How They Were Found
By Matthew Bell
Keyhole Press, 2010
Review by Emily Hendren

Through themes of loss, love, recovery, health, and rebirth, former Helmlock native Matt Bell charts a course of refreshing creativity in his collection of short stories How They Were Found. His stories, at times hopeful and at other times horrifying, capture the essence of the human spirit and cast into it the unexpected lightness of the impossible. He is as much a scientist as he is a poet, as much a romantic as he is a detective.


Bell opens the collection with tale of missed romance, of fear over illness, of worry over loss. Although the story is told in third person, Bell’s narration gives the reader the feeling of being inside the cartographer, mapping his every move as he maps the way to his girl. The language and paragraph use builds a sense of urgency that parallel’s the mapmaker’s search for his love. The mystery of the unsaid propels the certainty of what is.


Similar to “The Cartographer’s Girl,” in “The Receiving Tower,” the characters the reader meets are entirely male, in search of and longing for the lost women and families of their once fulfilling lives. Bell thrusts the reader into a world of dismal horror blanketed by a curtain of suspicion and confusion for both the characters and the reader, a curtain that only lets up when the saddest realization of the story comes to fruition: the one character the reader believed had held on to his sanity has in fact forgotten his identity all together and lives the life he and the Captain created for him. “The Receiving Tower” demands the reader focus on life’s hardest questions and self-reflect upon the old age’s unknowns, the loneliness within professional monotony, and the meaning of friendships lost.


“His Last Great Gift” shares the story of spiritual-inspired obsession and how it creates and destroys those involved. Bell’s parallel between the protagonist, Spear, and Joseph—or at times God—from the Christian faith story of Mary, Joseph, and the virgin’s son Jesus adds tension and unease to the tale. The traditional aspects of the Christian faith story traced throughout take a backseat to the modern twists as the New Motor—or new savior—comes to life. Reverend Spear lacks the spiritual purity he searches for in his congregation, family, and followers, and is ultimately enslaved by and sacrificed for the machine he claimed would offer him rebirth.


Bell continues his themes of growth and endless possibilities through new life in “Her Ennead.” Like the nine Egyptian deities to which the title might refer, the mother in the story gives thought and praise to her growing belly and baby. The connection of the meaning of the word “ennead,” a collection of nine things, and the nine months of pregnancy the protagonist experiences offer a quirky platform for imaginative exploration of the stages of gestation. Perhaps to highlight the universal qualities of motherhood, Bell leaves the woman in the story and her child nameless, and the reader sees the imaginative possibilities of a fetus as she calls her baby a joke, a seed, a stone, a thunderstorm, a bird, a knife, a furred thing, and finally a boy or a girl and all the potentials for the rest of its life.


As much a startling story as it is a frightening metaphor for the lessons we face in life, “Hold on to Your Vaccuum” embraces violence as a means of consequence and implies cleverness as the only way to beat the game. The title, creative and witty, and the introductory paragraphs which portray a vacuum- carrying game between children, hint at a light-hearted tale to come that dissolves almost immediately, as the instructor of the game, Teacher, bores a drill into the head of the young narrator. What does the vacuum symbolize? Like so many things in his stories, Bell leaves this mystery to be unwoven by the reader.


The subdued mystery and fear present in the previous stories rises to the surface as a horrifying murder mystery in “Dredge.” Bell takes the reader on a journey into the psyche of a deranged hunter, who transitions throughout from damaged young boy in juvie to vengeance-seeking detective with a murder victim in his freezer to an indifferent murderer himself. The inerasable impacts of a tortured youth raise the question what are the costs of the unforgettable?


In this story Bell addresses issues of art and audience and the beauty and concerns that arise when the two coexist. The snapshots of this one story are not unlike the quick scenes the reader sees throughout Bell’s collection of stories; each has a place of its own with individual characters and purpose, but by the end, the threads that connect each scene appear much stronger than originally interpreted.


Bell calls upon his creative genius and the mastery of legends to stitch together a beautiful and jarring rendition of Little Red Riding Hood. The overlapping of themes of rape, female empowerment, incest, love, traditions of the generations, and murder creates a bond between humankind and “animalkind,” women and men, older and younger, and clever and fooled. The spinning top of the story has the reader wondering was Red victim or victimizer—and ultimately accepting both.


Short and to the point, “Mantodea” follows a self-destructive male on a sexual encounter in a grungy bar bathroom and home to a grungier junk drawer. As the species mantodea cast themselves upon and devour their prey vigorously, the male protagonist does so with his sexual partner and the suicidal nails and shards of glass he swallows at home. Bell’s use of forceful imagery and the uncertainties of psychological distress leave the reader uneasy.


“The Leftover” offers a welcomed return to the romance Bell shares in the first short story of the book, “The Cartographer’s Girl.” The uncertain path of “what now?” that everyone faces after a breakup takes an imaginative and endearing path here, proving that self-reflection after loss can be both meaningful and necessary for healing.


Through the innocence of a lovable, unknowing boy, Bell captures the complexities of family life and the aftermath of a mother’s suicide. Bell makes simple words beautiful and layered; the boy’s perspective on death, alcoholism, and hope for the future transport the reader to a time of youth and render a sense of deepened sadness that the child, though he does not yet realize, has already started to grow old.


In this touching and chilling tale of two brothers and the house they took years to trap themselves in, Bell explores the metaphor of the walls we build around ourselves and the damage they cause. His creativity seems endless as he logs tales of Homer and Langley’s final days, their family history, and the trails of decades old garbage that litter the halls with memories tangible and not.


In this story, Bell makes clear that the only way to process murder throughout family history is to catalog it in an index, something stale, unfeeling and scientific. Bell ends the book on the most dismal of notes yet, perhaps leaving the reader to find hope of his own, perhaps intending to send the reader off disheartened and fearful of his own death. Perhaps to instill the necessity of life’s beauty and beat and its index of unspoken reasons to live life fully.

Bell faces rebirth and the chronology of life through time; his characters look back to past memories and experiences, dwelling on what was and how to return to that time, or they press onward, seemingly destined to change the course of the future—the text in which they exist their only tie to the present. Bell transports the reader into the mind of each protagonist, allowing their thoughts to become the dialogue and opening up more of them to the reader for study. He is a master of mystery and a practiced crafter of speaking through that which is unsaid. How They Were Found explores the darkest core of human nature and proves the value and necessity of diving into the often unknown pool of self-reflection.

For more information, see related interview and visit Bell's website.

©Emily Hendren, 2011