As you progress through the short stories that make up author Layden Robinson’s eBook “The Havoc Tree,” you might be initially tempted to tap your finger against the page and say, “Ah-ha!”
At that point, you’ve made an assumption that all of a sudden, the epiphany has arrived, and You get it! Finally, you understand what’s going on here — that is, until the next story throws you decisively off that path.
For example, you might start by reasoning that these stories take you into a mythical alternate universe, a kind of C.S. Lewis fantasy world where anything can happen to the protagonists.
Then again, you might quickly change your mind and conclude that the author spends his evenings jotting down a series of mad ramblings and harrowing stream of consciousness episodes, some eerie, some distinctly twisted, and others downright funny — a theory reinforced by the author himself, who describes his work as “Words, thoughts and manic rantings under the influence of strong drink and fine smoky treats.”
Perhaps, but these nontraditional stories boast far too much in the way of clever imagination to have been born in a drunken stupor.
And frankly, whichever interpretation you settle on, the next story is almost certain to dash it.
While some of the stories work better than others, several stand out, starting with “An Assassination of a Caring Man,” told from the perspective of a man who calmly describes his deep-seated paranoias –which prompt him to handcuff his girlfriend to him whenever they’re out in public, just to be on the safe side.
He appears to have good reason to view life anxiously, courtesy of those strange men — stalkers, really — in white suits who stake themselves outside his home every night.
“I spotted the first stalker tucked inside a dense tree,” the narrator casually notes, while later adding, “Being in public always got me on edge.” No wonder. The story wraps up with a confrontation at an amusement park Merry Go Round.
The story has a nice way of describing the character’s persecutory outlook in a calm and even manner, as if being stalked by strange men in white suits is something any one of us could expect on a weekday afternoon.
And then we get a starkly different tone in “The Shoes,” a very funny/hideously gory saga about Benny Lewstein, a young Jewish man and a sad loner whose life takes a dramatic turn when he discovers a unique pair of leather shoes on a dead body in an alleyway. Barry decides to take and wear the shoes, which then lead him on a fairly intense and harrowing journey, starting with a trip to the barber shop where his favorite barber, Angelo, has this really sharp razor that he uses for shaving customers. It’s a razor that Benny suddenly becomes fascinated with …
Much mayhem later, Benny eventually turns to a “nurturing mommy” to save him from the sinister influence of those shoes.
There’s a shy-high degree of rich black humor in this one, and you get the sense that Robinson has a grand old time creating these mini-surrealist epics.
No two stories seem quite alike; the opening one, “A Final Moment,” plays the closest to being outright horror, as the narrator describes the day that a man with a cleaver showed up at his home, looking ready to be quite unpleasant.
“He stared at me with an eccentric gaze that reeked of brilliance and warped obsession; as he came my way with disturbing force and furious anger, like a banshee on a bad peyote trip, ripping pieces of vanity flesh from my blush face and dwindling identity,” the narrator responds.
You get the idea.
This kind of writing can seem rambling, silly and pointless in the wrong hands, but Robinson has too much imagination to fall into that trap. “The Havoc Tree” is about 50 pages long, but the stories go off in enough different directions to be consistently entertaining. (The highly eroticized story “The Suit,” featuring the heroine Sarah Lawson, is a fine example.)
For those tired of not-again familiar plots and ripped-from-the-headlines rehashes, “The Havoc Tree” is a unpredictable journey into a far more fiendishly creative, inventive and original universe.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.