The Raw and the Cooked

Tucson author's imaginative flame sears in debut story collection

As a veteran fantasy reader, I relish an unexpectedly superb story collection. The sumptuous moments I spent savoring tales told in, for example, Kelly Link's Magic for Beginners, Cory Doctorow's Overclocked and Cody Goodfellow's Silent Weapons for Quiet Wars are unforgettable. They rival, at the risk of embarrassing myself, the carnal experience of a fine, full-course dinner.

Such was the case when I sat under the shade-blessed ramada in my backyard to dig into the sinfully delicious The Sin Eater & Other Stories by Elizabeth Frankie Rollins. Rollins, a professor at Pima Community College in Tucson, shows uncanny skill in securing the right ingredients and calibrating them to powerful, haunting effect. Rollins' only wrinkle? She obviously strives to be a fabulist, or teller of fables, when, in fact, she is something more troubling and interesting—a dark fantasy writer.

Of course the dark fantasy tag is problematic for an author with a graduate degree in creative writing and with stories published in high-minded lit magazines like New England Review. But there's no way around the truth: In the same way that the fantasy greats—Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Margaret Atwood—leave marks on our imaginations, so does Rollins' prose roil the senses. She writes scary stuff.

In "The New Plague," a lyrical yet gripping apocalypse yarn, the narrator and her husband are homebound and slowly dying from a bubonic-strain pandemic. They're greeted by the Visitor, a mysterious Grim Reaper-like figure that shows up in infected homes when it's time for the people inside to perish:

We hear the sound, an open mouth struggling for breath, a clotted, messy gulping. The Visitor is in the kitchen, knocking things over. We hear wet, sticky-sounding grunts. Chas aims the flashlight on the living room, ready, and when we hear the noise move, the ragged, sloppy breathing, he snaps it on. The Visitor turns toward the light and we freeze. The Visitor lifts its terrible face and sniffs us, deeply, wetly. Before Chas snaps off the light, I see the engorged and misshapen skull, the disintegrating arms, the legs, still upright, though molting skin and effluvia roll in a mass down the exposed bones.

In a Stephen King story—say, "The Reaper's Image" from Skeleton Crew or King's own plague story The Stand—death as a sentient entity would likely magically inhabit, for instance, a mirror or some other object. But Rollins improves on these concepts, letting her skeletal figure wander freely as the infection's weird emissary, for reasons doctors and scientists can't explain.

By leaving things unexplained and, to a degree, unresolved, Rollins ratchets the tension, making the horror palpable in its force and metaphorical sweep.

In the title story, told in the second person, a philandering husband regrets hurting his wife. To purge his guilt, he dials a classified-ad number offering sin-eating services. A prim, hair-in-a-bun woman in her late 40s arrives "wearing a tailored, belted, navy blue dress." Subtly unsettling, this Sin Eater sits at the table to eat the meal he has prepared for her. She dines alone, feasting on more than mere eggplant. Humor seeps in.

The Sin Eater says, "You think if you had made the right choices you wouldn't feel so guilty. You realize you might have made wrong choices, but you can't believe this because it's too late. You never thought you could lie. You feel mean and small."

You are amazed and finally you ask, "You can tell all this from the eggplant?"

She laughs. "No," she says. "It's common to most adulterers." Her laugh reminds you of branches scraping the roof.

There are bone bits and chunks of gristle. The Sin Eater is artificially preserved—perhaps even padded—with the unnecessary inclusion of a smattering of short-shorts (like "Frances, Upstairs"). Only a few pages in length, their too-muted supernatural elements and subtle, slice-of-life literary charms seem out of place in a collection that boasts fully realized tales about a woman growing a, um, tail ("Tail").

There's also the issue of the book's eye-thwarting design and story-introducing images. Rollins' husband created the packaging for Sin Eater, its rusty mist and interior illustrations meant to underscore the author's dreamy conjuring. Problem is, Rollins is an architect of vivid nightmares. Her book deserves a veneer as darkly lurid as the stories inside.

No more quibbles. The Sin Eater stands among the best debut horror collections in recent years because of its literary edge. I can't wait to see what else Rollins concocts in the test kitchen of her imagination. Hopefully, something novel-length.