‘Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned’ by Wells Tower

I didn’t know how I felt about the story, even long after reading it. I did know that I think about it a lot. The central piece of this literary display often comes to my mind, sometimes when I’m least expecting it, and it startles me: the blood angel. Djarf, one of the Vikings, slices open the skin on the priest’s back, along both side of his spine, then he reaches his hands into the cuts and pulls out the priest’s lungs, watching them flapping and quivering in the wind like a pair of wings.
I love extreme scenes, they are difficult to write and when we read them, we are forced to look deeply into ourselves and ask: is this what it is like to be human? 
No one knows if the depictions of Vikings in the story are authentic or not because their world is so far away from ours. On the other hand, their world resembles closely this one we are living in. Everything is ravaged and burned, filled with chaos, savagery, and despair. Admittedly we don’t kill out of superstition now; we don’t yank other people’s lungs out anymore. But have we become better humans? 

First published in Fence, 2002 and collected in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Granta, 2009, and available to read online here

‘Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned’ by Wells Tower

This is a story about a Viking, Harald, who takes a holiday from domestic life to go raiding along the coast of Lindisfarne.

You could say that those people on Lindisfarne were fools, living out there on a tiny island without high cliffs or decent natural defenses, and so close to us and also the Swedes and the Norwegians, how we saw it, we couldn’t afford not to come by and sack every now and again. But when we came into the bright little bay, a quiet fell over all of us.

The most striking thing about this story for me is the unfussy, contemporary directness of Harald’s voice. How can a voice encompass such a wide range of vocabularies so seamlessly? How can Harald talk about settling into his ‘domestic groove’ one minute and then hydras and dragons the next? How can he create compounds like “flint-edged” here and then “grab-assing” there? He calls his children jits (US prison slang) and then describes the wind bellying the sails in elegiac prose. You start thinking, with the right voice, maybe a story can encompass anything?

First published in Fence, 2002 and collected in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Granta, 2009, and available to read online here

‘Raw Water’ by Wells Tower

It sounds like ropey sci fi – and came from a McSweeney’s Quarterly themed around ‘an investigation of the world to come’ – but this story by Wells Tower is the best kind of down-to-earth unpleasantness. A married couple – Rodney and Cora Booth – travel out to a holiday caravan on the edge of a “do-it-yourself ocean”, a manmade sea that has turned red thanks to a bunch of one-celled organisms that thrive in the salt. It’s supposedly harmless, but weird stuff starts happening to them and Rodney begins regressing to a primal state. 

 Even in the new hours of the day, the water was hot and alarmingly solid, like paddling through Crisco. It seared his pores and mucous parts, but his body had a thrilling buoyancy in the thick water. A single kick of the legs sent him gliding like a hockey puck.

Needless to say, things get very creepy, though you never quite know if the lustful, elemental transformation overtaking Rodney is caused by the water or something else about this place on the edge of things. Tower is an arch-stylist and this is one of my favourites of his simply because it’s so hard to find, compared to his extraordinary collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. We’re well overdue a follow up, so hopefully he’s completing the final edits on the periphery of some remote, hostile expanse right now. 

Published in McSweeney’s 32, 2009

‘The Old Man at Burning Man’ by Wells Tower

I’m not going to lie and pretend that the premise for this isn’t a bit of a cliché – the father/son bonding experience of taking a trip together. Except this is at Burning Man and is in turns very funny and very weird and surprising and entertaining and written in Tower’s cool, laconic prose which gained him such attention for his wonderful first collection of stories Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. It’s also a story about being embarrassed by one’s parents, and describes his singular, peculiar childhood with great tenderness. 

First published in GQ, February 2013, and available to read online here

‘Wild America’ by Wells Tower

When is Wells Tower’s next book coming out? Is what those of us who love his collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, have been asking for ten years. No pressure, Wells. But get on with it. His work is wildly funny, stylistically wide-ranging, and full of painful truths. I’m picking this story over other possibles in the book because of its opening description of a baby pigeon, mauled and dropped by a cat onto a pillowcase: “The thing was pink, nearly translucent, with magenta cheeks and lavender ovals around the eyes. It looked like a half-cooked eraser with dreams of some day becoming a prostitute.”

From the collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, FSG/Granta, 2009. Most of the story is at online here but it seems to cut off about a page and a half from the end…