Erin Pringle’s collection Unexpected Weather Events is filled with stories that immerse you in vivid depictions of modern life.
Sharma Shields wrote of the book:
“In Erin Pringle’s breathtaking story collection Unexpected Weather Events ghosts arrive on wintry nights, the sky bleeds red snow, a hole opens up between heaven and hell, and characters learn to grieve, to laugh, to love, even as the harrowing world around them shudders and quakes with loss. The themes and tone in these pages—at turns deadpan and compassionate, always wise and complex—converse beautifully with the fiction of Miriam Toews and Agota Kristof. This book reminded me: We are not alone in our sorrow; there are always new ways—even in a petrifying darkness—to see and to love.”
September Song by Agnes Obel – This song serves to set the sound space for sitting down with the book. To prepare you, dear reader, for the melodic patterns and variations on a theme—with enough breaks from the pattern to emphasize the familiarity that has been interrupted just before it returns, which is not unlike the experience of reading the stories one after another.
My Lover will Go by Ane Brun – In the first story, “Another Cancer Story,” a husband and wife with two children have separated, but when the man is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he moves back into the house. “My Lover will Go” seems like a song that, as soon as the woman heard it, would bring that aching comfort to her. It would be a song she listened to alone in the car, outside of the very hard air of watching, with their children, her husband fade toward his end.
Gun Song by the Lumineers – The second story in the collection takes place on Valentine’s Day and follows the after-dark walk of three brothers to the nearby grocery. Their mother is on her first date since their father died by suicide six years ago. Over the course of their walk, we learn that the mother has moved them to a new house, new region in an effort to find some sort of chance of healing or whatever it is she’s trying to fix by distancing themselves from their father’s death. This song would certainly be one that the eldest, Tam, would blast in his bedroom when everyone else was gone except maybe his mother, as his way of grieving is to punish her for the tragedy because he has no other place to set his anger.
How to Disappear Completely by Radiohead – “In the Land of Mad Winters” follows a woman out of her house and into the dark, snowy night; she shovels the snow from the sidewalk while inside, her partner and their son prepare for bed. At one point, the snow turns red and she begins wondering whether it’s blood or she has gone mad:
“She expected madness to be more frantic and to arrive much earlier than now. Not here among Christmas lights while her partner holds out their child’s pajama pants for him to step into. But, of course, this is how it works. She can’t tell [her partner] about this. Instead, she’ll shovel the snow all night—the whole block, neighborhood, for miles. She’ll climb onto roofs and dust off the trees. Bag the snow and stuff it in the trash bins. She’ll call the city in the morning for off-day garbage collection.”
Like the lone voice in Radiohead’s “How to Disappear Completely,” she feels trapped both by the world and her perception of the world, and cannot dissever whether there’s a difference. As a child, she was a foster child handed from one family to another, but as an adult now with her own family, the trauma of that childhood has begun to feel over and done with, finally, and the world a far more predictable place—but the snow’s sudden change echoes those tumultuous times. Her love for her family and her desire for stability comes through in the lengths she imagines taking in order to hide the world’s unpredictable ways and/or her madness from them. A kind of disappearing act. Hence, the song, and its isolated and surreal tone.
River Man by Nick Drake – When listening to this song, I have always thought of the Riverman as the mythic Ferryman Charon who rows the living to death across the River Styx. In art and literature, rivers have often symbolized a washing, a resurrection, a baptismal rebirth, and in the story “Chair, $75 OBO,” a woman sits in her house looking out her window, only to see her dead sister drive up in the old gray car her sister drove many years ago. The sister comes to the door and knocks. Our main character isn’t sure what to do with it, for surely it couldn’t be her sister, and yet when she opens the door, it is her sister—same face, same hair, same clothing, same name—but her sister doesn’t recognize her. She’s come to answer the ad for a used chair. Our main character ponders ghosts—what it is to be one, and how much since her sister’s suicide, she has wanted to see her sister again:
“If that is her sister’s ghost, this is exactly what she’ll do. She’ll get a knife from the kitchen and cut her sister’s death off her as one cuts scales from a fish, shadows from feet, memories from time. So, it’s just her sister. That’s what she probably misses most. Having a sister without a death.”
