Psychological

Recommended Reads: Covid-19

“He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good…”

That line, of course, is from Albert Camus’ 1947 masterpiece, The Plague, a book that has the distinction of being in my top 20 all-time reading list, yet is only my third favorite work by Camus.

Published three decades after the Spanish flu epidemic, and only a few years removed from World War II, Camus used the backdrop of the Bubonic plague to dramatize the philosophies of Existentialism and the Absurd.

This brilliant novel is back in demand and selling by the thousands. Of course, The Plague was a parable about fascism and a post-Nazi warning to future generations, which makes it doubly relevant as global instability has given rise to nationalist violence and challenges to western democracies.

Now that social distancing, if not full-on quarantine, is quotidian reality, many are returning to literature for entertainment, distraction or insights. Not to make light of the circumstances or the plight of those suffering, but since we’re isolating, we might as well make the most of it. Here are seven tales of plague, apocalypse and what happens when our delicate social networks collapse.

“Time Enough at Last,” Lynn A. Venable

Originally published in 1953, this brilliant story became an instant classic when it was adapted into the classic episode of The Twilight Zone. I remember first watching this episode as a kid, and for the first 28 minutes thinking it was a wonderful fantasy. The sole survivor of a nuclear bomb, who wants nothing more than to be left alone to his reading, finds his wish has come true!

With nobody around to bother him, and unrestricted access to the public library, he finally has the peace, solitude and, most of all, time to read all the books he’s ever wanted. To me, it was like heaven, until the final twist when our hapless hero breaks his glasses. It is still my favorite episode of the show.

I later read the source material in the collection, The Twilight Zone: The Original Stories, and the original story, though not as well-known, is as good as the adaptation. There are many other great stories in this anthology as well, including many by the great Richard Matheson.

But if you’re vibing on isolation right now, you can’t go wrong with Venable’s mid-century classic.

“Rain,” Joe Hill

I confess I’m biased, having lived in Boulder, Colorado, for the better part of 22 years, but I think this apocalyptic novella is one of Hill’s best efforts. And it’s not just because he describes a summer day in Boulder “as glorious as the first day in Eden” (though that is totally accurate).

But then, without warning, sharp needles begin raining from the sky, piercing an unexpecting populace. “A lot of healthy, vigorous children died in Boulder that day–parents all over town booted their kids outside to whoop it up on one of the last, most brilliant days of summer.”

And it only gets darker from there.

It’s a story befitting the title of its collection, Strange Weather, as this (un)natural disaster turns into a blood-soaked survival march down the Boulder-Denver turnpike.

The Troop, Nick Cutter

I finally got around to reading this highly recommended novel last year, and I was not disappointed. It was creepy, isolating and had a visceral effect on me. For starters, camping horror always gets my blood pumping. Throw in some bioengineering and evil science experiments, and you have my undivided attention.

I brought this with me on a flight to Norway, and I figured it would last me all the way to Lillehammer. I devoured it (no pun intended) before reaching my layover in Reykjavik.

I was also pleasantly surprised when I looked at the author’s photo. I wasn’t familiar with Nick Cutter, but I definitely recognized the author as Craig Davidson. In 2007, I reviewed his debut novel, The Fighter, for the Rocky Mountain News.

My review wasn’t glowing, admittedly, but the novel showed a lot of promise–and it’s stuck with me for more than a decade. He did a lot of things right in that book, but I felt it was a bit uneven overall. The Troop, however, was on point from start to finish, with consistent tone and pacing.

If you think social distancing is scary, try The Troop.

The Cabin at the End of the World, Paul Tremblay

A big part of the creep factor in Paul Tremblay’s home-invasion novel is that we never know if the alleged apocalypse is real. A group of deranged, but seemingly well-meaning (mostly) eschatologists show up at the cabin of a vacationing couple, Andrew and Eric, and their daughter Wen. The intruders have a message: In order to save the world from the end times, one of the trio has to die.

Is the apocalypse really happening? It’s hard to say. Every time they turn on the television, something bad is happening on cable news. But isn’t that true at any time? If you want to live in perpetual fear, just watch cable news.

This convinces the intruders that they are right, and further proves to Andrew that these people are crazy.

