A Comfortable Haunting: (Dis)Connection in Tara Lynn Masih and James Claffey’s The Bitter King


To read The Bitter Kind is to witness two writers who, in this slim 68-page volume, manage a marvel by beautifully performing two seemingly impossible tasks. First, Tara Lynn Masih and James Claffey write collaboratively, weaving together the stories of two characters: Stela, the daughter of an abusive ship’s captain, and Brandy, an orphaned boy searching for a community he can call his own. Both characters appeared in previously published works, Brandy in Masih’s Where the Dog Star Never Glows and Stela in Claffey’s Blood a Cold Blue, both published by Press 53. Collaborative writing, especially with existing characters, is tricky, to say the least; the resulting work can feel bifurcated, the collaborators’ styles separate and distinct. This is the first astonishing thing about The Bitter Kind: Masih and Claffey blend their styles so seamlessly that, aside from a very few turns of phrase, it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference between their voices.

The second astonishing aspect of this book is that Masih and Claffey create a rivetingly cohesive central narrative from flash segments. The segments are short—the first flash piece, which sets the tone of the book and gives us Stela’s history, is the longest at just about two full pages. This is not, however, to say that the segments are incomplete: most could stand on their own as successfully realized works of flash fiction, a fact that makes it all the more extraordinary that the segments flow together to form a novelette. Even more extraordinarily, they form a novelette with the scope and sense of fulfillment one would expect of a much longer work. 

The scope of The Bitter Kind feels broad largely because the narrative encompasses the individual and the communal, the present and the historical, the personal and the cultural. We follow Stela and Brandy from childhood to middle age, watching as they seek to find some sense of identity and agency at the same time as they discover that their lives are controlled by forces beyond their control. Stela, for instance, struggles to escape her repressive home and make a life of her own, only to discover that she is, in a sense, at the mercy of her own female body and sociocultural ideas related to female behavior. The novelette opens in 1942, when Stela is a girl growing up in Alabama. Abused by her father, an alcoholic, she tries to escape into music: “American. Gershwin. Antheil. Copland.” However, in the next sentence, we learn that even this is not a full escape: “[t]he Victrola sits in the family room,” and while listening, Stela “sits on the Captain’s lap” looking at his profile, which “reminds her of those faces on Roman coins. Her Emperor. Her captor.” As she grows older, Stela looks for a more permanent way to escape her home through the route socially and culturally accepted in her place and time: marriage. Though she does go to Auburn University, her studies are barely mentioned; instead, she focuses on dances and the men she dates, “a radio enthusiast from Wisconsin, and an economics major from Idaho (with the nickname of Boise)...Either of them would happily march her down the aisle.” When her relationship with Boise ends, she becomes obsessed with her body and with physical beauty—the only things that, according to the ideal of Southern womanhood, offer her a way to slip from the Captain’s control. 

Her body becomes the place where her frustrations are made manifest. On a trip home for Easter, Stela “plucks at her eyebrows, and at one stage she pretty much removes both her brows. Her routine is the same as the kids’ game played with daisies, ‘He loves me, he loves me not.’ She makes sure to end on ‘He loves me,’ though she knows this not to be true.” Nonetheless, she still sees her body as a kind of escape route. She meets a man named Burdine, whom she begins to date and soon marries, even though “[s]he understands the disappointment she’s visited on her family, by marrying a man from the backwoods of Louisiana, will perhaps last a lifetime.” 

However, from the beginning, this relationship proves not to be the escape Stela had hoped. Just as she finds herself at the mercy of sociocultural ideas about womanhood, so too does she find herself trapped in patterns: on their first date, “[w]hen she buries her face in his neck at the bar she detects the familiar scent of bay rum”—the same scent her father wore—“and can’t get the picture of the Captain out of her mind.” She saw marriage as a way to break away from the Captain, but finds herself in a recursive cycle that leads right back to abuse. This, too, relates to her body. When she’s unable to get pregnant, Burdine’s anger escalates into abuse: “Barren. He calls her barren and breaks her spirit with his iron muscles and scented hair, pinning her to the mattress and willing conception.” Again, Stela’s life is controlled by a force that’s beyond her control, this time her ability to conceive.

