Fierce Pretty Things
By Tom Howard
Indiana University Press, 2019
138 Pages, $12.00
Review by Michael Barron

“Lots of people coming toward me. Shuffling on dumb legs with blank dead faces. They’re not coming for me. It’s not like that. They just walk past and disappear when they reach the end of the pier, like they’re all just marching to hell or something. Or to heaven, I guess, except they don’t look like they’re on their way to heaven. Sometimes they look at me as they go past, which doesn’t make me feel too good.” – from “Hildy”
Most often in fiction, death and the dead are portrayed as a source of terror, something to avoid at all costs. In Tom Howard’s story collection Fierce Pretty Things (Indiana University Press, 2019) death is something to be longed for. The characters don’t want to defeat the dead, they want to connect with them. However they find that impossible, straddling two separate worlds of the dead and undead, visible and invisible.
The title story presents the world through the eyes of Vardy, a boy tasked by his late mother’s boyfriend to beat up the children of the people who bullied him when he was younger. The only individual Vardy has any connection with is the ghost (or possibly just the memory) of his mother, who he converses with in a nearby graveyard. The narrator in the opening story, “Bandana,” is also driven to bully other kids, like Vardy, because of the abuse of a sadistic parental figure. He even bullies kids he kind of likes. However, he is shot to death by one of his victims, and returns as a ghost trying to save his murderer’s soul.
Take for example, in “Grandfather Vampire” the narrator often acts like a teenage boy, pretending to be harder and tougher than he is, but lacks the mad viciousness of many of the other characters. In the story, he and a friend help an old recluse fix up the local drive-in theater and screen a series of films in which a young boy rises from the grave as a zombie. When the zombie boy reaches his parents’ house in the film, the narrator is certain that blood and screams will soon follow, but instead:Howard writes mostly about the type of characters who would often be dismissed as delinquents and criminals, the type we might hope to avoid. While their actions are seldom excused, they are surrounded by the invisible world of the dead, both as recollections and as literal ghosts, presenting a juxtaposition that is grim – and often funny, revealing these character’s hidden potential.

“Mom finally walked in carrying a vase of flowers, noticed the muddy footsteps and followed the trail to the kitchen. Took one look at zombie boy – at Emilio – and again I was sure she would scream or at least drop those flowers and the vase would shatter. But she just came to the table and sat down with Emilio and his dad. Put her hand on Emilio’s head, Emilio kind of half-smiling on account of not being able to use his face completely just yet, on account of still being halfway dead.”

Rather than focus on the horror of the dead, “Grandfather Vampire,” and the other stories in Howard’s collection emphasize the way death severs bonds, leaving those left behind feeling isolated.
Recently, The BBC conducted their Loneliness Experiment where they surveyed fifty-five thousand people, and found a third often felt lonely, with interesting effects including increased empathy and poorer health. Loneliness makes us better people, but also bring us closer to mortality. This makes Fierce Pretty Things tragically relevant for our time. Despite texting, video chats, and social media, the massive amount of pop culture we consume, and political mobilization, we still live in a society where many feel overwhelmingly alone.
Instead of using death as a plot device, Howard considers it a lens through which to examine his characters, revealing a deeper, and perhaps more dangerous aspects of the human condition. Death is the great divider. It doesn’t simply separate us from our loved ones, it often abandons those who are left behind in a world where they are alone, and its survivors often have no one to turn to, and take on qualities that make others turn away. As the modern world progresses further into the twenty-first century, we are becoming more aware of just how isolated many people feel. And in Tom Howard’s collection, death and loneliness are always closer than we like to imagine.