22 thoughts on “Terrible Things – David Surface


    “What do they say…half of writing is editing? So in a way, it was mine.”

    In the light of a sudden era that has enveloped the world long after, I assume, when this story was first written, I feel the power of the startlingly simple start of this work (telling of an almost mutual pick-up in a well-conceived pub ambiance between a married woman and a married man, but not married to each other), as it becomes an accretively complex story. This felt power, while by-passing the impossibility of my editing such a work that has already been frozen in print, stems from my combined reading and reviewing of it in hindsight. Two academics, the woman from the English Dept, the man from the Anthropology (not Archaeology, as she first thought), and their interaction was for me an engagingly observed encounter of two people chatting each other up, but mixed with growing obliquely weird realisations (including horror genre tropes of racial and speech configurations on the dark landings of houses that could be ourselves in different circumstances), yes, weird realisations of social and tribal interactions in the light of cultural and bodily distancing and cloistering where we are both loosened and restricted at once!
    “, people should do what those early humans did and keep their children from going out into the world as long as possible…”
    “Then she looked up and saw his hand reaching across the booth, the palm open, waiting. She thought about what that hand had touched, and those same hands touching her skin.”
    I can let this wildly provocative story go now, and let it settle back on the page where it came from. We, as reader and story, touched each other JUST enough for an eked out optimum of synergy.

  2. The previous story was first published in 2012, and the next story was 2018…



    “Still, these things were like shock waves, he thought, the vibration traveling outward in circles, eventually reaching everything and everyone.”

    “That you had to take every precaution, because you could never really be sure of anything?”

    An effective metaphor for today, a chilling portrait of a teacher who remembers the faces of all his pupils from over the years, and the drills they perform against dangerous eventualities of our times, except consciously perhaps against the very thing for which it is now a preternatural or inadvertent metaphor. The onset here of the teacher’s own sense of paranoia at his own guilt about his teacherly shortcomings and the arrival of those past faces grown-up as the dangerous or despairing entities of rootlessness and despair grouping both AGAINST and AS the very danger that has put us in lockdown. All us humans are our own contagion, the danger itself, as another emerging metaphor for our generational adoption of our planet having now become some fell adAption of it instead?
    (The teacher’s example encounter with the bruised girl-pupil’s flaunted hair gives us new hope for an instinctive rescue from ourselves? Each individual against the gestalt, but one needs to formulate that there is such a gestalt TO counteract. To know it for what it is. Literature and fiction the optimum phenomenon into which we can tap so as to help build our realisation of such potentially terrible things. This is me brainstorming parenthetically!)

  3. Pingback: Intruders (2018) by David Surface | THE DES LEWIS GESTALT REAL-TIME REVIEWS: Wood, Metal, Stone


    “Annie’s mother used to travel with a gun.”

    I don’t know if it is just my imagination, but this also seems intensely pervasive or invasive with what is happening to us all today! A young couple in a car, exploring the wilds of Nebraska and car breaking down when they are lost, a genius loci perfectly evoked here, the communion of starscape and earth, despairing even to the extent of eating the shelter of a sod house, dreams of diaspora from a hidden enemy, and as if that inimical onset is halting theretofore the audit trail of their already predetermined life together, halting it with an inscription in the rocks as well as, in tune with the previous story above, an onset from the horizon, an onset, beyond the surfaces, riding upon a diaspora of human faces.

    “The earth is changing, like everything is falling away, receding farther and farther into the distance. That’s how it looks, but the truth is, nothing is moving away from us – we’re the ones who are moving away from everything.”


    “There’s nowhere to go but here.”

    I seriously believe Surface has depths that betoken his arrival with this collection as a great weird literature writer. Now we are thinking of him, he is here. To take over from someone else who we cease thinking about and thus no longer exists. This is a staggeringly oblique masterpiece, meaning everything yet meaning nothing, beyond opaque or open, a work stemming from gallery art collages created from the posters of missing children, by an artist whose name is an anagram of Tracer. A character who is so feisty, he lifts himself from the page, angry at us all. Whether that anagram was intentional or not, angry or not, ceases to matter. Even our own spouses, lovers, partners, were thus traced for us. Even those of us without such, by self isolation or whatever, will have been traced soon, some traced for us, and some of us traced for others. I somehow gathered all this from the rich obliquity. Part of some constructive human diaspora from nothing into something, even something into nothing. Intra-Natalism.

    “Suddenly he’s doubled over coughing hard and deep like he’ll never stop.”

  6. ‘those past faces grown-up’ — ‘beyond the surfaces, riding upon a diaspora of human faces’ — and the Tracer (Carter) of the faces. (Thoughts already shown above in my review.)