I think there are some powerful analogs to our current situation. It’s hard for most of us to gauge first-hand what’s going on, since all signifiers of normality are gone. Sure, there is the television, but that again leads to the ratings-driven cesspool of cable news.

Who can you trust? And which information do you take to heart?

And what are you willing to sacrifice?

“The Masque of the Red Death,” Edgar Allan Poe

Covid-19 has reminded all of us that nobody is invulnerable. Actors, athletes and world leaders have all contracted the disease. Young, old, rich, poor. Nobody is immune.

That is the message of Poe’s horrific tale of a plague that induces hematidrosis–a “profuse bleeding at the pores” from which the Red Death gets its name. Symptoms come on suddenly, the pain is intense and the only mercy is that the victim is dead within a half-hour.

Knowing that death could come so sudden makes this story first-rate psychological horror, but it also becomes class warfare when the elite Prince Prospero invites his rich friends to wait out the plague in the sanctuary of his castle, leaving the poor to die in the streets.

But nobody is safe from this brutal disease, and in the end “darkness and decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”

The Stand, Stephen King

Of course my all-time favorite horror novel would be on this list. I tried to include lesser-known books to mix it up, but the classics are classics for a reason. No other apocalyptic vision has disturbed me more than King’s magnum opus. As a superflu decimates the world, the facade of civility slips and human nature bares its fangs.

Those in touch with the better angels of their nature congregate in Boulder, Colorado, arming themselves to make one final stand to save humanity from itself.

The Plague, Albert Camus

Finally, we’ll let big Al have the last word. As part of the French Resistance, living in Nazi-occupied Paris, Camus experienced an existential threat most of us will never know. His allegorical plague revealed the best and worst of humanity, and it served as a reminder for how to live, whether in good health or during a pandemic:

“We should go forward, groping our way through the darkness, stumbling perhaps at times, and try to do what good lay in our power.”

Stay healthy and well, my friends.

Review: Legion: Skin Deep

Brandon Sanderson

Legion: Skin Deep

Not long ago, I sang the praises of Sanderson’s novella Legion (https://ensuingchapters.com/2013/01/03/review-legion/), a mystery tale centered around the brilliant, unquiet mind of Stephen Leeds.Legion

Leeds is afflicted with a mental disturbance wherein he has imaginary friends with benefits (no, not that kind, pervo, though two of his manifestations are going through a difficult breakup in this installment). His mental manifestations, which he calls “aspects,” have names, back-stories and seemingly a life of their own, though they are bound by the limits of Leeds’ finite knowledge and experience.

Consider it a cross between schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder and unconscious cognition.

Put simply, like all of us, Leeds can access a limited portion of the information he receives from external stimuli, but he’s also able to access the subconscious bits via imaginary personalities. The result is a skill set unmatched by any other detective in literature. (Leeds isn’t a detective per se, but like fellow troubled genius, Sherlock Holmes, often finds himself consulting on cases).

In Skin Deep, the second novella in the series, Leeds is coerced into locating the corpse of a tech worker who was in possession of dangerous information—while at the same time outwitting a devious businessman and avoiding the strike of a first-rate assassin.

As before, the plotting and character development is astounding. I listened to the audio version, and devoured it in two sittings (it would have only been one were it not for work). Once again, Oliver Wyman’s narration is poetry. He inhabits all of Leeds’ imaginary allies as well as his very real adversaries, shifting seamlessly and convincingly through various genders, races and personalities.

But this is more than a groovy mystery; Sanderson uses Leeds as a launch-pad for theological debate. I believe he handled the religious discussion better in the first Legion story, while in Skin Deep, the tone is didactic. Leeds describes himself as “15 percent atheist,” aggregating the beliefs of his various aspects. This is a clever way of exploring the inner conflict between doubt and faith, illustrating our tenuous grasp of knowledge and belief.

What makes the Legion books so amazing is not so much the outer conflicts, but the inner ones. I never subscribed to the academic taboo on having characters with mental illness (because it’s reductive, or some other scholarly jargon). Leeds cannot be reduced to any one of his aspects, just as his consciousness is more than the sum of his personalities. He is capable of change. We see it both within and between the books.

