As lyricist for the chilling Chicago country duo The Handsome Family, Rennie Sparks has revealed a shockingly intense literary voice. Her songs (husband Brett writes the music and sings) work like little Gothic nuggets, paeans to death and darkness with just enough twisted humor to escape the pull of horror. Not so in Evil, Sparks' impressively and relentlessly grim book of short stories, which offers no glimpse of Biblical redemption or fable-like detachment. Composed entirely in the first person, and almost exclusively from a female perspective, the collection provides a harrowing glimpse at self-hatred and psychological turmoil, with occasional moments of levity rooted in a reality so harsh that it's tough to find any of it especially funny. From sticky fumblings with trashy boys behind the mall to eating disorders, drugs, sickness, suicide, murder, and mental illness, Evil hardly amounts to a raving endorsement of humanity. Instead, Sparks' self-published first work of fiction portrays the most human tendencies—vanity, jealousy, self-esteem, hurt, worry—as steps on the path to our destruction. Sparks' prose works best when she's writing from an adolescent's vantage, portraying the awkward lives of mallrats craving attention and acceptance, or of friendships unraveling over time; "Skanks," "Dirtbags," and "Stuffed" all similarly but effectively cover this territory. But most unnerving may be "Cranes," a creepy tale of a silently disintegrating marriage that concludes with a tense insinuation of domestic violence that's more disturbing than a description of the act itself would have been. These especially short short stories could use a little more space to breathe, and Sparks might benefit from a greater narrative diversity, but in their simplicity her scabrous tales leave behind an aftertaste of nasty truth that's hard to forget. (contact: brennie@mindspring.com)

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