(Warrensburg, MO: Pleiades Press, 2018)
Years ago, I used to make scrapbooks. Actually, they were more like photo albums in which I incorporated scraps of things I collected on my overseas journeys. I affixed ticket stubs from museums and trains, labels pulled from bottles of local beer, receipts, money, and sometimes postcards, a collage of experiences that reached beyond the lens of my camera. Together, the scraps and pictures tell a more complete tale of my adventures.
Recently, my young son discovered these albums high up on shelf in his closet. For years, they had sat untouched, practically forgotten. But now, as my son sits next to me and flips through the pages, memories that had faded suddenly jump to life. Vivid scenes flash in my mind, conjuring up numerous recollections. I look at the train ticket from Darjeeling and remember not only the harassment I suffered on the train, but the song running through my head as I bought the ticket. Random associations explode like fireworks from these keepsakes, and I find, to my son’s enchanted delight, that I can go on for hours telling stories that might start in Korea but suddenly end up at a campfire in Australia.
Reading Gary Fincke’s The Darkness Call is similar to leafing through my old albums. Many of his essays are constructed as literary scrap books: collections of personal essays in which he weaves historical anecdotes, crime stories, tales about UFOs, and scientific facts. Though some of his connections may appear random at first, there is always a thread that connects them. Following Fincke’s logic is sometimes like traversing a maze, but around every corner is a new surprise, each of which kept me raptly engaged.
The essay “Catching” begins with Fincke’s recollection of his third grade teacher, Miss Klein. He portrays her as a fanatic, warning students about the evils of people who are contagious. She obsesses about the contagious who “never cover their mouths when they sneeze. They wipe their noses on their sleeves where crusts collect like scabs that bleed.” But it isn’t just disease that is a problem. It goes deeper. She goes on to lecture, “the contagious shout words you mustn’t say. They ruin their yards with bottles, cans and tires. The contagions are everywhere common as flies.” As if embracing this as a sort of challenge to expose all instances of contagious things in society, Fincke follows this introduction with examples of things throughout history that have spread like disease. He explores the arrival from Turkey of tulips in Holland and how instantly they charmed the populous. Chain letters, he states, “return like strains of the flu.” In 1518, dance hysterics struck France, the only cure of which was exhaustion or death. Laughter too can spread, as it did in Tanganyika in 1962 after a young boy told a joke. Fear can spark chaos, as is illustrated by Orson Welles’s 1938 broadcast. Finally, the Crusades, in the guise of all that is holy, once swept Europe and the Middle East. Violence, like disease, persists even today.
My favorite essay in the collection is “Things That Fall From the Sky.” Some of the objects are obvious: space junk and nuclear bombs. Others were surprising: documents, rocks, bodies, and frogs. Again, Fincke intriguingly incorporates stories that on the surface seem disjoined but are expertly connected as Fincke describes their descent to the ground. He writes about juvenile delinquents standing on overpasses and throwing rocks down at cars speeding past on the highway, frogs and other aquatic animals that get sucked into the air by whirlwinds, and accidents involving nuclear weapons – who knew there had been so many. And, perhaps most disturbingly, bodies, which during the attack on the World Trade Center fell at 120 mph.
The final essay, “The Mussolini Diaries,” explores interesting trivia regarding the written word. Fincke introduces the essay by recounting an incident in 1957 when a mother and her daughter forged a 30 volume set of diaries they claimed Mussolini had written. So convincing was the hoax that it fooled not only the dictator’s son but a university expert as well. Fincke writes of an encyclopedia complied during the Ming Dynasty that contained 11,095 volumes, a letter written by Gandhi, and a book published as a religious allegory in the seventeenth century – a book that “totaled eight blank pages: two black for evil, two red for redemption, two white for purity, two gold for eternal bliss.” Entwined with these intriguing tales from history are brief memories torn from Fincke’s life, snap shots of him learning to write in cursive, the time he forged his college report card, and a letter written by his mother on the day she died.
The Darkness Call offers an exciting way in which to view the world, a way that encourages the reader to draw parallels between seemingly disjointed occurrences. Sometimes it is too easy to observe history, science, and current events as separate from our personal lives. Fincke reminds us that everything is connected. Reading these essay is not only a pleasure; it has challenged me to view my own life experiences through a broader lens, one that is both timeless and geographically expansive.
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Elizabeth Jaeger’s work has been published in The New Ink Reivew, Ovunque Siamo Placeholder Magazine, Parentheses Journal, Brush Talks, Waypoints, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Peacock Journal, Boston Accent Lit, Damfino, Inside the Bell Jar, Blue Planet Journal, Italian Americana, Yellow Chair Review, Drowing Gull, Icarus Down Review, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Atticus Review, and Literary Explorer. She has published book reviews in TLR Online and has participated in an episode of No, YOU Tell It! When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking and reading with her young son.