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BOOK REVIEW

Short stories that are long on imagination

By Michael Patrick Brady
Globe Correspondent / July 29, 2011

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In Ben Loory’s wild, dreamy debut collection of short stories, he explores the deepest recesses of the imagination, where even the most outlandish tales can yield profound insights.

“Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day’’ contains 40 featherweight fables, with a diverse cast of characters that includes erudite octopi, menacing hats, and lovestruck ducks. To say that disbelief must be suspended to appreciate Loory’s work would be an understatement; utter credulity is required. His stories have the maundering, free-associative quality of dreams, and follow their own peculiar logic.

Loory’s sparse, unadorned prose may seem at odds with the fantastical subject matter - think Lydia Davis meets H.P. Lovecraft - but this restraint allows his big ideas to flourish without distraction. Though he clearly revels in conjuring up curveballs, “Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day’’ is not just an exercise in unfettered surrealism. These stories are full of wit, humor, and heart, at times koan-like in their deceptive simplicity and focus.

Loory has a knack for twisted love stories. The protagonist of “The Duck’’ becomes infatuated with a rock. His fellow ducks make light of this unusual situation, but ultimately lend their support because after all, Loory writes, “ducks are all brothers when it comes right down to it.’’ In the epic “UFO: A Love Story,’’ two young lovers are torn apart when the boy’s determination to convince his town that the pair had seen a flying saucer runs amok. Simple pranks evolve into an elaborate, all-consuming hoax that sees the boy staging a full-scale invasion of his town in an effort to win his girl back. Another story finds a house and the nearby ocean pining for one another, desperate to be together and to overcome the one thing that stands between them - a cliff.

These sweet, off-kilter tales are balanced by others that trade in subtle horror, where blind curiosity has dreadful consequences. Loory’s oblique style is at its best here. More than anything, what he chooses not to reveal in his stories has the most impact, leaving readers to fill the gaps with terrors from their own imaginations.

“The Swimming Pool’’ concerns an indistinct monster lurking at the bottom of a public pool, undetected by all but one unfortunate man. In his panic, the man strives to defeat it but never fully understands his true predicament. The peril only becomes apparent after it’s too late, and Loory’s taut, final line - “He’s set the monster free.’’ - is brimming with dark possibilities. “The Rope in the Sea’’ unfolds like a nightmare, with a young couple discovering a pair of dead bodies on the beach and coming to realize that what they thought was the beginning of their story was really its end.

“Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day’’ is a collection of smart experiments, but there are definitely a few misfires. “The Woman and the Basement’’ and “The Man Who Went to China’’ titles lack the revelatory spirit of the other stories, with ragged narratives that fail to make the loopy journeys seem as if they were worth taking. Part of the fun of getting lost in Loory’s stories is seeing how he cleverly delivers “Aha!’’ moments when they’re least expected. They are like portals through which the reader can escape back to reality. When they fail to appear, it’s hard not to feel abandoned in a strange and unfathomable world.

More often than not, though, Loory proves himself to be a reliable guide, and “Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day’’ is a wonderful introduction to a writer capable of finding inspiration in the most unlikely places.

Michael Patrick Brady is a freelance writer living in South Boston. He can be reached at mike@michaelpatrickbrady.com

STORIES FOR NIGHTTIME AND SOME FOR THE DAY

By Ben Loory

Penguin, 210 pp., paperback, $15