books

Peter Stenson: Thirty-Seven

Whether it’s sociological interest or morbid curiosity, we are fascinated with cults. From Heaven’s Gate and Scientology to NXIVM, we alternately view their members as 37monsters, martyrs, or victims. Mason Hue, the narrator of Peter Stenson’s Thirty-Seven, is all three.

When we meet Mason he is still a teenager, but of legal age, freshly discharged from a mental institution where he lived after being part of a cult known as the Survivors. The Survivors, who ritually poisoned themselves with chemotherapy drugs to achieve a state of pure honesty, earned notoriety after going on a killing spree and committing mass suicide.

But what happens to Mason, who was 15 at the time, when you survive the Survivors?

Now living in Denver, he has a boss and sometimes-girlfriend Talley, and when she learns his secret she becomes fascinated with the movement’s beliefs. And before long, she’s as entangled in Mason’s narrative as we are.

Thirty-Seven is the early front-runner for best transgressive novel of the year, not only for the story itself (a gritty mind-fuck confessional) but for Stenson’s handling of the narrative. There are many great passages in Thirty-Seven, but perhaps none as stealthy as this one: “The stairs don’t squeak because I know where to step.”

It’s a simple line, yes, one that you breeze over at first, but at this point in the story Mason (the eponymous Thirty-Seven), is sneaking into his childhood home. In a book filled with violence and philosophy and sex and recreational cancer treatment, why does this seemingly innocuous line stand out?

Because unreliable narrators are fun to read, but difficult to write convincingly. This is the world according to Mason Hues, and time and again, he proves to be untrustworthy, confused, and more than a little dishonest (evasive, at best). At various times he is a huckster, a victim, possibly a psychopathic mastermind.

We don’t know what to make of Mason a lot of the time, but subtle touches like “The stairs don’t squeak because I know where to step” make him relatable. I’ve never joined a death cult, but, like most teenagers, I learned which steps to avoid when sneaking home late at night.

These are the dark insights that make transgressive fiction so powerful. Pure villains and monsters often lack depth. Anti-heroes can become too cool and charming. But when truly sick and disturbed characters reveal themselves to be all too logical, shit gets uncomfortable.

For me, the gold standard example of this type of line is from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, “At first I wondered why the room felt so safe. Then I realized it was because there were no windows.”

It’s a moment of familiar comfort followed by a horrific gut-punch. The muscle-memory of footsteps on the stairs reminds us that Mason isn’t well, but he’s not a madman. He’s a logical thinker, as are the others in Thirty-Seven. And that’s what makes this novel so delightfully unsettling.

Full disclosure, Stenson and I were in the same MFA program, but this is a merit-based review (it’s his second novel, and his debut, Fiend, has been translated and published internationally). Many of the elements in this book appeared in his work in the program, and his talent was ever-present. It’s great to see them come together and generate well-earned success.

For fans of transgressive fiction, put this on your summer reading list.

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Review: Paperbacks from Hell

The best gift for this Halloween is Grady Hendrix’s glamorously gory Paperbacks from Paperbacks_from_HellHell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction, a beautiful homage to the glory days of horror publishing.

Many of you will know Hendrix from his genre-bending novels My Best Friend’s Exorcism and Horrorstör (a wonderful IKEA-themed nightmare). If you don’t, you should make yourself familiar. His clear love of the genre and dark sense of humor is prevalent in his fiction, but even more so here.

Hendrix guides us through all aspects of horror fiction’s heyday, tracing its roots from the civil unrest of the 1960s and Gothic romances, through the domination of heavy hitters like Stephen King, Anne Rice, and Clive Barker, into the eventual over-saturation of the genre.

As a child of the 1970s and ’80s, I remember many of the titles and the experience of browsing through bookstores with actual “horror” sections. Forbidden to buy these extreme books, I ingested them through the cover art and back jacket, imagining what dark delights lived between the covers.

Reading Paperbacks from Hell was like revisiting those bookstores from yesteryear. While Hendrix has much to say about the history and content of these books, Paperbacks is a celebration of cover art and story concept, no matter how ridiculous, from Nazi leprechauns to vengeful insects. It is a coffee table book and artist portfolio all in one.

While Hendrix provides the narrative, his partner in this project is Will Errickson of the Too Much Horror Fiction blog, which revisits vintage scares. It is a labor of love for these two horror nerds, one that would make the 10-year-old me jealous (and the current me exhausted!).

Though he revels in the ever-more ludicrous story plots, Hendrix gives all of the entries fair consideration and validates every sub-genre (with the exception of splatterpunk). Some of the most important sections concern the Satanic Panic, which coincided with the high tide of horror fiction.

Some of my favorite parts are the mini-biographies of the cover artists and the back stories of their work. Though the cover art was sometimes the best part of these books, the artists got short shrift. It’s nice to see them getting recognition. I enjoyed learning about them.

