all-enveloping.
If you get nothing else out of these stories (but trust me, there is so much there), it’s just a pleasure to live in Elliott’s imagination for a little while. The stand-out story for me was the titular story, “The Wilds,” which contained my favorite image from the whole collection: “I crouched in the bushes in Mama’s green chiffon evening gown, wearing my crown of bird skulls. I’d collected the skulls for two years, spray-painted them gold, and glued them to a Burger King crown, along with fake emeralds and glowing shells of June bugs” (141-142). Just, GAH. Other stand-outs in the collection for me were the stories “Rapture,” “The Whipping,” and “The Love Machine,” but I didn’t feel that any of the stories lagged. They were all wonderful, and my only complaint about this book is that it was over too quickly. I wanted to live in the world of bird skull Burger King crowns forever.
These stories are probably not for everyone. They are definitely strange, at times to the point of being downright terrifying (which is why I loved them), and most are pretty adult. But if you’re like me, these stories are a marriage of genres you didn’t even know you needed together, an unsettling but completely captivating haze of a world you’ll want to visit and revisit.