    I reviewed this story in 2017 here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2017/09/28/nightscript-vol-iii/#comment-10924 where I wrote of it: ‘Unforgettably, incredibly sad while strangely uplifting.’ Please refer to that review as my original gestalt real-time review of it.
    Indeed, when I first read it, I knew I had met an author whose work I would continue to relish. And I so did here (https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2018/09/21/uncertainties-volume-iii/) again when another couple drove or, rather, WROTE along together….
    I now today in a new real-time recognise ‘Something You Leave Behind’ as the start of my experience of the concept of surface, as in surtitle (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sur- )
    Rereading, therefore, this story of a couple’s car-drive as diaspora from New York, I ask – would they now feel their face-masks as permanent? Their due arrival at the house of the ‘poor insane’ following the insularity or isolation of self-identity as breached by a new self or sur-face:
    “, the features on his face unfamiliar, soft and indistinct like a photo of something still in the womb, not fully formed.”
    “, the innocent terror of a child on his face.”
    “, how loose the flesh was on his face, how it stretched and sagged around his jaws and eyes.”
    “, Gary had covered his face with his hands.”
    “…grabbed his thin wrists and tried to pry his hands away from his face.”
    “…and looked at her face in the mirror, haggard and strange…”


    “It’s not working…”

    There is a description of a da Vinci drawing that “he’d seen a thousand times” that I could not find on-line to show here. And I did not really understand the nature of his job in showing on projectors old discarded films to groups as art installations… and his attitude to his dying mother who had found religion and, like many, lost her hair, the incantations by others of the words quoted above in respect of elements in his life (and all our lives today?), and the mind-scarring images on some of those films, as one begins to focus on what is not working, including this story itself. I felt helpless. But it is not so bad. Just a few bad parts… and hair loss, no longer hirsute, but sursuit… “, like someone had tried to carve a human face in a rotting gourd and placed it on top of an expensive suit.”

  8. 297C591B-A8A9-465D-B66F-C118BBC66959

    “Human figures passing quickly across the frame and then disappearing.”

    29C2698C-63A8-49A1-A54D-657715379EC1 An engaging and potentially haunting story about a disturbing period in John’s life (and his thoughts) following the breakdown of his marriage and effective loss of seeing his children. Related to a link between the house that is opposite his brother’s house (where John is temporarily staying) and a past tragedy at sea, the sea just beyond the back of the house opposite.

    “…and the face shattered into pieces of glass at his feet.”


    “Doctors came and went and she spent her days and nights in the most dreadful fits of coughing until I thought she would choke. The only thing that gave her any relief was a tonic that the doctor had prescribed for her, of which she took four doses every day.”

    Jacob Tyler’s wife who, he thought, had consumption, and her dying words, helped along by him, asked of whose readiness to die was it. “…the howling and braying from the throats of a thousand unseen animals.” “…like a bird stripped and splayed for gutting.” A workmanlike zombie tale with gory moments: a period piece in 19th century Delaware County with small places like Andes, Bovina and Delhi. Of slaves and slavers, but with death refusing ever to be a slave. And pitchforks, darkened or painted or scarecrow faces and masks, living torches, rebels versus debt collectors, talk of Indians in New York that are not really Indians. Jacob awaits the something coming for him. Hoping for four doses of something, I guess.

    “I screamed like a sick man emptying himself of the poison that burns his insides.”


    “Years ago, when he must have been four or five, a woman had told him, You have your mother’s face.”

    The Professor’s house, its ‘runway lights’, so its landing, too, is the central character of this story and all manner of a boy’s intensely haunting dreams or thoughts of his parents’ inferred marital breakup affecting his childhood and later life when he is married. The boy who is among the children, mainly with their fathers, if not their mothers, who are invited by the Professor to this house every Halloween, with smiling pumpkin faces, eye-holes in dime-store masks, stories, if not dime-store ones, hiding behind other stories, half-dozen peppermints (for his throat?), and the Professor’s unseen wife’s books as or upon that staircase’s landing. Whatever book, whatever story, like a photograph, this story itself has gouged in it one jagged hole through which we each see something different. Each a different story. I saw something at the end I should not tell you. You may or may not do so, too. Or so I assume. A bit like through that green window earlier.

    “…whose face was she wearing now?”

  11. THE SMELL OF RED CLAY (2011)

    “There was a hole in the universe and he was going to jump through it.”

