Thursday, January 10, 2008

Down to a Sunless Sea

Down to a Sunless Sea is one of the most unusual short story collections that I have ever read. What makes this collection different from most is the way that Matt Freese varies his writing style from story to story to match the mental state and speaking style of each of his main characters, a technique that does not allow his readers to get comfortable with a “Matt Freese writing style,” but one that definitely increases the impact of each of his stories.

Plot is secondary in the fifteen stories offered here. Instead, Freese has written stories that seek to give a clear picture of what it is like inside the mind of damaged individuals who are struggling to make their way in the world. Some have suffered physical damage or they are handicapped. Others, for multiple reasons, are the victims of mental illnesses of various sorts that make it impossible for them to fully function in the everyday world.

Make no mistake. This is a dark and disturbing series of stories. Some of Freese’s characters offer inspiration but, for the most part, the reader finds that their situations are unlikely to improve and that they will probably continue to experience life as misfits, outcasts, or worse. Freese knows of which he writes. These stories were written over the course of thirty years, twenty-five of which Freese spent in the practice of psychotherapy or as a clinical social worker. They are about people he knows, including even members of his own family.

What is most remarkable about the collection is how Freese is able to make the reader feel solid empathy for each of his characters. Their minds and bodies may be impaired but his characters come across as real, sympathetic human beings deserving to be understood and respected for the people they are. They want nothing more out of life than we all want, and they deserve no less.

Among my favorites of the stories is “Herbie,” in which a boy holds onto his ambition and dreams despite living with a father who seems determined to physically and verbally abuse the boy into believing that he is worthless. But, damaged as he is by fear of his father and the abuse he suffers at his hands, Herbie keeps his dreams alive at least for now. And then there is “Little Errands,” a story about a man with a phobia about the mail system. He can never be certain that he actually placed something in the mail and fears that he might have somehow misplaced it and only thinks that he mailed it. And, if he actually mailed it, what are the chances that it will slip into some crack inside the mailbox that is inaccessible to the postman when he comes to gather the box’s contents? He can hardly bear to think of all the things that can happen to a mailed item before it reaches the destination for which he intends it.

Not all fifteen of the stories work for me but Matt Freese has created so many unforgettable characters that I find his collection to be well worth reading. He offers insights into people and situations that only someone of his experience could possibly offer, and despite the nature of his stories readers coming to them with an open mind will be happy that they did.

Rated at: 4.0


  1. Sam, thanks for the review. I'm still looking for good short story collections to use as part of the Short Story Reading Challenge. This one sounds like a winner.

  2. I'm another reluctant short story reader, but really must find a collection to start Kate's challenge.

    The title of your collection is from "Kubla Khan" by Coleridge, and I would have chosen it for that reason alone, but I don't want an entire collection of dark and disturbing...

  3. Lisa, just beware of it's "darkness" and frankness. That's the theme of this collection and it can be a bit daunting at times...but is a very worthy collection of short stories, most of them only 4-6 pages in length.

  4. Jenclair, in that case, this is not one you want to read right now. It is a short collection, though, so you might want to give it a look sometime.


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