9 Stories About Different Kinds of Prisons
We’re releasing short fiction from Ottessa Moshfegh, Helen Phillips, Gabe Habash, Jensen Beach and more about the ways and places we find ourselves trapped
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Whether by a physical place, an emotional cycle, or an unbreakable habit, there are lots of ways to find yourself trapped. At one point or another, many of us have been stuck in a bad relationship, felt confined by circumstances, or, perhaps most dangerous of all, we’ve hidden, thinking ourselves happy, in a prison of our own building. Reflecting on these experiences and reading stories about them means considering how one becomes imprisoned: Were poor choices made? Is there something we are denying or lying to ourselves about? Was, simply, a crime committed? And of course, is there a way out?
Usually, it’s not exactly pleasant to ask ourselves those questions, but fiction is a great mediator of introspection. From the Recommended Reading archives, we’ve released 9 stories by the likes of Angela Carter, Brian Evenson, and Mai Nardone that explore the dusty corners of all sorts of prisons: sexuality, gender, bad jobs, regret, and of course, literal exile.
For just $5 a month, members of Electric Literature get access to the complete Recommended Reading archives of over 290 stories — and year-round open submissions. Membership is tax-deductible, helps us pay writers, and keeps all of our new content free. So if you like what you’ve read, please join today!
“X” by Brian Evenson, recommended by Tor
Excerpted from ‘The Warren’
The Warren tells the story of a person named X — or maybe not a person, because what is a person, anyway? — trapped, alone, on a distant planet after a failed expedition. A quest for escape ensues, but when X realizes he has become stuck as a repository for souls without bodies, the story moves beyond mere survival to explore the confines of mortality. In this excerpt, we find X questioning the monitor about the history of the warren.
“The Orchids” by Noemi Jaffe, recommended by PEN America’s Glossolalia
Following the failed Hungarian Uprising in 1956, Jaffe’s narrator Írisz flees Budapest, leaving behind her mother and her lover Imre, a guerrilla in the revolutionary movement. When she arrives in São Paulo, Brazil, to study orchids, she piques the interest of Martim, the director of São Paulo’s Botanical Garden. Exiled in Brazil, Írisz immerses herself, even hides in, her work, writing rather unorthodox reports on newly discovered orchid species, mixing her observations of orchids with reflections on the differences between Portuguese and Hungarian, the Communist dream, her relationships with those around her and those she left behind, and our responsibilities to one another.
“The Apartments of Strangers” by Helen Phillips, recommended by Elliott Holt
Excerpted from The Beautiful Bureaucrat
The Beautiful Bureaucrat concerns a young married couple, Josephine and Joseph, newly arrived in a city reminiscent of New York. After being evicted from their apartment, they move from short-term sublet to sublet. Josephine starts a new job that has her stuck for hours a day in a windowless room, entering data that is not explained. Her husband, Joseph, does the same. With her usual mastery, Phillips finds the weird and fascinating in the mundane, and explores what happens when isolation closes in on the individuals in a marriage.
“The Box” by Arthur Bradford, recommended by John Hodgman
After losing his foot in a freak accident, Georgie buys a house with money from the settlement. His house is solitary and private, save for this mysterious box that he is not allowed to touch or move but will rest peacefully in his backyard. Georgie is powerless on his own land, bound by a contract that doesn’t seem to have any loopholes.But this being a Bradford story, comedy and weirdness pervade over the melancholy. As John Hodgman writes in the introduction, “The descent into the underworld is a staple of the hero’s journey according to Joseph Campbell; but only in an Arthur Bradford story would the hero peer into the underworld, shrug, lock it shut, and go get stoned.”
“Bettering Myself” by Ottessa Moshfegh, recommended by The Paris Review
The narrator of “Bettering Myself” is a problem drinker and Catholic school math teacher who says to her students, “Most people have had anal sex. Don’t look so surprised.” Still pining after a divorce and stuck in a web of addictions and bad decisions, Moshfegh, author of the acclaimed novel Eileen, brings a deadpan humor to a story about a wayward life and the difficulty of escaping it.
“Lady of the House of Love” by Angela Carter, recommended by Kelly Link
As a vampire story that invokes “Beauty and the Beast,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and perhaps at a stretch, “Rapunzel,” this tale is a classic, swooping Carter masterpiece and appeared in the posthumously published collection The Bloody Chamber. The titular lady is a countess and a vampire, trapped in her vampirism and her castle, let out at night by her governess to feed. As a child she was sated by small creatures, but now she is a woman and must have men. “Of the many works in Chamber, this one is Kelly Link’s favorite: “I love ‘The Lady of the House of Love’ for the luster of Carter’s language,” writes Link in the foreword, “[for] the tensile strength of the prose; its luscious, comical, fizzing theatricality.”
“In the Night of the Day Before” by Jensen Beach, recommended by Graywolf
There are two prisons in Jensen Beach’s story: memory and sexuality. A man named Martin hears the Eagles’s classic “Hotel California” and recalls a visit to San Francisco — and, perhaps more importantly, the stop he made en route. In San Luis Obispo, he met a young man, Cesar, at a bar and brought him back to his motel. Martin goes on to meet a woman in San Francisco, but it is Cesar — and the man Martin was when he was with him — that lingers in his mind when he returns to his normal life.
“Ourselves, A Little Better” by Mai Nardone, recommended by Territory
Each issue of Territory has a theme and each piece published is based off a map that embodies that theme. From the “Prisons” issue, Mai Nardone’ chose to work with a map of the Panopticon. The Panopticon, designed by the 18th century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, is a circular prison in which all inmates could be observed by a single watchman. It is either a utopian or dystopian structure, perfection or perversion, a mark of utilitarian progress or an overstepping of bounds. It is, like the luxury genetic modification program in this story, a thought experiment of potentially heinous capacity.
“No Alcohol, No Women, No Drugs, No Visitors” by Gabe Habash, recommended by Garth Greenwell
Excerpted from the novel STEPHEN FLORIDA
In this excerpt, Stephen visits an oil field on the recommendation of a career counselor. “One of Habash’s talents, in this and many other scenes, is to reveal the hilariously absurd in the crushingly banal,” writes Garth Greenwell in the introduction. The counselor’s nephew turns out to be even more severely off-kilter, more walled-off and strange, than Stephen himself; he lives alone, in an isolated house with an empty Octopus that he intends to fill. On the visit, Stephen is not only trapped in the man’s home, but is given a hellish vision of what a life trapped with your loneliness can become.