Editors at publishing houses typically advise authors to put their best short story first in a collection. As in so many things, if the author can't grab the reader right out the gate, his or her attention can easily be lost.
It's a piece of advice clearly taken to heart by author Sharma Shields for her book Favorite Monster. Its opening is so strong, so predictive of what is to come, that if you're not hooked then, you never will be.
"We were all surprised when Brian hired the Cyclops. His references only spoke Greek. His sole experience was shepherding. It was uncertain if he could commit to two years."
And from there, the literary ride just gets stranger.
The bulk of the collection is short pieces of magical realism that cover everything from dating the office Cyclops to the perils of having Medusa as a childhood friend to the pitfalls of having dentures whose personal chemistry with your girlfriend outshines your own.
Those stories are short and sharp, each of them picking an absurd and monstrous concept and taking it for granted to build a story around. Shields depicts a flirtatious relationship between a woman and a man she knows to be a serial killer, and explores a world in which Tylenol causes hallucinations of a perky blonde cheerleader. The prose is snappy, the characters intriguing and the concepts so charmingly bizarre that it is hard not to get sucked in.
Brains and Beauty, the sixth story in the collection, is especially good in its recounting of a young Medusa. The story's narrator spends her life secretly glad that Medusa turned her brother to stone as a child because he was such a bully. Medusa, on the other hand, descends into depression and mental illness over the incident. The stone brother is kept in the family living room like a statue and sometimes in the yard like a bird feeder. His sister dresses him up when she is bored. It is strange and sad and funny all at once.
But the collection has a few non-monster stories tossed in as well. "Antropolist" recounts two sisters competing with one another as they start a business selling ant farms. "Sunshine and the Predator" is a disturbing coming-of-age tale that plays out between high-school girls during a summer job at a rundown amusement park.
But the most compelling of the bunch is "Pulchrutudinous," the story of a teen grocery clerk and her complicated friendship with an older co-worker who she alternately defends and wrongs in the worst possible way.
Favorite Monsters is not perfect. A few short pieces feel like forgettable filler but its best moments manage to surpass the brilliant opening sentences by maintaining the same absurdity and wit, delivering them inside stories of unexpected substance.