The Dark Core of Predation: A Review of Justine McNulty’s Sweet Rot by Cassidy Clayton

Justine Aimee McNulty’s debut collection of short stories, Sweet Rot, explores the dark truths of the natural world in subtle yet ingenious ways. A graduate of the University of Cincinnati with a Master of Arts in Fiction, McNulty has been published in Confrontation Magazine, The Masters Review: New Voices, Juked, Pif Magazine, and Miracle Monocle. McNulty currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but her stories are based on influential places of her upbringing: her stepmother’s cabin in London, KY and her grandmother’s home in Narragansett, RI. The repetition of almost-familiar scenes creates an immersive background that narrates different aspects of the same theme: how humans interact with, and are influenced by, the natural world.

The first story of twelve, “Tiny Little Teeth,” sets the mood for the rest of the book. Brimming with suspense, gore, and a never-ending sense of foreboding, McNulty casts a light into the dark core of predation. Animals of all kinds lurk within McNulty’s reclusive forest, some lying just “amidst the dark trees, yellow eyes flashing, wide and patient in the gloom.” The unease in this beautifully crafted atmosphere drips off the pages, crawls up one’s arms and lurks over your shoulder. As the darkness of the story envelops you, you begin to empathize with McNulty’s characters—feeling not just the external pressures of their circumstances, but their internal discomfort as well.

Inside these exquisitely detailed forests, McNulty captures small-town living as it wrestles with its own inner beasts. In the second story, “Tierkling,” animals in captivity provide an astute reflection of the hearts and minds of children. Reality, as McNulty is sure to establish, is nothing like the pure imagination of the young. Some may believe in an implicit primordial connection to animals of all kinds, showing special affection to those perceived as less than threatening. McNulty challenges them to reconsider. The only relationship that truly exists between prey and predator is a natural one. Keeping reptiles, rabbits, mice, piranhas and more and expecting them to behave as if they are not agents of nature is not just unnatural, but especially cruel. As a group of children collectively lose all naïveté, McNulty re-conceptualizes what it means to live on the wild side. Before the last page is turned, you will have to confront your own beasts. Would you be willing to let them out to play?

In the third story, the scenery changes to a charming seaside residence. True to form, “Only in Pieces” slowly restructures itself into a repugnant horror. A subtle, creeping feeling rests heavily in the reader’s gut so that even landlocked readers can experience the dread the main character feels. McNulty uses the new scenery and wildlife to explore other themes of loneliness and disorder, themes that continue to stalk the characters inside McNulty’s stories. More seaside stories can be found throughout the book intertwining with stories set in the forest, with each story becoming more disturbing than the last. The stakes continually rise until there is no doubt that each story is tragic—but to what extent? What starts as a bad feeling can quickly turn to unimaginable horror, but McNulty never finishes with the conspicuous, always turning the story to look back on itself. The last seaside story, “The Things We Know to be True,” begins with a death yet the unraveling of the story manipulates any kind of resolution you may want to jump to—you simply have to find out for yourself. This story, as the finale to the book, wraps with a scene so enthralling I lost track of time, yet so gentle it brought tears to my eyes.

McNulty expertly crafts each story to evoke the same feelings we tend to bury. In Sweet Rot there is no hiding, for you or the characters. Full of tension and attention to detail, no one can escape the gravity of these events. As the stories continue to switch between sceneries, McNulty includes grief and violence as surely as the water of the sea ebbs and flows. Every character walks away with a hard-learned lesson, emulating the folktales of the past with a hint of noir. Every reader walks away with a tremendous appreciation for the natural world, perhaps spending a moment to evaluate their own inner beast. Undeniably resonant with rich descriptions of the bonds between animal and human, each story includes a different moral truth—sometimes cathartic, sometimes terrifying, but always resoundingly accurate.

Sweet Rot, published by Finishing Line Press in 2019, is cover-priced at $19.99 US and can be purchased or ordered from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and most other bookstores. Every story blends perfectly into one another, creating an elaborate and sentimental world of the grotesque, constantly calling into question who in the natural world are the real predators. McNulty’s collection is a masterful page-turner until the very end. To read the writer's work in a recent issue of Miracle Monocle, visit Issue 7

CASSIDY CLAYTON is an associate editor of Miracle Monocle.