Perhaps Leeds’ greatest fear is that he will someday be free of his aspects, because I think he’d be lost without them. In his more existential moments, Leeds wonders whether he is simply someone else’s aspect, eliciting that dissociative tingle we’ve all felt at various times.

Who are we? How do we define who we are? Would we all be better served to, ahem, use our illusions? These are the deeper strings Sanderson plucks in the Legion series.

May there be many, many more.

Review: The Last Whisper in the Dark

There are not enough superlatives when discussing Tom Piccirilli. The man is a brilliantWhisper and diverse writer: He’s won awards for his horror, fantasy, thrillers and even poetry—bagging the prestigious Bram Stoker award on four occasions.

Previous novels, such as Shards, A Choir of Ill Children and November Mourns, have shocked and terrified, but with his new release, The Last Whisper in the Dark, Piccirilli takes us to a far more tender place.

A tender place, it turns out, just as disarming as his nightmares.

I’ll sum it up this way: I was shedding tears by page three. I think the only other book that has ever had me crying this early in the narrative is Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

Piccirilli has a knack for character development and storytelling, and The Last Whisper in the Dark, a sequel to 2012’s The Last Kind Words, may be his deepest work yet.

Concerning Terrier (Terry) Rand, a young thief from a family of small-time criminals, Piccirilli has given us a protagonist as sympathetic as he is fearless. On the surface, the story is about the disappearance of Terry’s friend Chub and the ensuing search that drives him head on into gangsters, killers and a femme fatale.

But on a deeper level, this is a tale of honor and family and the clumsy way we go about expressing our feelings to the ones we love. The Rands are a proud and tragic clan, with dementia and criminality in their blood—as well as an outlaw tendency that keeps them on the fringes of society.

But their strongest trait is honor. Terry is loyal to an estranged friend who stole the only woman he ever loved. He quietly looks out for his sister, even as she rebels against him and helps desecrate their dead brother’s grave. He remains devoted to a family that can occasionally be distant and dysfunctional, but always has each other’s backs.

You can mess with Terry, but you’d best not fuck with his family.

You’ll fall in love with Terry by the end of the first chapter, and you’ll be cheering him on the rest of the novel. And when it’s done, you’ll applaud Piccirilli for this tender bit of noir literature.

Piccirilli is an established icon within the horror realm, but he has yet to crack through to the mainstream, which is unfortunate. This is a writer worthy of notice, and hopefully this book is the one that reaps him the exposure and attention he deserves.

June Recommendations

In another day we’ll be heading off to London, and around this time Transgress will publish its annual summer book preview/review. In the coming days, we’ll be dishing out smaller portions of the issue, beginning with today’s blurbs about some books you may have missed this past month.

Joyland, Stephen King

I plan on devouring this little beauty on the first leg of the transatlantic flight. As joylandyou know, we at Ensuing Chapters and Transgress Magazine are all about funhouses and noir. So, a Stephen King paperback original about a funhouse for the imprint Hard Case Crime?

Bring it.

King’s previous offering through Hard Case was The Colorado Kid, a wonderfully creepy tale about an unsolved murder in a small Maine town. Some of you may also know it as the SyFy program, Haven.

I’ve got my ticket, and I’m already chilled thinking of the horrors that await in Joyland.

Creation: How Science is Reinventing Life Itself, Adam Rutherford

I recommend Adam Rutherford’s Creation for any fan of science writingcreation. However, my endorsement comes with a disclaimer: The electronic review copy I downloaded was corrupted and difficult to navigate. The result is that I didn’t read this book front to back, as I normally do. However, I was able to access about half of it, and what I read I thoroughly enjoyed.

Of particular interest to Transgress readers are the graphic details of surface cuts when explaining how the skin recovers from a wound. The squeamish reader might want to tag this book as horror for this reason alone.

Though I doubt there are any squeamish readers this blog.

Stylistically, Creation blends wit and storytelling with fair doses of hard science. Fans of Sam Kean, Mary Roach and Malcolm Gladwell will find much to love in its pages.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman

Not since Joseph Campbell has an author had both a profound understanding oceanof mythology and the ability to present it to a general audience with such passion. I see Gaiman and Campbell as two sides of an intergenerational coin: the academic who deconstructs myths and the author who creates them.

