Katherine L. Holmes, Curiosity Killed the Sphinx and Other Stories

Publisher: Hollywood Books International

2012, 128 pages, paperback, $15

perhaps you’ve had the experience of going into an antiques shop and happening upon a curious object you don’t immediately recognize and whose function is not revealed by its design. Its shape is familiar enough to suggest various uses: perhaps it’s a fancy kind of spoon rest, or an enormous shoehorn—but why is there a blade in the bottom? And what is that hole for? You turn it over in your hands, examining the mysterious object from different angles, wondering to yourself, whatever is this? But there is no tag, and no shopkeeper to explain.

So it is with Katherine L. Holmes’s Curiosity Killed the Sphinx and Other Stories, an intriguing collection of short fiction that challenges literary orthodoxy about how stories should be told. The stories aren’t ghost stories, but there’s an eerie coolness in Holmes’s work, so that even stories about a family cookout or an unemployed woman making a quilt feel haunted. Holmes is a native of Minnesota and the Midwest figures heavily in her work, but Holmes’s Midwest isn’t a place of robust sunshine and casseroles: it is a place of attics and flowers fraught with meaning. In every story, there is something lurking just beyond the edges of eyesight.

Perhaps this is because Holmes’s narrative style is anything but straightforward. The same goes for her characters, who excel at repartee and are anything but plainspoken. At times, Holmes’s über-light touch feels deliberately evasive, which would be unforgivable if the language in Sphinx weren’t luminous. The collection was awarded the Prize Americana, and it’s easy to see why. Consider: “…Hildy walked in a toothache of time.” Or, “His hair was like pigeon feathers and he was as dignified as an old clock….” Nevertheless, some stories are more successful than others, and for me, “Laid Off, At the Past” is the collection’s crown jewel.

In “Laid Off,” a woman named Vronna is dismissed from her job and decides upon quilt-making as an antidote to boredom. In her shabby bachelor’s quarters, she cuts and counts and sews, slowly piecing together a bedspread to replace the one she once shared with her ex-boyfriend, and beneath which she still sleeps. The other occupants of her run-down apartment building seem on the cusp of insanity, and the building’s decay, along with its eccentric inhabitants, are a metaphor for Vronna’s own decline. Loneliness has poisoned her inner life and is causing her to become old—and old-fashioned—before her time:

“Her bed nook is backed with double doors behind which an
obsolete fold-down bed was once hidden. The loneliness of tenants, past decades of them, seems to be compounded with the old woodwork and the swollen plaster. Cat skeletons have been found behind walls. The place was intended for a bachelor who parted his hair with an oily metal comb and used a trunk to support his glass of whiskey. A man who traveled from a seaboard or one who folded away his rural overalls.”

The story is a chilling depiction of urban isolation, and when Vronna’s ex shows up at the end to say hello, we aren’t sure if he’s really there, or if Vronna has conjured him as a way to bid farewell to her memories before she replaces their old bedspread with her now-finished quilt. Because a power outage has darkened the building, her lights are off when he arrives, and their candlelit meeting has a séance-like quality to it, even though there’s nothing numinous about their conversation. As he leaves, “his coat vanishes into the dark passageway” when he’s only a few steps from her door.

There are other stories in Sphinx that have seeped into my consciousness like snowmelt—“An Elderly Woman and An Adolescent,” a story about a girl who runs away from home and hides out in an antiques store, is one of them. Though Holmes employs temporal shifts in this narrative, it is not past and present that are in juxtaposition but the characters’ realities.. The antiques store, with all its fragile and expensive merchandise, is a brilliant setting for a story about people damaging and devaluing one another.

Holmes’s stories are quiet stories, private stories, stories that cannot be neatly summarized. They are stories about feelings that can’t be categorized or connected to familiar facial expressions. But there is pathos at the center of each one that is deeply human, and profoundly compelling. For me, the test of good literature is that I keep thinking about a book or a story long after I’ve finished reading it, that phrases or even whole sentences get caught in my mind and repeat themselves. Holmes’s collection does this; I’ve got it stuck in my head like a song.

—E. D. Watson