Juliet Escoria is a writer from Southern California. Her work has appeared in places like Electric Literature, Dazed, Hobart, Thought Catalog, and Everyday Genius. Black Cloud is her debut story collection.
"Juliet Escoria has a poet's knack for knowing when to tie off a paragraph for thunderous effect and displays enormous empathy for the damaged souls that populate her stories."
"Juliet Escoria is like a gutter-punk Grace Paley."
"This book is like Julia Child meets Michael Jackson."
"Black Cloud is one of the best things I've ever read... I want more literature to be like this: brutal, honest, dark, and incredibly real."
One of the main reasons I read is to feel, and I definitely got that from the stories in Black Cloud by Juliet Escoria. I mean, if writing didn’t move us…why keep reading? Without emotional involvement, there is no engagement. Without engagement, we get bored and drift off. My life is boring enough. I don’t need that in fiction. However, I certainly wasn’t bored by the stories in Black Cloud. Anything but.
Of course, as one might expect from the title, the feelings (without considering the complexity with which they are evoked) are frequently unpleasant. Consider this portion from “Trouble & Troubledness” (which I certainly hope isn’t happy for you):
One day my mom yelled at me for something that made no sense and so I ran outside. The thing swirled up, the empty black thing, growing from the pit of my stomach, tendrils reaching into my arms. My vision went hot and I wanted to jump into the ocean and swim out far until I couldn’t come back.
I flicked the blade out. I wanted to make a heart in my calf. My skin got whiter as I cut, and then the whiteness filled in with blood. I carved each line three times, just to make sure it went deep enough. The blackness shrank.
I wiped the blood away with the meaty part of my palm. I licked my hand clean. It tasted like copper and dirt. My leg hurt, but I felt tough on the inside, like I could hide the thing inside me. My jeans stuck to the blood but later it scabbed over, and when the scab fell off there was a perfect and even heart-shaped scar.
Presuming you aren’t some kind of monster, the above evokes pain and horror. However, it is also powerful and moving.
After all, dwelling only on good emotions while ignoring the bad is an attempt to hide from life. It may make things nice,’ but it shuts out the vast majority of experience. It’s reductionistic and escapist. Perhaps like the main character of “Trouble & Troubledness”(if you’ll even consider excusing me for venturing to make this kind of a comparison), sometimes we just need to feel. Anything.
No, these stories aren’t primarily about joyful feelings, though there is some in there. As the section headings indicate (including: resentment, confusion, apathy, guilt, disgust, spite, revenge, fear, powerlessness, envy, self-loathing, and shame), these are principally darker aspects of human existence.
The section headings may sound a bit simplistic at first, but you still can’t see what is coming just because the supposed emotion to be involved is announced. There is more of a twist on the recited theme than that, a variation or perhaps deeper exploration. For example, one section is titled “Powerlessness” and then the story “I Do Not Question It” goes on to detail two recovering addicts, best friends and occasional lovers, who seem to both save and destroy each other throughout their history:
I was scared to drink the kava because I had never done it before and because I knew I would like it because it will change how I feel. But Zachary peer pressured me into coming here. Which is funny, considering when I had one year sober, he called me and told me he would send me heroin in the mail because he knew it would turn me into a junkie, like him. I hung up on him and started to cry. This was the last time we talked until he got clean again.
It is not fair, to Zachary, to tell you that story, with- out telling you that he was instrumental in getting me clean and helping me stay that way – despite and maybe because of the phone call about heroin. When I got sober, my thoughts would get to churning and until nothing made sense anymore. “Stop thinking,” he would tell me, so I stopped. It worked. It’s harder than it sounds but it’s easier than you might think.
The characters evidence powerlessness at times, in facing their own addictions as well as in their ties to each other, but also power over the exact same things at other times. It’s an investigation of powerlessness, but in a much more multi-faceted way than a mere dictionary definition of the term would suggest.
Regardless, using sparse and elegant prose, Escoria makes the reader feel. Moreover, even when the reader feels is terrible and frightening, Escoria finds a way to make it beautiful. These are powerful stories. Read them and be moved.