The October Country: Oct. 11th: “Little America” by Dan Chaon

In celebration of the month of October, I’ll be sharing 31 of my favorite spooky, eerie and creepy stories, one per day. The stories will range over an array of genres: horror, suspense, science fiction, mysteries and dark fantasy.

The October Country

that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain…

— Ray Bradbury

October 11:

Little America by Dan Chaon

Found In:

Shadow Show (edited by Same Weller & Mort Castle)

Opening Line:

First of all, here are the highways of America.”

Dan Chaon is widely recognized as one of the major literary short story writers of our time. It’s not hard to see why. He writes tight, controlled prose that looks simple enough on the surface, always the sign of a first rate craftsman. He does successfully what so many other writers attempt and fail at: craft stories made up of tiny scenes that add up to more than the sum of their parts.

And he has the courage to peer deeply and intently at the darker side of life.

Little America paints a dark picture indeed. The story begins in a car on an American highway. In the car are Peter, a boy of twelve, and Mr. Breeze.

Let me just pause a moment and note how the name Mr. Breeze immediately jags in the mind. It’s a cool name, no doubt, but not one that we would take seriously in real life. Nobody is named Breeze. It sounds more like a superhero name. Or a villain. So from the start, Chaon plants that little kernel in our minds. Something is off here. Something is wrong.

Not to mention, Mr. Breeze carries a gun. A Glock 19 nine-millimeter compact semiautomatic handgun, to be specific.

Mr. Breeze and Peter cruise past the empty towns, corn fields, oil wells, cattle. Finally, they stop for the night at a motel.

At the motel, Peter lies on the bed, facedown, and Mr. Breeze binds his hands behind his back with a plastic tie.

Is this too tight?” Mr. Breeze says, just as he does every time, very concerned and courteous.

At which point: whoa. There’s some freaky shit going on here.

Chaon excels at the deftly written scene, the tiny details that jar the reader. Unsettling is a fine word to use when describing Chaon’s work.Little America is deeply unsettling, although it is not a story about a perverted sicko who kidnaps little boys and ties them up at night. Chaon’s got something else on his mind.

Peter, it turns out, is not a normal little boy. In fact, he can’t rightly be called a boy at all. We learn this a piece at a time. Such as when Mr. Breeze drives them Laramie, Wyoming.

By nightfall, they have passed Cheyenne—a bad place, Mr. Breeze says, not safe—and they are nearly to Laramie, which has, Mr. Breeze says, a good, organized militia and a high fence around the perimeter of the city.

This ain’t your grandpappy’s America.

Mr. Breeze and Peter are turned away at those high fences. The armed guards refuse to let Peter pass.

I don’t care what kind of papers you got, mister,” the man says. “There’s no way you’re bringing that thing through these gates.”

Chaon never comes right out and calls Peter a werewolf. It’s a name that wouldn’t properly fit anyway. Peter has the sharpened teeth and nails (which Mr. Breeze has filed down), and the body hair, and the golden eyes, but he is this way all the time, not just by the light of the full moon. And he can speak, and think, and reason, although not entirely at the level a twelve-year-old ought to.

When we have children,” Mr. Breeze says, “they don’t come out like us. They come out like you, Peter, and some of them even less like us than you are. It’s been that way for a few years now.”

Mr. Breeze believes Peter is different. That he is innately unlike the unnatural creatures which now prowl America. He asks Peter if he loved his parents. Peter is reluctant to talk about this. He killed his parents, mauled them to death, although he can’t recall the actual act, only the aftermath. He is not so certain that he’s all that different, all that special.

Eventually, Peter will have to choose exactly what he is, exactly where he belongs. And Mr. Breeze must choose too: choose to keep pressing on in this broken America, or choose to let go.

What Chaon does so brilliantly is how much he suggests by showing us a snippet here, a snippet there. Little America imparts a grand sense of scale, even though Chaon tells us little beyond the immediate world of Peter and Mr. Breeze.

It’s a rare feat of storytelling, and a spooky little roadtrip for a lonesome October.

More October Stories

For the month of October, you can download

Tyler Miller’s The Other Side of the Door 

FREE.

In celebration of my favorite month, I’m giving away my collection The Other Side of the Door. These are stories inspired by so many of my favorite writers: Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Richard Matheson, Shirley Jackson.

Stories like the award-winning Til Death Do Us, about a man who believes he’s gotten away with his wife’s murder…at least until her severed finger is delivered to him in a box. Somebody knows the truth…

Or another first-place winner: Not Dead, Not Even Past, the story of a small-town sheriff confronted with a string of suicides he can’t explain. Each of the victims share a disturbing trait: no matter how they died, all of them have lungs full of water.

I loved working on these stories, and I truly believe that you’ll enjoy reading them just as much as I enjoyed writing them. Check them out. For the entire month, they’re free. What have you got to lose?

Except a little sleep…

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