A Contented Man and Other Stories by Zoë Beck, translated by Rachel Hildebrandt (Weyward Sisters Publishing, 54 pages, August 7)
Zoë Beck's dark, haunted collection is Weyward Sisters Publishing's second offering (see my review of the first- Snow Flurries and Other Stories), and it will make you clamor for more.
Each of the four stories- "A Contented Man", "Rapunzel", "Still Waters", and "Flann, the Púca"- showcases Beck's talent for crafting quietly horrifying tales, be they stories of obsession, blood feuds, or creatures out of folklore. They are told without embellishment, building up slowly but inexorably to disturbing ends.
The first, and I think strongest, of the collection is the title story, in which a seemingly-normal man's obsession with a dancer turns deadly. Beck sets us up from the first innocuous sentence ("Joachim Hartmann was a contented man"), challenging us to imagine just what would unsettle someone who has "everything"- a good marriage, a good job, etc. Turns out, all it takes for Joachim is a glimpse of a ballerina who reminds him of Renoir's painting La danseuse. Having stared at this, his favorite painting, for years, Joachim is primed to launch into a full-scale obsession with Helene. The fact that we never learn her last name, and that, in Joachim's mind, she's usually just "the girl," emphasizes how little she matters as a person to Joachim. And while each step he takes as he stalks and terrorizes her in person and over email seems to stem from the last, cumulatively they add up to something horrifying.
"Still Waters," too, is a story about seemingly ordinary people driven to extremes by other people in their community through rumor, gossip, and spite. Beck then puts a modern spin on folktales in "Rapunzel" and "Flann, the Púca," demonstrating her flexibility across multiple genres and skill with narrative tone.
This masterful translation, by Rachel Hildebrandt, of yet another collection of contemporary German noir should be on your list of books to read this year.