OH PAIN Is an Emotional Powerhouse of Short Stories

The follow up to his cosmic horror novella The Nothing That Is, OH PAIN (stylized in all capitals) is the upcoming short story collection from Kyle Winkler, an assistant professor at Kent State University at Tuscarawas. Winkler could not have chosen a better title for this collection. Every story is full of suffering, sadness, and uncertainty. Yes, some of them are difficult. The honesty that comes with this comes through the page and into your mind like a lightning bolt. Throughout the years of publication, Winkler explains in the afterword, his mother dealt with illness and pain. To channel this into writing can be incredibly cathartic, but I imagine it’s a double-edged sword to reopen wounds again and again. 

There’s strength in that, resilience. Promoting this alone must be a strange feeling, to open oneself so willingly. In a strange way, it made me feel closer to Winkler, whom I’ve never met but swapped several messages with over Twitter. He told me he wrote the stories to work through things, and now that the book is out there, it’s up to each reader to make with it what they wish.

While I do not have children (by choice), the themes of mothering, nurturing, and of loss still speak to me and bring me back to the difficult losses in my own life. We carry them with us, always, and their memories are passed on through us. My own novella is dedicated to a friend I lost to suicide. I was, and am, terrified of their memory fading until no one remembers they existed.

I’m making this sound like a lot of doom and gloom, but the other side to pain is how we deal with it—often, with humour. I laughed out loud several times while reading this book. “And Lo! It was Thursday in Ohio” is about an angel who eats garbage and is forced to do menial work for the city after the death of God. Every citizen is required to put up blackout curtains to avoid (supposed) blindness and to paint blood on their doors to signal to the angel. It’s portrayed as an annoyance and mundane event, on the same level as washing dishes, although you have to keep a bucket of fresh blood around for garbage day. It’s hilarious and bizarre in the best way. Each story is accompanied by a simple illustration by Claudia Lundahl that adds a personal touch like you’re reading from someone’s notebook.

The cover for The Nothing That Is by Kyle Winkler. The skull of a T-Rex is overlaid on a triangle, with a small tower on the bottom of the image

“Teratology,” on the other hand, involves a young girl who alters the very DNA of those she comes into contact with like a walking biological time bomb, as regaled in an interview by the man that studied her who is now riddled with health problems. “I want to see how this all plays out,” he says of his failing body. Spoken like a true scientist. Interviews or scientific retellings are some of my favourite literary styles. “Every Day You’ll Get Up And Go To Work” is both an introduction to a job and annoyance at the minutia of janitorial work cleaning up after a colossal monstrous woman. Men fall in her mouth while cleaning the lips or nose. They are lost causes.” You are another body and easily replaced, but that would be such a pain. And the paperwork! Don’t screw it up.

The book opens with “Bite,” which is about a woman obsessed with chewing on her baby. The descriptions of smells and the physical act of nibbling on a child are quite vivid, setting the tone for what’s to come in the rest of the collection. In fact, many of the stories focus on the senses—smell and taste, in particular. One affects the other and vice versa. It’s often hard to visualize stories for me, but I had no problem with that here, even with the extreme subject matter. Does it produce a reaction from the reader? Definitely. I was completely engrossed. It’s a level of detail that is wonderful and grotesque. If you’re put off by a story about baby chomping, well, it’s probably not the book for you. And that’s just fine. 

Horror is beautiful because of how varied it can be. There is no single definition. What causes unease or fear in one person is laughable to another. I’m quite an emotional person; I admit this freely. When I thought about these stories, especially “Beehunter,” it stirred up some stuff for me. The protagonist Lowry assists his ailing mother and attempts to give her a nice night out, but it’s cut short by her pain and discomfort. She becomes stuck in the bathroom, embarrassed and ashamed as her son helps her. To care for someone so deeply and watch them decline is something many of us can relate to. I lost every grandparent by the time I turned 14. Reading this and thinking about them, some lost to Alzheimer’s and others to unfortunate events, I started crying. Consider my tears a stamp of approval, even if that makes me sound like the lead singer of an emo band from the early 2000s.

OH PAIN might be my favourite collection I’ve read all year. It reminds me of the power of writing and how effective it can be at producing a real emotional reaction from a reader. I did not go in expecting this, but I’m glad for the time I spent with it. I highly recommend picking this up if my review piqued your interest.

A digital copy of OH PAIN was provided by the author for review purposes. It releases on November 15th, 2021.

Looking for more horror book reviews from November 2021? We’ve got you:

“Field Notes from a Nightmare Hits Close to Home with Eco-Horror”

“Why the Monsters in White Smoke Are Overdue”

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Written by Lor Gislason

Lor is a body horror enthusiast from Vancouver Island, Canada who can be found chilling with their two cats and playing farming simulators. Find them on Twitter: @lorelli_

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