Pool Party Trap Loop, by Ben Segal. Plano, Texas: Queen’s Ferry Press, March 2015. 142 pages. $16.95, paper.
Pool Party Trap Loop is a palindrome and a nightmare. I have read Ben Segal’s explanation of the title, which involves a sweaty Victorian house party, a friend with a hankering for a cool slice of water to dive into, and a minor linguistic discovery, and while I appreciate his description I would have to say that I, a mere outsider looking in, would classify this as a book that is far more about traps and loops than pools or parties. Perhaps pools and parties enter the equation from time to time, but this is a book devoted to the lure, to the art of ensnarement, with body horror its most frequent loop.
Ben Segal’s fourth book and first “traditional” collection of short stories has its fixations. Voyeurism, edentulism, dismemberment, blood, and the manipulation of bones are a few; ghosts, animals and sea life are others. Much like submersing oneself into a cooling pool on a hot summer’s day, Segal’s collection begins by gently jarring the reader, altering their physical state without sending them, hopefully, into shock.
The first story in Segal’s collection, “Window/Screens,” is lyrically gorgeous. From the first paragraph, it begs to be read aloud; even its puns are handsome, i.e. “cantilever” with “can’t I leave her.” Despite the narrator’s surrender to his preoccupation with what he sees through the glass panel in his ceiling, this fetish is softened by its positioning in the story: that there exists a home built entirely underground with its sole source of natural light a skylight built seamlessly into a sidewalk block.
If the first thirty pages were made of candy, they would be lollipops. Next would be a jawbreaker. “The Pork Shunter’s Fingers” begins a series of truly discomforting stories that never quite relent, building to its climax in “Jelly Bodies,” after which everything is a blur. While my inclination from Segal’s second story, “GUMBOY”, was to shelve Ben Segal beside Amelia Gray in my mental library, the compulsion reached electric proportions in “The Pork Shunter’s Fingers” (see “Waste” in Museum of the Weird for comparison). Both writers have an uncanny ability to disturb and fascinate their reader, charming them into a kind of total immersion within the world of their stories while deeply—deeply!—unsettling them.
For some strange reason, I also found that I consumed both collections start to finish just before bedtime, and that despite the four-year gap between them, my reactions have been documented to be the same:
1) Read/listen to the stories in a semi-fevered state, vaguely aware of my own grimacing facial expression but unable to stop the rhythm of my eyes across the page or the words from entering my ears,
2) lie in bed feeling like my skin is rippling, certain that if I do get to sleep tonight my dreams will be heavily weighted down by these stories,
3) just after the lights are out, say to the darkness (or, my partner) “I will never sleep again,”
4) immediately fall into a heavy, dreamless sleep, after which I find upon waking that my position in the bed did not change for a full seven hours,
5) feel an amorphous sense of fear hanging over me for the next days/weeks/lifetime.
I don’t know what exactly, if anything, this says about Ben Segal’s stories individually or Pool Party Trap Loop as a whole, but it makes for an interesting case study, if nothing else.
To say that every story from “The Pork Shunter’s Fingers” to “Jelly Bodies” was a jawbreaker would be untrue; in truth, the disturbing content threaded through Ben Segal’s work appears to stem more from his desire to play with language and linguistic devices than a penchant for the macabre. This playful undercurrent surfaces most fully in stories such as “Childpainter,” where the multiplicity of meanings present in the title shapes its direction, as Arnold’s profession shifts from straightforward portrait artist into something much more nuanced and layered. Similarly in “EXERCISES,” the form of the story informs its content, as it is hinged on a series of writing prompts such as EXERCISE #1—JOURNALING and EXERCISE #4—WRITING WHAT YOU KNOW. A final example, “Me, I’m Looking Out,” has the narrator aware of their own creative power: “To make this a story for you, here is a twist or plot event: Swarm of insects, a black cloud engulfing this bus I’m on. What will happen is …” and here the story grows, in earnest, a pair of wings.
Less singularly playful stories in the collection, such as the grim “Mrs. Van Pelt’s Class Is Not Coming to the Assembly,” still use a quality of humor to inform their darkness, as in: “Willie got told his mouth was too big for his head one too many times, so he just opened himself up.” It’s not that Segal’s more lighthearted stories are enough to buoy the reader up out of the depths of their horror; rather, this pleasure in self-creation, more than anything, makes the worst of them (content-wise) a little easier to bear. It’s alright, somehow, to imagine a cow’s organs slipping seamlessly from a hole in its side the size of a plate after reading about a magical night in which all of the hedgehogs take an evening off cooking dinner at home and treat themselves to a meal out in the town (notwithstanding the Worm King).
Ben Segal refers to his collection as “assembling a mess of disparate stories into something more properly resembling a book.” The end result is a bit more of an achievement than that. He has created a dazzling world in Pool Party Trap Loop, one I’m surprised—and not a little relieved—to find contained within the pink spiral portal of this book.
Carolyn DeCarlo is an American writer living in New Zealand. She has written a chapbook, Strawberry Hill (Pangur Ban Party, 2013) and co-authored two chapbooks, Twilight Zone (NAP, 2013) and Bound: An Ode to Falling in Love (Compound Press, 2014), with Jackson Nieuwland. You can find her @carodecarlo.