Since the beginning of the new year, I’ve been reading like a fiend. It’s been a rather productive start, actually, churning through more books and stories in the month of January than I can recall in recent memory. Much of this is due to my work at Weird Fiction Review, where I’ve been reading through a lot of material and figuring out a tentative schedule for the first half of the year. A lot of what I’ve been reading isn’t quite available to the public yet, or more accurately I don’t know if rights and permissions allow me to discuss it. This includes some absolutely splendid work from French writers like Bernard Quiriny and Jehanne Jean-Charles, translated by Edward Gauvin, one of our regular columnists at WFR.
A lot of what I’ve read has already been featured on the site, like Yoko Ogawa’s collection Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales, which I enjoyed immensely. My review for WFR sums up my feelings on Ogawa’s book pretty nicely. And then just last week, we posted some features on Helen Marshall and her collection of short stories, Hair Side, Flesh Side, including an interview and her story “The Mouth, Open,” which knocked me back when I originally read it. I seriously hope many readers have the same reaction.
Here’s a brief, non-complete roundup of the rest of my reading for January, then. Some of this will be featured on WFR in the coming months, hopefully. Otherwise, all of these books and stories make for quality reading.
The Divinity Student by Michael Cisco: I’m quickly realizing that Cisco’s novels, indeed his writing in general, are required reading for fans and scholars of weird fiction. This is the first novel of Cisco’s that I read, but it won’t be the last (I’ve already acquired copies of The Traitor and his latest novel, Celebrant). The central premise is striking enough: a guy who is struck by lightning and brought back to life as a paper-stuffed golem, then sent into this crumbling city to try and reconstruct a forbidden divine language by reliving the memories of dead people. The language itself is stunning and vivid, rendering what are some pretty bizarre and consciousness-expanding/challenging moments in readable prose. Even when you don’t quite understand what is going on, you’ll at least perceive what’s happening. This is a novel of a phantasmagorical, broken, maddening world with characters and a pervasive overall psyche to match. Simply amazing.
Anonym by Eric Basso: I’ve previously written about my experiences reading Basso’s work and how notable it is, and Anonym is a similarly notable and distinct experience. It’s a large, sprawling work, which surprised me because up to that point my experience of Basso had come from reading his novella “The Beak Doctor” and other short stories and poems of his. It also shows off his considerable range as a writer, seemingly moving from genre to genre within the same chapter: surrealistic stream-of-consciousness, stranded astronaut sci-fi, decadent historical drama, unsettling gothic horror, etc. Like much of Basso’s other work, sadly, it’s also hard to find: it exists in the form of eight chapbooks, each distributed in a limited edition of sixty copies. Fortunately, there are plans for serializing Anonym on WFR later this year, which will hopefully lead to greater interest.
Teatro Grottesco by Thomas Ligotti: Before I read this book, my only experience with Ligotti and his writing was in reading “The Town Manager” in The Weird and “Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story” from Poe’s Children, edited by Peter Straub (a collection I enjoy by and large). The influence of people like Lovecraft and other luminaries of pessimistic, cosmic horror and philosophy is evident, but Ligotti is a far better writer than Lovecraft ever was. His scares are more genuine and personal, and he has something that Lovecraft lacked horribly: a sense of humor, however sardonic, which actually helps to enhance the horror and keep it from going stale. My personal favorite stories from this collection include “Gas Station Carnivals” and “The Bungalow House.”
Move Under Ground by Nick Mamatas: Now this is my idea of good Lovecraftian fiction. This novel is set in a version of the 60s where Cthulhu and the sunken city of R’lyeh have risen from the Pacific Ocean, sending America and its citizens mutating and spiraling out of control into hideous forms, threatening to drop the world into a horrible nightmare existence. Our surprising heroes? Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassidy, and William Burroughs. The novel itself is written from the perspective of Kerouac, who makes for a surprisingly effective and appropriate protagonist and narrator for Lovecraftian horror. The really cool part about this novel is how Mamatas uses the setting of the 60s, the threat of Cthulhu and his bros, and the perspective of Kerouac to let loose on American culture of the mid-20th century and beyond. As it turns out from reading the novel, America was far better primed to received Lovecraftian horrors than we may realize.
“The Descent of Man” by T.C. Boyle and “Buddha Nostril Bird” by John Kessel: I’m lumping these together because I read them in the same anthology, The Secret History of Science Fiction, edited by my old Stonecoast mentor James Patrick Kelly and his frequent partner-in-crime, John Kessel. These two stories couldn’t be more different in content and style, but I loved them all the same. “The Descent of Man” is a bananas story of a man whose wife has been steadily losing her culture – and her heart – to the genius-intellect monkey she works alongside at a primate center, in a world where intelligent monkeys and humans coexist as a given. Besides being lovably bonkers, the story is alternately funny and heartbreaking. Meanwhile, “Buddha Nostril Bird” is what I would term philosophical science fiction, with sequencing of detail and event that feels partly surreal and partly Zen koan. The story kicks off with the protagonist escaping from a prison that specializes in ontological torture and quickly becomes a trial of enlightenment as he attempts to reclaim his old life and loves.