His new novel, his first for adults since 2005’s Anansi Boys, concerns a young boy returning home–and reconsidering odd events from summers past.

 

The Hole, William Meikle

And what summer would be complete without a subterranean adventure? This twisted treat comes from one of my favorite publishers, DarkFuse, and concerns a chasm (literally, not figuratively) snaking through a rural town. What comes next promises to be delightfully morbid. I’ve got this on my to-read list and can’t wait to descend into its depths. A review will come later this summer.

Come back tomorrow for a review of The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories by Saki, illustrated by Edward Gorey.

Steven Schwartz: Little Raw Souls

Here’s a link I forgot to post last week. Steven Schwartz’s Little Raw Souls. We’ve got a review, an interview and full audio on this one. Enjoy!

http://transgressmagazine.com/2013/02/07/interview-steven-schwartz-little-raw-souls/

Review: Legion

Author Brandon Sanderson is one evil dude. That was my reaction to finLegionishing his novella, Legion, concerning the peculiar (and haunted) Stephen Leeds. To be clear: Sanderson is a master storyteller, and this is one of the greatest works of short fiction I’ve read in years.

What makes Sanderson evil (in that bad-ass writer sort of way) is the fact that the story came to an end.

In December, Audible offered a free copy of Legion, which I greedily downloaded and enjoyed in one sitting. This story is compelling on so many levels that when it ended I needed complete silence to process everything.

Leeds is a peculiar man with a mental condition akin to dissociative identity disorder (a dubious diagnosis; see Debbie Nathan’s Sybil Exposed). However, Leeds doesn’t have multiple personalities. He has what he calls “aspects,” sort of like imaginary friends with benefits — meaning they sleep in their own rooms, require seats on a plane and bail you out of jams.

In truth, the aspects are the manifestations of Leeds’ genius. He is smart to the point of insanity, and, in my opinion, his aspects allow him to maintain his self-view as a “regular guy.” For example, he doesn’t perform critical analysis of arguments. He leaves that to Ivy. He isn’t a skilled marksman, so he leaves the self-defense to his munitions expert, J.C. And when he attempts to learn Hebrew during the course of a transatlantic flight, he manifests a new aspect who is already fluent.

This is a master stroke, in my opinion. A functioning protagonist who had all these skills wouldn’t be credible, unless they were super-human. And a functioning human who had all these skills would be, well, dysfunctional if they had to store all this knowledge and know-how in their brain.

So Leeds, in cerebral self-defense, delegates the multi-tasking to his apparitional A-Team, and they are a source of depth, humor and revelation. This is a great device, but something of a literary high-wire with little room for error.

Sanderson deftly manages the narrative so that it never becomes silly or gimmicky. In fact, the presence of the aspects deepens the protagonist, as his inner conflicts and contradictions play out before us.

This is played to maximum effect when the novella takes a philosophical turn. The premise of the story is that a scientist has invented a camera that can photograph the past — and now he has gone missing. Leeds determines that the scientist has gone to the Middle East in search of photographic evidence to confirm or deny Biblical history.

The nature of this quest, by a scientist in particular, leads to an interesting discussion among his various aspects, each offering a different take on religion. Here, Sanderson captures the internal struggle that comes with asking the big questions: How does one reconcile science and spirituality? Theological desire and empirical evidence?

No matter your conclusion, I’m sure we’ve all had similar conversations in our heads.

In Leeds, the discussion is thoughtful and entertaining, and enriches the story with a pensive undertone. And mention must be made of the terrific narration of Oliver Wyman.

Featuring compelling action, organic dialogue and complex characters and situations, Legion is a must-read (or must-listen).

I’m not surprised. As a longtime fan of the podcast Writing Excuses, which Sanderson co-hosts (along with Dan, Howard and Mary… who are that smart), I’ve joked that I’ve learned more from Sanderson and company than I did during my three-year MFA.

And I’m only sort-of kidding about that.

But I’m serious when I say that we need more Stephen Leeds adventures. And soon. A full-length novel, series of stories, film, TV… all of the above.

Leeds is a character brilliantly devised and fully realized. I didn’t want this story to end, and I hope to read more of Legion in the (near) future.

