I wasn’t too sure what to expect from Joshua Chaplinksy’s debut collection. I had been wanting to read something from the indie publisher, Clash Books for a while, and I was intrigued by the collection’s title, WHISPERS IN THE EAR OF A DREAMING APE. I was grateful that Chaplinksy could send me a copy of the book and I dove in. I was not ready.
I don’t think I have ever encountered such a broad scope and style of short stories in one collection before. Each one was a new perspective, a new bent literary style, a new perversion in some cases. Chaplinksy can truly slap words boldly down and is unapologetic in his subject matter. Despite the borderline bizzaro, and eclectic genre fiction, there is a subtle tenderness to some of these stories, that speak to Chaplinksy’s deep themes. Let’s talk about some of them:
“Letters to the Purple Satin Killer” starts the collection and is a disturbing account, told through letters that the convicted serial killer receives while he is in prison. The letters observe the killer in a periphery way, that only enhances the rather disturbing and obsessive content of the letters. They range from the killer’s doting mother, to an admirer, to a college student. The letters only escalate and become more intense and disturbing as the story reaches its climax. Chaplinksy explores the darker sides of our nature as we are drawn to things that are seemingly dangerous, while also being blinded by charm.
“Twice Amputated Foot” was one of the more “tender” stories I found even if it begins with such a strange, out of this world occurrence. The narrative moves on to become a reflection of the main character in his relationship with his father and his family. While, quite a slow down in pace from the previous story, these two stories already show the scope that Chaplinsky brings to the short fiction form. He does not waste a word here and they all have meaning, from describing the older brother’s annoyance to their father’s obtuse demeanor.
My favorite story in the collection, “Black Hole,” is a brilliant what if reflection of what happens when a father wanders into a bar of the same name and loses all sense of time. Much like the actual time dilation that would occur around a black hole, the father, Max, strikes a conversation with the bartender and slowly his life flys by outside the bar. His wife carries on as a single parent. His daughter struggles, achieves so much, only to be hit by divorce and forced to struggle again without her father around. This story makes so many feelings arise in myself, being the child of a divorced and largely absent father myself, that I can’t help but feel these themes deeply. Also, since I also have a little girl myself the impact is two-fold, since I can both feel the strain of Max as he realizes what’s happening and the utter loss that his daughter feels for her long-gone father. This is a story that will stay with me for a long time.
The title story, “Whispers in the Ear of a Dreaming Ape” teases a much larger scope, only to zero in of a man and his relationship with a rather enigmatic woman. They go through their lives and while their lives intersect and drift apart throughout the years, it recounts relationship, love, and what we might owe one another. It’s a rather harder story to swallow, but it still left me pondering it long after I finished. What Chaplinsky shows here is his ability to incorporate more than merely intimate details into his work, but true mythologies.
The last story I want to talk about, “The Gospel of X” is a sort of ingenious riff of the bible and written in a way that models older biblical prose. It speaks of a prophet, though any sort of mention of saint or angel is left out. This prophet is a strange being who is cast out with his brethren to live among men. They start to gain power and a regal reputation among mankind over time, which slowly becomes tainted as the true intentions of the prophet become more and more clear. While Chaplinsky could have dived into the deep end with this style of story, but he instead decided to stay in the shallows and leave the often brutal descriptions and actions of his characters up to the reader to discern. As someone who is religious, I actually enjoyed this spin on old Judeo-Christian imagery a bit and the prose as well keeps the reader intensely interested.
I might not have mentioned them here, but the other stories range from the more experimental in form and tone to ones that feel like they belong on the Twilight Zone or in a grindhouse B-movie. These either didn’t land all the way with me or stories that I couldn’t fully invest in, but they were all still of a prose quality that couldn’t be denied.
Story collections usually have a *mileage may vary* quality, but Chaplinsky avoids this with gorgeous prose, strange occurrences, and intimate reflections on human relationships and condition. It will be very exciting to see what drops next from him.