“Big Bad” Pushes the Boundaries of Both Its Characters and Its Readers

Former contributing editor for The Weeklings and editorial board member for The Big Jewel, 2020 Pushcart Prize winner Whitney Collins constructs Big Bad, a deliciously dark world in which anything is possible and the most horrifying is probable. Whitney has published numerous short stories, both in an anthology and across literary journals, while also penning nonfiction pieces for Huffington Post, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Salon.

Big Bad, Whitney Collins’ first standalone short story collection, lives in a realm between reality and surreality. Characters are forced to face their own inner darkness and acknowledge the sides of themselves that they’d rather not see. A young girl roots for the survival of one prematurely born twin brother over the other and delights in their ‘horrendous’ appearance; a young couple struggles to open up to one another; a husband decides to up and leave his family because he’s tired of his obligations and responsibilities. These are all scenarios that we can relate to, even if they are cringeworthy. Where Collins really sets this collection apart is within her surrealistic pieces.

In the book’s namesake story, a woman is reborn from herself numerous times until she reaches her inner strength: a feral, awe-inspiring, no-nonsense creature that her previous iterations wouldn’t even recognize and would certainly fear. In another, literal hearts seek out and almost become unruly pets to a lonely woman until she’s ready to love. The stories combine to create a series of situations where the main character reaches for the strength, the healing, the love, or the hope that we all crave on some primal level.

I would go so far as to say that these stories have an agenda. “The Entertainer” blatantly calls out eating disorders and the world’s twisted perception of how they’re to be handled. Collins writes, “She just stares at Rachel as Rachel eats, chews her lower lip as Rachel chews, and it occurs to Rachel, as the plane whirs on slow and rich, as the girls splay warm and drunk, that Davenport’s lower lip and Devlin’s fingernails are the way they are not because the girls are scared or bored, but because they’re starving.” In another section, Collins has the girls staring at a menu as if it’s pornography, ordering anything and everything just so they can watch Rachel eat and imagine that they are able to themselves.

“The Good Guys” addresses the deep-seated need to be liked while also demonstrating the horrible lengths a person is willing to go to when they think someone else should live a certain way. Innocence is looked down on and the main character, Teddy, takes it upon himself to ‘help’ the new kid, who he deems a bit naïve. It all results in a ruined life and guilt that Teddy carried for decades and will likely never be rid of.

These pieces are unapologetic when it comes to the issues that are generally swept under the rug. This bold approach is truly refreshing. This collection is easy to read while also being hard to swallow. The juxtaposition between what is right and what is easy is the common thread that links the reading experience with the content.

Overall, I would say this isn’t a read for the faint of heart. I was shocked by how much death there was in relation to children and found myself wondering if I was a bit too uncomfortable. As a relatively new mother myself, I found some of the content a bit much to stomach. I definitely wouldn’t have been able to read it in the early days of motherhood. Whitney certainly toes the line. She makes you wonder what your definition of too far is and forces you to think about just how far you would be willing to go in your darkest hour. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is entirely up to you.

Big Bad
By Whitney Collins
Sarabande Books
Published March 16, 2021