Unsettling Chapters: Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

As promised, we’ve come back to one of our favorite authors, Joyce Carol Oates–the queen of disquieting literature. For this Halloween installment of Unsettling Chapters, we’re discussing the Holy Grail of dark fiction, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

Nearly a half-century since its publishing in 1966, this remains the most disturbing story I’ve ever read. I was introduced to “Where Are You Going…” in college, where it was read aloud by our English teacher, and my former employer, Julie Papadimas.

What I remember most is gripping the side of my desk, trying to keep from screaming at Connie.

This is as visceral a reaction I’ve ever had to a work of fiction. I wasn’t just affected by this story. I was pissed. I felt sick. I wanted to dive into the pages and lock the front door.

Though a lot of readers, I’m sure, are familiar with the ending, I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it. I will only say that halfway through the story, it dawned on me just how it had to end. You feel the bile rising in your throat, yet there’s no looking away. There’s no putting it down. There is only the suffocating gaze of Arnold Friend and his sociopathic schmooze.

This is not a trick-or-treat brand of spooky, but the essence of true fear. The rare story that forces the reader to accept their vulnerabilities and realize that we can’t always protect the ones we love. Can we even save ourselves?

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” unnerves me in a way similar to Flannery O’Connor. It’s fiction that replicates that moment on a roller coaster when the train is briefly suspended at the top, about to descend, but seemingly frozen in place. When you feel the bottom drop underneath, but you have yet to tumble after. The breathless space where time knots into an excruciating paralysis.

This is the way Oates entwines and consumes us. With the patient grace of a constrictor. And her grip has yet to slack.

I pray that it never does.

And finally, for a Halloween treat, you can read (or re-read) “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” at the University of San Francisco’s Web site.

Enjoy, my Samhain sweets.

…And sadly, that brings us to the end of our 31 Days of Dread series. Tomorrow, like a post-rampage Hulk, we will return to our proper form as Ensuing Chapters, where we’ll produce a monthly column for Transgress Magazine and write semi-weekly blog posts.

Thanks for reading. If you have any suggestions for disturbing books or stories we may have missed, please send them along. We’re always looking for a new unsettling read… and we’ve got 11 months to kill until next October.

Unsettling Chapters: The Fall

I’ve always felt a deep kinship with Albert Camus. We both come from working-class roots, and we each found our way to journalism. That’s about where the similarities end. While I broke into newspapers as a music and features writer, Camus was editor of Combat, an underground political paper that was part of the French Resistance to Nazi occupation during World War II.

He and his co-workers were jailed and sometimes murdered. If you want to read some amazing and inspirational writing, pick up Between Hell and Reason, a collection of his war journalism. There is an immediacy to his writing, because he knew that every article could be his last.

If this book doesn’t get you up and off the couch (at least to go to the voting booth), nothing will.

However, that’s not the book I want to discuss today, although there is plenty disturbing about Nazi occupation. Truly, any Camus offering is unsettling, in the truest sense of the word, because that’s his intent. These are not pastorals. Camus does not soothe the reader with hugs and rainbows. He couldn’t care less about your spiritual nourishment.

Camus challenges the reader. He inspires the reader. Discomfited? Good. That’s a natural way to feel. The question is: What are you going to do about it?

So it goes in all his works, both fiction and non. My two favorite books of his, and two at the top of my all-time list are The Myth of Sisyphus and The Stranger. The Plague is one of his darker (and classic) works, but for our purposes at Unsettling Chapters, nothing matches The Fall.

Here we have the long-form confessional of Jean-Baptiste Clamence, who haunts the smoky confines of a lowlife bar in Amsterdam’s Red Light District. He tells his story to an unknown, unseen audience, and that juices the narrative with an intimacy and informality we don’t always get from Camus.

It’s also inherently unreliable. What do we make of Clamence and his wild tale of falling from grace? Can we believe it to be true? Is it the ravings of a madman or a drunkard? Clamence even says, when describing a motto for his house, “Don’t rely on it.”

I’ve read The Fall twice, and I’m still not convinced that “we’re” even there. At the end, there is a shift suggesting that Clamence has been having a dissociative episode and talking to himself the whole time: “Are we not all alike, constantly talking and to no one…”

Clamence takes us on a guided tour of Amsterdam, which is designed, he says, in the nature of Dante’s rings of hell. We move through the city via his dramatic monologue.