Of course, we know how this story ends, and it is not happily ever after. Hendrix documents the various causes of death of horror publishing: over-saturation of the product; consolidation shuttered the small presses; with the introduction of cable television and VCRs, a large amount of the population just stopped reading.

Hendrix goes further, though, digging into obscure tax law and explaining how the Thor Power Tool case of 1979 changed publishing forever. Interesting stuff, but sad nevertheless.

Unlike those disposable pulps, however, Paperbacks from Hell is a timeless beauty: glossy pages, vivid graphics, embossed printing. This is a gorgeous book, one to keep and display and start awesome dinner-party conversations.

It was an emotional ride. Reading Paperbacks took me back to those early-’80s bookstores, wide-eyed and terrified, absorbing those beautiful and grotesque horror novels I was forbidden to read, but that forever influenced me nonetheless.

Review: A Head Full of Ghosts

Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts has it all: an unreliable narrator, embellishedHead_Full_of_Ghosts memories, “reality” television, mental disorders, and a guilty conscience.

If you’re a fan of dark, cerebral fiction, then you’ve heard the hype around this book (if you haven’t read it already). Well, it’s all true. This is a finely crafted narrative that tickles the brain stem without skimping on the gut-punches.

This Bram Stoker Award winner had me on my heels from the opener. We begin with Merry being interviewed for a book about her life. Fifteen years earlier, her family, in the midst of a financial and emotional crisis, starred in a television show called The Possession. The show centered on the exorcism of Merry’s older sister, Marjorie, and once production finished the family was left in tatters.

Horror is often most powerful when it is most disorienting, and already, we have multiple layers of unreliability: a first-person narrator (inherently biased), the interpersonal dynamics of an interview (subject- and observer-expectancy bias), reliance on memory, in particular childhood memories (too many to list), and the influence of post-event information (misinformation effect), to name a few.

So, whom can we trust in this tale of madness and malaise? A mysterious horror blog, The Last Final Girl, may be the most insightful source—and that’s saying something!

The blog provides an episodic breakdown of The Possession, and right or wrong, this becomes the definitive history of Merry and her family. This is the perfect book for our “post-truth” times, where all narratives have come under suspicion, including our own.

As the novel progresses, we grow attached to Merry and Marjorie, who have a complicated but loving relationship, as siblings often do. Marjorie is the trickster, the unruly adolescent whose antics unsettle her conservative father.

Merry is the impressionable kid who is confused, enchanted, and terrified by her older sis, and she tries to reconcile these emotions while making sense of what happened to her family during the filming and after.

And what are we to make of her interpretation of events?

That’s what makes A Head Full of Ghosts so unsettling. Our foundations are cracked, our institutions unreliable—even our own memories. Just contemplating this book will have you questioning your senses, and that’s what great horror is supposed to do.

Review: On Tyranny

Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny is the most terrifying thing you’ll read this HalloweenOn_Tyranny (outside of a presidential Twitter feed, that is). This is the book for this moment, and even if you’re not much on politics or nonfiction reading, please set aside the hour it will take to read this book.

That’s not too much to ask for the defense of democracy.

Saving western civilization as we know it is a tall order for such a short book, but for On Tyranny, Snyder, a history professor at Yale University, doesn’t waste space on academic masturbation. He draws lessons from the 20th century for guidance on how to defend democracy in 2017 and beyond. This book is direct, intense, and a call to action.

The result is an instruction manual with 20 tips for fighting back against tyranny, ranging from the minute (“Make eye contact and small talk”), to the macro (“Take responsibility for the face of the world”). But even the most ambitious items on this to-do list come with practical, everyday advice:

“Life is political, not because the world cares about how you feel, but because the world reacts to what you do. The minor choices we make are themselves a kind of vote, making it more or less likely that free and fair elections will be held in the future.”

Lest you think this is a partisan polemic, Snyder does not target parties, but principles. Historically, the enemies of democracy have come from all over the political spectrum. Preventing tyranny requires a multi-party system and a vigilant, informed electorate.

“Any election can be the last,” Snyder writes, “or at least the last in the lifetime of the person casting the vote.”

Other advice includes protecting a free press, being wary of paramilitary groups and coded speech, and actively reading a wide variety of material—preferably on paper, not a screen. After all, interactive screens were tools of oppression in classic dystopian works by George Orwell and Ray Bradbury.

In particular, beware the mechanisms of terror management. From false flags to opportunistic dictators, real or perceived enemies at the gates have permitted internal threats to flourish. Let the Reichstag fire of 1933 be a lesson, he writes, as it is the blueprint for how would-be tyrants seize unchecked power: When the German parliament caught fire under suspicious circumstances, Hitler used the event to suspend civil liberties on an emergency basis.

Of course, these liberties were not restored once the dubious emergency was over. Liberties, once surrendered, are seldom returned without force.

“For tyrants,” Snyder writes, “the lesson of the Reichstag fire is that one moment of shock enables an eternity of submission.”

Fear is a powerful weapon. Politicians use it to gain power, and the media use it to boost ratings and readership. And fear is what makes our most-cherished institutions vulnerable.

