by Grant Cousineau
Aokigahara, also known as the Sea of Trees, is located on the northwestern flank of Mount Fuji. The area became associated with suicide in the 1960s and more popularized in 1993 after the publication of Wataru Tsurumi’s Complete Manual of Suicide, which declared that its dense trees and dearth of wildlife made it the perfect, quiet place to die. The New Yorker highlighted the forest in a 2013 profile about Japan’s suicide culture, which inspired the title-story of Suicide Woods, the latest short story collection from friend-of-UntitledTown Benjamin Percy.
Over a busy fifteen-year career, Percy has honed his masterful writing style through novels, short stories, and nonfiction essays and articles. He’s also served as a writer for DC Comics, working on classic franchises like Green Arrow, James Bond, and Teen Titans. This diverse resume has allowed him to hone his talents across the many forms of genre writing, which he’s put into his own stylistic stranglehold.
Suicide Woods tip-toes from the speculative to the horrific. It opens with the story of a boy caught beneath a frozen lake. Saved by his uncle, the boy becomes silent and catatonic, with almost supernatural powers, as if bringing the cold core of the pond to life.
From there, the tales only get stranger.
In one, a bear that brutally frees itself from a trap and heals itself, only to ultimately find itself caring for a baby like some twisted take on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. In another story, a gardening injury brings to life a blood-and-mud man who gradually supplants a husband and father in his own family. And then there’s “The Dummy” where a female wrestler forms a bond with a training dummy in a sequence of events that takes an almost R.L. Stine turn for the worse.
It’s a certain kind of voodoo Percy achieves, managing to simultaneously captivate and unnerve his reader. Then again, this is the kind of guy who, in his nonfiction book Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, deploys advice such as, “The more characters you have, the bigger the book, the more flaming chainsaws.” That’s just who Percy is. He’s here to seduce, thrill, and disgust you. To drive you every bit as mad as his characters.
All that said, the strongest stories in the collection are actually the ones absent of mystic elements. A cold, distant marketing associate for a TeleServices company in “Dial Tone” becomes so numb that a hanging body in town doesn’t shock him in the least. In “Writs of Possession,” Percy examines the spectrum of pain caused by the economic collapse through repossessions, evictions, squatters, and more.
In the title story, a group of suicidal patients try to overcome their demons through a series of grim exercises. And then there’s the novella, “The Uncharted,” about a group of tech company surveyors gone lost in “the Bermuda Triangle of Alaska,” and their boss goes after them.
In Suicide Woods, Percy puts his characters in moments of surrender, whether to beasts, financial ruin, madness, or worse. Violence lurks everywhere. Worlds are overrun with stitches of ants, hens that eat their own eggs, and horses that run off cliffs. It’s a breathtaking book that’ll leave you ripping through the pages, eyes wide, mouth agape…perhaps even forgetting to breathe.