“The Black Pool” by Frederick Stuart Greene: This story is one nasty piece of work. It’s about twin brothers with distinctive, and opposite, personalities who begin to experience turbulence with one another after they fall for the same woman. One of them wins her hand, the other one does not. In different hands, this would be the work of sheer melodrama, but in Greene’s hands it becomes the catalyst for a twisted, dark story of sibling rivalry with deadly consequences, and not always in the way you might expect.
“Special” by Kit Reed: Another nasty piece of work from a writer I really need to explore further (luckily, I have a copy of Weird Women, Wired Women I’ll read soon). This story, which comes from her collection What Wolves Know, overlays small town middle class culture with celebrity worship in a simultaneous, razor sharp takedown of both. There is a genuine sense of undefinable menace that creeps into the story and builds, until you reach a final paragraph that hits you like a cinderblock to the back of the head.
“Prolegomenon to the Adventures of Childe Phoenix” by Marly Youmans: Lightspeed Magazine recently reprinted this story, which I enjoyed immensely. It’s a coming of age story, more or less, that uses its fabulism and imagery as an extension of the protagonist’s emotional state. His father is an alchemist, his mother is a ghost, his sister lies in a glass coffin in suspended animation, and the house is falling apart around them. The sheer strangeness and poignancy of it is what keeps you reading. In a way, it reminded me of the intense emotional fantasy of some of Bruno Schulz’s stories.
“The Dog Said Bow-Wow” by Michael Swanwick: I actually read a four story suite of Swanwick’s Darger and Surplus stories, including “Smoke and Mirrors,” “The Little Cat Laughed to See Such Sport,” and “Girls and Boys, come Out to Play” – but my favorite of the bunch is “The Dog Said Bow-Wow.” There’s a fun sense of adventure and playfulness in these stories. The backdrop for the stories is essentially science fiction, but the actual surface detail of the stories is at times surreal and fabulist.
“The Fall River Axe Murders” by Angela Carter: Oh, how I love Carter and her writing. I encountered this story in an anthology called Extreme Fiction, which I heavily recommend. It collects a variety of stories that challenge reality either through the use of fabulist or formalist narrative methodologies. “Axe Murders” falls in under fabulism between Flann O’Brien and Octavia Butler, presumably because the story engages in alternative mythmaking for the story of Lizzie Borden and the (supposed) murder of her family. Carter’s goal for this story seems to be nothing less than rewriting the sequence of events leading up to the murders to show various forces applying pressure to Borden – her family, her personal life, her hometown – that made her act inevitable. The story never depicts the titular act, but quite frankly it doesn’t need to because we already know it’s going to happen. It’s great, deft writing really, challenging readers’ expectations while still being aware of them.
“The Repairer of Reputations” by Robert Chambers: I would love to put together some kind of feature week for Chambers on WFR in the future. I only recently encountered him and his fiction, namely his collection The King in Yellow, published back in 1895. His stories revolve around a play that induces madness in all readers, concerning the titular king who rules the alternate dimension of Carcosa. Those who have read the play are then susceptible to the influence of the Yellow Sign, a glyph that communicates the King in Yellow’s power. “The Repairer of Reputations” is the lead-off story for The King in Yellow. It’s quite well-written, in fact easily readable. It’s also surprisingly sci-fi for a story that proved influential in supernatural and weird fiction. Alternate history of New York? Suicide booths? Curious. Those of you who are readers of H.P. Lovecraft should check out Chambers and his stories because Lovecraft himself borrowed concepts from Chambers! (It should be noted that Chambers himself was influence by several of Ambrose Bierce’s stories, especially “An Inhabitant of Carcosa.”) The whole notion of Carcosa and the King in Yellow was massively influential on the Cthulhu Mythos, and Lovecraft (and especially his followers) lifted entire names and places from Chambers’ fiction for use in the Mythos down the line. So, without Chambers, there would be no Cthulhu Mythos, and likely no Lovecraftian fiction. How’s that for an alternate history?
I’ve got more reading yet to go, as always. Currently working my way through K.J. Bishop’s collection of short fiction, That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote, and I plan to follow that up with Christopher Barzak’s new collection, Before and Afterlives. After that? Not sure. Of course, I’ll have reading for WFR to take care of. New and new-to-me releases I’ve got my eye on are Tamas Dobozy’s Siege 13, George Saunders’s Tenth of December, Ian Sales’s Adrift on the Sea of Rains, Stefan Kiesbye’s Your House Is On Fire, Your Children All Gone, and Matt Bell’s Cataclysm Baby. I’ve also never read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a situation I must resolve soon, and at some point I have to finish reading Cloud Atlas (I’m halfway through; I keep having to stop and tackle other things). So, yes, one book at a time.