As for Masih’s character, Brandy, his life is also controlled by outside forces. Born of a Chippewa mother and a white trapper, Brandy is haunted all his life. On the night of his birth, according to a story his mother repeats, a cattle rancher entered a dream-space to kill the Ghost Wolf that’s been hunting nearby farms. Part of the wolf’s spirit entered Brandy, his mother says: “‘It left that divine animal and entered you, that’s why you’re so stubborn.’” From the moment of his birth, then, Brandy exists in dualities. Even as a child, he feels as if his identity isn’t entirely his own. Just as Stela uses a children’s rhyme to control her body, Brandy inhabits different selves through play as a way to seek agency over his own identity: “Brandy doesn’t know who he is. Indian? White? Wolf? He howls at his mother sometimes, and she throws him bits of jerky in response.” Soon, however, Brandy loses agency over his life completely. Mountain fever kills his parents, despite his attempts to save them, and his mother dies before he truly knows her:

He tries to stop the red from spreading. He takes cold cloths and dips them into the cool creek that runs by the home. He wraps their arms and thighs, listens to their rantings. Only once do his mother’s eyes clear to recognition, and she strokes his hair before the fever takes her again. He will never know if it was emotion or weakness that made her touch gentle for the first time.

After his parents’ death, Brandy moves in with his extended family. His identity, like Stela’s, is connected to music: “Uncle Joseph plays the fiddle during festivals, and Brandy [...] dances around the bonfires, mimicking his French ancestors’ foot lifts and twirls.” Brandy “wants to fit in,” and so he mimics the behavior of his white family members until he feels “far away from his wolf past.” The Ghost Wolf, however, is still part of him. The Wolf’s “oversized foot pads [...] no longer leave impressions in the new spring snow.” Though that part of his identity may become invisible to him, it is still present.

For the majority of the novelette, Stela and Brandy’s stories are narratively separate: they live separate lives in separate parts of the country, with no plot or character connecting them. Thematically, however, these two narrative strands are woven of the same fiber. Both are haunted by ghosts. Stela’s metaphorical ghost comes in the form of another man who mistreats her: “Stone by stone, Vance buries Stela under a mound of insults. The belittling reduces her to a puddle of dishwater.” Once again, she finds “the shadow of the Captain in front of her.” Brandy, having finally loosed himself from the “Ghost Wolf he is comfortable being haunted by,” finds himself haunted by the ghost of a schoolteacher named Annabelle. She soon “becomes ever present – in his cabin, in the haberdashery, in the tall grass by the low river.” He lives with her like a wife, falling in love with her largely because “[i]t is easy to love a ghost who asks nothing of you.”

For fifty-two out of sixty-eight pages, the two stories are narratively separate. However, the reader makes thematic connections in the spaces between the flash segments. In the gaps between the two narratives, the real story happens. For the reader, it’s clear that Stela and Brandy’s lives are connected thematically, if not physically, by the fact that their lives are haunted by forces they can’t seem to control. As the reader moves through the novelette, this connection becomes more and more clear, like an apparition that makes itself known. In a sense, it is the reader who makes the connections that become the novelette’s true story. In fact, in their notes at the end of the book, Masih and Claffey thank the reader, who becomes “the third collaborator in the room.” 

When they do finally meet, the characters echo the reader’s realizations. Both Stela and Brandy feel a connection, and both are aware that this connection existed even before their lives intersected. Brandy “knows something without knowing it,” and “Stela feels an opening up inside her, an expansion that is familiar, yet she cannot quite determine its source.” This something is what the reader experienced, the story found in the gaps: the great forward motion of two lives that seemed to be separate but were, all the time, moving towards each other. And their connection also brings resolution—an ending that, like the lemonade Stela makes from bitter lemons, is tempered by the sadness of their separate pasts, which only makes their connection in the present more full and more sweet. 

Emma Bolden is the author of two full-length collections of poetry, Maleficae (GenPop Books, 2013) and medi(t)ations (Noctuary Press, 2016). She’s also the author of four chapbooks of poetry — How to Recognize a Lady (part of Edge by Edge, Toadlily Press); The Mariners Wife, (Finishing Line Press); The Sad Epistles (Dancing Girl Press); and This Is Our Hollywood (in The Chapbook) – and one of nonfiction – Geography V (Winged City Press). A Barthelme Prize and Spoon River Poetry Review Editor’s Prize winner, her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry and The Best Small Fictions as well as such journals as The Rumpus, Prairie Schooner, Conduit, the Indiana Review, Harpur Palate, the Greensboro Review, Feminist Studies, The Journal, and Guernica.