    Not sure about this work. A nameless narrator whose name I simply guess is Steven, or I just call him that for convenience of reference, as we hear about Halloween stories in a bar with his workmates, and there is much nightmarish confusion with people, such as the girl whose taste of cigarettes Steven fancies in the bar and the woman he loves and lives with at home. And explicitly the four men standing outside a car in a dark clearing and you are inside the car canoodling, cf this book’s earlier four doses … and the red clay here like the look and smell of phlegm? Or ‘red clay masks’ according to my on-line research are apparently quite famous as useful for the complexion — stories and stories and stories again telling each other… One story involving a gun, and you know what Chekhov said about a gun? Despite the confusions (or because of them?) there are some definite frightening frissons in this story. Full of what is inside the car with you or outside it, and who is waiting at home for you.

    “Their faces were cartoonish in that simplistic, unthreatening way he’d always hated.”


    “These things, I think, are easier for children to picture and understand. Sometimes I think they are easier for all of us to understand.”

    These things, these terrible things…
    An affecting novelette of Alma with her small daughter Mia in loving physical proximity on a business trip to Sri Lanka at the time of the tsunami, following marital break-up and a fear of losing her. The spiritual trammels or assets of the local Sri Lankan mores and myths are felt as followed by the tsunami itself, graphically viewed by the woman from above, and then Alma’s own survivor guilt is adeptly built up with visions such as now empty saris. Towards, eventually, back home near New York, an ancient Halloween face in the trees, outside where she works, finally exorcised or excised. Or is it? — as the panic force of inevitable guilt tantrums continue to exercise her…. amidst what we now know and what Alma didn’t then know at all… As above, so below? Our once present world now become memory’s Alma Mater?

    “— the sound of voices, thousands and thousands of voices all calling out at once, blurring together into a rush of wind or water.”

    “But the living must go on living.”

  13. 79FB3790-1702-4807-ACE7-FC1F2FC9D6ED

    “That was how it was supposed to work, wasn’t it? One generation dying to make way for the next? It was natural. But that thought couldn’t keep out the feeling that there was still horrible and unfair about it.”

    Upon the frame of a well-characterised couple, the woman (still mourning her 70 something parents whose car had once gone off a cliff) and an almost grown up son Gordon, the three of them on a quest for something the father needed to find for himself this Christmas Eve – an ancient monastery or church in the wilds of nowhere, it seems … and this represents for me a striking and obvious metaphor in hindsight for the sacrificial lambs today (aptly Good Friday today in real-time) that some herd-immunity disciples have cast upon the old among us AND upon those in Midsommar (ironically not midwinter) at 72 (as I am this year) jumping voluntarily off that cliff. The visions at the end are disturbing and haunting. And the atmosphere of the ceremony makes me also think that it is apt that the Metopera.org site is showing their opera performance of ‘Parsifal’ free just for today in honour of self-isolation entertainment. And the couple and their son watch from their last balcony, as it were … on Christmas Eve, yet…

    “‘Jesus, where’s the Easter Bunny?’ Gordon said.”


    “‘Look baby,’ Daryl whispered. ‘You know it’s not gonna stay that way much longer.’
    ‘Yeah? How am I supposed to know that?’
    Because,’ he hissed. ‘Because it can’t, that’s why…’”

    Unless we reach a nothing, a wrong kind of nothing. This story has the feel of being a disarming coda to this whole book’s bespoke symphony (differently bespoke, I sense, to each reader) … yet, we have to ride the modern life trammels of its surface plot so as to get to recognise such a coda’s purpose. A genre plot about high school kids grown older, with their backstory baggage of the past, their spectra of invasive and consensual sexuality past and present, their emotional contiguities, one of them grappling with the psychology of army service in Iraq, another with a marriage that has led to his own self harm, Daryl’s lungful of a past’s smoking, and then, of course, there is Laurie (we all once knew a Laurie, well I certainly did) and there is a fairground they once visited with sideshows and a zoo and some thrill rides in their memories, a fairground to which they now return as a dereliction of itself. With some remarkable turns of phrase and glimpses of dark vision peppering this often spooky plot. A story about craziness, rather than being crazy itself? Well maybe. Yet, what is under its surface, just some nothing coming round the track or something else to flatten its curve?…

    “The track should have started curving back long before now. Instead, it was leading us further and further out.”

    “A low, dry, rattling sound, a harsh labored breath from a throat that wasn’t human. […] …a low rattling from deep inside strange chests and throats.”


    • From ‘Nemonymous Night’ (2011)…

      “: except this underlay was a surface—but surfaces were meant to be ‘on top’ as that was where they always tended to go. An under-surface was a logical impossibility. He wanted one of his special carpets to be beige-coloured to match some future required necessity of appearance, one that fitted in with a retrospective destiny. There were mounds of these vexed textures of surface: each a fire-wall—or, rather, fire-floor—as if he were readying them to serve as an insulation device that even time couldn’t penetrate.”

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