When Zachary Jernigan’s debut novel No Return came out earlier this year, I wished that I could review it as part of Short Story Review; alas, I could not find any justification for reviewing a novel on a website devoted to bringing more attention to short stories. Thus, when I heard that he would be releasing a short story collection, At the Bottom of the Sea, I immediately asked for a copy. I’m glad I did, because it’s one of the most original collections I’ve ever read.
At the Bottom of the Sea contains five stories in all: four previously published, and one new to the collection. In his introduction, Jernigan says that he has rewritten some of the stories. Since their publication, he says, he has improved vastly as a writer, and in a couple of cases, he has revised to correct for mistakes he feels that he made, content-wise, upon the first writing. He has also tuckerized several friends, changing the original names from the stories; I am one of those tuckerized, though I won’t say when or where. Part of the fun is figuring these things out, after all.
The best story in the collection, for me, is the brand new “Fear of Drowning.” Set in the same world as No Return, “Fear of Drowning” is about Cee, the lover of a God-Queen. When the God-Queen takes Cee along on a trip with the goal to kill another demi-god for crimes she will not fully explain to Cee, Cee goes along with her, thinking little of it. However, there’s much more to the dichotomy between the two demi-gods than Cee knows. This is a subtle story, as much of Jernigan’s writing is, rich with place. It’s clear that Jernigan is comfortable in this world, and that he knows it well, as he moves through it with ease.
My second favorite — and after this story my ranking breaks down — is the title story “At the Bottom of the Sea,” another incredibly subtle work which originally appeared in pax americana. An old blind man, Mihir, keeps a developmentally disabled boy in his care, to lead him to and from his house. When the boy disappears for a while one day without the old man telling him to, it upsets the old man’s appearance of control over the situation. The main character here is simultaneously deplorable and sorry. Jernigan’s prose is beautiful and sad in this story.
The other three are stories that I like equally well. “Pairs” and “The War is Over and Everyone Wins” both previously appeared in Asimov’s. “Pairs” is a strange and wholly original science fiction story about the last “survivors” of the human race, tasked with carting and selling the imprisoned souls of our dead. But the main character’s, one of those “survivors,” employer is an ass, to say the least, and the main character wants revenge.
In “The War is Over and Everyone Wins,” a son returns home for his grandfather’s funeral in a world where white people have been wiped out by a biological weapon designed, in part, by the main character’s father. But the racial tensions form a backdrop for a story that is at its heart truly about familial tension and regret.
The final story, “All My Ghosts,” appeared in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #31; this one is about an immortal who sacrifices his immortality to save his son, and his struggle to figure out his own reason why he has made such a sacrifice. As he treks through the snow, attempting to bring his boy to safety, he is visited by the ghosts of people he has known throughout his immortal life. Haunting, understated, and unforgettable, as I’m happy to report all of Zack’s stories in this collection are.