by Jody DiPerna
“I will lay in bed at night with my anxiety and try to dream up ways to dig myself out of the problems I’ve created for myself.”
Meagan Lucas’ imagination is a wild place, roiling with danger, women pushed to the edge, and everyday demons. There are cruel men and the dangers of pervasive gun culture. Characters navigate loss and grief, poverty and neglect. They battle abuse, addiction and systemic indifference. They do dumb things. They do brave things, too, even when some of those courageous choices might be ethically questionable.
Every story leaves the reader breathless.
“I really liked playing with the almost weird, because I think that describes so much of our lives and wishful thinking, especially amongst desperate people,” Lucas said. “We can so easily go down ‘what if road’ and start dreaming about something coming to save us.” Lucas said.
Lucas’ publisher for this collection is Shotgun Honey, an imprint that publishes crime thriller fiction and these are, as she describes, crime-related stories. But they are crimes of the everyday variety, as Lucas says, since they revolve around people in need of money and escape and relief. There are no big complicated heists and mastermind criminals; rather her characters are women facing tough situations: How can I feed my kids? What if there is a school shooting? How do I escape this implicit threat?
In her imagination, she can be both better and worse than she really is — she can be fearless and beat down, wicked and selfless, audacious and timid.
All 16 stories in this collection are told from the point of view of women — isolated wives, a kindly neighbor, women lost in grief, sex workers, women with substance use disorders, police detectives, incarcerated women, and mothers separated from their children at the border.
The ordinary, implicit threats that women often face come to life with immediacy and skill in “Buttons,” a story about a lonesome little girl who lives with her grandmother in a backwoods house and whose playground is the woods and the creek beyond. A boy, a bit older than Tillie, arrives creekside and somehow, Lucas lets us know that he is dangerous. Even as a child, his vibe lets us know he will hurt girls, will enjoy making them squirm — he’s a boy who likes watching girls be scared. Tillie’s response is unexpected.
“I’ve had too many encounters with that boy in my life — sometimes he’s been a boy and sometimes he’s been a man. That quiet sort of complete willfulness, that they’re just so used to getting whatever they want,” Lucas said.
“We’ve all been there. It’s always about trying to squeeze out of the situation, but she didn’t. She messed him up which — I enjoy that. That would never be me.”
Lucas understands that it seems like there are some really terrible men in these stories and there are a lot of them, even if they aren’t all terrible. Even though, in real life, she has some wonderful men surrounding her — her imagination wants to explore these unsparing places.
In both “Porchlight Salvation,” the first story she wrote for this collection, and “Hell or High Water,” Lucas takes the reader inside abusive relationships.
“You know that you’re being hurt but you love them anyway, and you keep kind of making all these excuses for why they’re hurting you,” Lucas said of trying to get in the heads of these women. Just as importantly, the abusers never even appear in the stories: neither of the men are ever on camera. The reader knows them only through the fears and actions of the women. These are hard spaces to dwell in, sometimes. But the short story provides a form where one can do that, according to Lucas.
“When you’re writing a short story, it’s an intense package. It’s a whole universe in a hand bag. You’re going to live there for a short while and then move onto something dark in a different way,” she said.
“None of my stories are light-hearted.”
One of the more gutting stories is “You Know What They Say about Karma,” which revolves around several folks making bad decisions with Chekov’s gun waiting to go off.
Others are Lucas’ way of writing her characters into a bind and then out of that corner and into a different bind. She says that she thinks about things like, “What if I just found gold in this roadkill,” which–spoiler alert–does happen. But even knowing that, “Picking the Carcass” is a story about more than gold found in an unlikely place.
Lucas teaches in the Professional Writing Program at Robert Morris University and is the editor in chief at Reckon Review, a literary magazine that publishes prose stories. One of the stories in this collection was born of the pressures of running a literary journal, teaching, raising two kids and writing with everybody at home during the first wave of the pandemic. The result is “Frogs in a Pot,” which is kind of what a lot of parents felt like during that time — a bunch of frogs in a single pot with the heat turned way up.
The final and titular story of “Here in the Dark” is less a coda than an overture to Lucas’ 2019 novel, “Songbirds and Stray Dogs,” which was chosen to represent North Carolina in the Library of Congress 2022 Route 1 Reads program. She felt pulled to revisit one of the characters from that, her first, novel.
“Cora didn’t get her due. I felt like I felt like I needed to grow up a bit in order to write and really give her what she needed. I think I needed to turn 40 and just give a whole lot fewer f***s,” Lucas said.
“She doesn’t make very good decisions sometimes, but I think that she’s also the hero of her own story.”
That’s what Lucas does so well throughout all of these stories–she’s generous to these women who are easily overlooked, dismissed, belittled. These are women who don’t often get the spotlight and who we don’t often hear from. It gives the collection intimacy and guts.
“It’s been such a long journey,” Lucas said. “It’s crazy personal and I tried to pull no punches, so it’s nerve racking to have some of that stuff out in the world.”