The lyrics to Riverman seem to echo that double-vision of having a dead sister and wishing for a living one—that loss—that desire; either of the sisters could easily be the voice for what Betty in the song reports:
Betty said she prayed today
For the sky to blow away
Or maybe stay
She wasn’t sure
For when she thought of summer rain
Calling for her mind again
She lost the pain
And stayed for more
Gonna see the river man
Gonna tell him all I can
About the ban
On feeling free
The Peppery Man by Natalie Merchant (poem by Arthur Macy) – In the story “Room Under the Stairs,” a child relates how the war came to the rural town where she lives with her mother. The way she speaks of the war is not dissimilar from how The Peppery Man is described, and because the song appears on Merchant’s album Leave Your Sleep, which features lullaby-like songs with familiar, folk-like rhythms, the song creates dissonance from an upbeat tempo and beautiful voice paired with descriptions of a strange, mean man—
His neighbors, when they heard his roars,
Closed their blinds and locked their doors,
Shut their windows, sought their beds,
Stopped their ears and covered their heads.
He fretted, chafed, and boiled and fumed;
With fiery rage he was consumed,
And no one knew, when he was vexed,
What in the world would happen next.
Heigh ho, the Peppery Man,
The rabid, crabbed Peppery Man!
Oh, never since the world began
Was any one like the Peppery Man.
In the same way “Room Under the Stairs” creates dissonance from the stereotypes of children as innocent and pure paired with war—the story of a child’s intimate experiences living in a warzone: “Each day, the girl can hear more people leaving their houses. If she were at a window, she’d think they were going to church or work. [. . .] The families drive past the day care, past the school buses parked or overturned in the streets—the rot of sweaty, dead kids wafting from the lowered windows.”
And yet, despite that dissonance, we learn that before the war, like any child living in the United States, she and her classmates have been preparing for death in school, which is not a safe sanctuary that many readers might expect:
“Before the war, the girl and her classmates practiced for tornados, fire, lone shooters. The town’s tornado alarm would come on, and the teacher and children would file into the hallway and crouch by the lockers, fingers interlaced behind their necks. The building’s fire alarm would go off, and the children would file outside, to the far corner of the playground where their teacher would read roll call. Shelter-in-place drills were announced over the intercom by the secretary, and every classroom would answer with darkness and children watching the clock while the children who knew why these drills happened, imagined the sound of one pair of sneakers running down the hallway, the breeze of his body rippling the handprint butterflies hung in the hallway. Gunfire popping off in the library or cafeteria—maybe the janitor’s closet where the special-ed teacher taught kids to read.”
Moon River sung by Andy Williams, composed by Henry Mancini – Against the backdrop of Christmas during the pandemic, an adult woman returns to visit her elderly mother. She finds that her mother has been spending a lot of time gathering household objects, decorations, clothing, and keepsakes in order to sell them online or give them away. The daughter is surprised and taken aback since much of her relationship to her mother and the house has always seemed to exist in the objects—and the family stories and childhood memories they trigger in her. A retelling of the Nativity story, “The Visit” seems to fit in more ways than one “the two drifters” in Moon River; the young couple who arrive in the middle of the night with their newborn, and the mother and daughter who might play Moon River on the record player. The song is of the mother’s era—a drifting, disappearing world that the daughter recognizes for the first time as toward its end.
Fourth of July by Sufjan Stevens – This has always seemed like a love song about my best friend Alexa and me, and so I pair it with the story “A Game of Telephone,” which I wrote shortly after Alexa’s death. The story is my own kind of love song, though we never went to a yard sale or bought toy telephones—it is the story’s experience of yearning and wish that conveys the loss of my best friend more accurately than I could in non-fiction.
It will Follow the Rain by The Tallest Man on Earth – I have always found the after-rain intensity of sky and grass and trees and barns incredibly important to experience. The beauty, the vivid brief change on my vision. I have associated a post-rain world with my father who collected cameras and took many, many photographs. In the last work in the book, the novella Water Under a Different Sky takes place just after rain. And it is in that vivid, short moment that the main character rides her bike down the country road that connects her house to the stone quarry a mile away, only to discover a mass genocide taking place. The song “It will Follow the Rain” is one of the only pieces of art that I’ve encountered that recognizes that moment after rain, and I appreciate both that affirmation of my human experience, as well as the song’s voice asking if you’ve seen what he’s seen, all set in motion by the notes propelling the song both ahead and back. The story, too, has that cyclical movement to and back—time, grief, memory, and past shifting in ways that create echoes that the girl recognizes or perhaps becomes in the final moments.
Vladimir’s Blues by Max Richter – This seems the best song to close the book to—to spend the musical space of this orchestration experiencing the residual feelings of reading the stories in Unexpected Weather Events. Its movement and variations, in addition to the abrupt ending, seem to fit the tone of the previous songs’ relationships to the stories.
Erin Pringle grew up in Casey, Illinois and now lives in Spokane, Washington. She is the author of the novel HEZADA! I MISS YOU (Awst Press, 2020), and two other story collections: The Whole World at Once (Vandalia Press/West Virginia University Press, 2017) and The Floating Order (Two Ravens Press, 2009).