But though setting has an important part to play, it is the narrator’s interior landscape at center stage. Clamence presents the anxieties of his time, and they look very similar to modern anxieties. He speaks for the fragility of man, and how one’s descent is incremental.

Camus nails the pathway of anxiety and how we are our own worst interrogators. He touches on thought perseveration, self-sabotage and even has an incident of road rage—perhaps its first mention in literature?

In turns hopeful and hopeless, Clamence is a man buried under the rubble of his failings, held down by his own hand. It’s a reminder that we make poor choices, focus our attention on the things that scar us, and ultimately, author our own demise.

Now that’s an unsettling premise.

I don’t imagine a film version will displace It’s a Wonderful Life as a holiday tradition, but for anyone curious about the workings of a mind in distress, you should wind your way into this twisted narrative.

Unsettling Chapters: A Study in Emerald

Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, the first book in the Sherlock Holmes series, has to be one of the most adapted pieces of modern literature. Nearly every Holmes’ reboot begins with an updated take on this classic tale, which speaks to the brilliance of Doyle’s writing.

It’s a timeless tale of murder, deceit and the prototypical damaged investigators: the PTSD-stricken Watson and the mentally disquieted Holmes (pick your diagnoses: autism, OCD, bipolar, etc.).

For my money, the greatest adaptation of this story is “A Study in Emerald,” which appears in Shadows Over Baker Street, a mash-up of Sherlock Holmes and H.P. Lovecraft.

Penned by master storyteller Neil Gaiman, “A Study in Emerald” imagines the tale in a post-Lovecraftian landscape, 700 years following the epic struggle between humans and the Great Old Ones.

It shouldn’t come as a shock as to who won that inter-dimensional war, but the nature of the post-war dystopia might. As will the unexpected deviations from the original.

Is it truly unsettling? Not in the same way as most of the books we’ve previously discussed. But it is a bold venture by a gifted author, and the greatest mingling of two of my favorite mythos.

This story also appears in Gaiman’s Fragile Things, along with other favorites like “October in the Chair,” “Bitter Grounds” and “Strange Little Girls.”

For Halloween, Gaiman is offering a free audio book through All Hallows Read. It’s a program that promotes literacy by encouraging people to give someone a book for Halloween. Now through Oct. 31, in partnership with Audible.com, Gaiman is offering a free audio story of his, “Click-Clack the Rattle Bag.” Get yours at www.audible.com/ScareUs.

Unsettling Chapters: King Apocalypse

In “The Hollow Men,” T.S. Eliot famously wrote, “This is how the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper.”

It’s obvious that Eliot never read any Stephen King!

King has destroyed the world many times over, and by many different means (plague, cars, cell phones, even exploding meth labs), and each time it is most certainly with a bang. My personal favorites are The Stand and The Mist, but there’s something for everyone on his buffet of world-ending visions.

Any longtime reader of King’s knows that his strength is character development. His end-of-days narratives are so strong not because of the impending doom but for how his characters respond to it.

For example, The Stand is horrific when Captain Trips decimates the globe, but heroic when its survivors stand up to Randall Flagg. The Mist enthralls with the interpersonal conflicts that emerge within the grocery store. I’m not afraid of fog-shrouded aliens, but I’m terrified of religious extremism in closed quarters.

Another favorite trick of King’s is what I call the extrapolated horror. “Trucks,” the short story that inspired the film Maximum Overdrive, focuses first on the ordeal of the survivors holed up in the diner. In many ways, the story is quite silly (a semi-trailer apocalypse!), but where it haunts the reader is its ending: The moment when you realize that all the horror that has come before is merely the opening act for something far, far worse.

This is a small sampling of King’s apocalyptic works:

The Stand

The Mist

Under the Dome (sort of)

“Night Surf” (prelude to The Stand)

King has also penned his fair share of dystopian literature:

“The Long Walk”

“The Running Man”

“The Children of the Corn”

With more than 100 novels, stories and screenplays to his name, King’s bookshelf is long. Pull one or two down from the shelves this Halloween. Believe me, the end of days never sounded so good.