“Courage does not mean not fearing, or not grieving. It does mean recognizing and resisting terror management right away, from the moment of the attack, when it seems most difficult to do so.”

Though the tyrants have their blueprint, Snyder has offered us a brilliant playbook for combating them. The important takeaway for me is that you don’t need to wait for the next election to do something productive. Simply engaging in the world beyond your head or screen (particularly in uncomfortable places) can make a difference.

“Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen,” Snyder writes. We should meet new people, go different places, and generally be present in the three-dimensional world.

And take to heart this bullet point from Snyder—tape it to your front door, hang it on your fridge, tattoo it inside your eyelids:

“We are free only when it is we ourselves who draw the line between when we are seen and when we are not seen.”

Review: Universal Harvester

John Darnielle’s second novel is the literary equivalent of getting lost on a country road.universal-harvester You think you know where you’re going, but after a random turn you’re not so sure. “Yep, that water tower over there is the landmark I’m looking for,” you say to assure yourself, but then that queasy feeling gets stronger, “Didn’t I drive past that barn a half-hour ago?”

In Universal Harvester, you’re not just unsure of where you are, but whom you’re traveling with.

At first, you’re hitching a ride with Jeremy, a recognizable small-town kid without ambition or direction. He works in a local video store in the late-1990s, and Darnielle does a great job of capturing the rural America of that time.

Jeremy, in his early 20s, lives with his widowed father, and their interactions are some of my favorite moments in the novel. Sadness backdrops all their conversations, as they struggle to communicate in the way all fathers and sons do at that age. Yet, there is clear, unstated affection for one another.

Initially, Universal Harvester reads like a pre-YouTube alternate reality game (ARG) or a snuff film. Whereas today, it’s common to come across snippets of unsettling videos that serve as clues to a narrative, this wasn’t as easy in the days of dial-up.

That’s why it’s so disturbing when Video Hut customers complain of creepy vignettes recorded over the rented tapes. The deeper we (through Jeremy and his boss, Sarah Jane) dive into the footage, the more certain we are that:

  1. Solving the ARG is the novel’s ultimate destination
  2. Sarah Jane is about to become the next victim when she locates the source of the videos and mysteriously stops coming into work

Then we take an unexpected turn down one country road, and then another, and Sarah Jane has the wheel, and then Lisa, and then Jeremy again. The abrupt shifts in perspective and storyline are jarring, and the polarized responses to this novel are probably deserved, with some readers feeling misled as to what type of book this is going to be.

Fair enough. Universal Harvester reads like straight horror at first, but then makes a hard left, thereby dialing down the menace, unfortunately.

But this is still a horror novel for my money, just of a different variety. It is about the isolation of small-town America pre-broadband, the slow suffocation of a life stuck in neutral, and the knowledge that not all mysteries can be solved.

And even when they are solved, the answers are seldom as satisfying, and the motives never as clear, as they are in an ARG. “We’re not hurt,” Jeremy rationalizes as he drives away from the farmhouse in the mysterious video clips.

In Darnielle’s Midwestern malaise, this is damn-near a happy ending.

Recommended Reads: 03.15.16

Redskins: Insult and Brand
C. Richard King

RedskinsUnder Roger Goodell’s watch, the NFL has done all it can to insult and offend its fans. As much as I love football, it’s getting harder to support the NFL and Goodell’s funhouse-mirror morality. One of the most egregious offenses is the league’s continued use of the “Redskins” team name.

In Redskins: Insult and Brand, C. Richard King explores the term and its unfortunate intersection with professional football. King expands his study beyond the current debate to reflect on the complicated views white Americans have of minorities and the role economics and brand value play in the inexplicable defense of a racial slur.

 

Why Quark Rhymes with Pork and Other Scientific Diversions
N. David MerminWhy Quark Rhymes with Pork

Yet another example of a book that, had I read this in high school, would have steered me toward the sciences. Mermin is a heavyweight theoretical physicist, and in this volume collects 43 essays, some not previously published and many of them culled from his columns in Physics Today.

Technical, yet light-hearted and accessible, Why Quark Rhymes with Pork will be enjoyed by a wide variety of readers, not just the science-minded. Fans of Sam Kean and Mary Roach should get a kick out of Mermin’s essays.

Review: Forked

Forked: A New Standard for American Dining

Saru Jayaraman

Having spent nearly half of my working life in restaurants, I was excited to read Jayaraman’s defense of the AmericanForked service worker — especially since I was once employed by two of what she considers to be two of the worst employers in the biz: Olive Garden and Red Lobster.

Many of the back-of-the-house anecdotes in Forked are all too familiar to me, but Jayaraman, through her research and foundation, Restaurant Opportunities Center, augments these tales with stats and studies and facts that I, even as a fairly well-informed server/bartender/cook/dishwasher, didn’t realize. These include the history of the tipped economy and why it has lost favor in much of the world and that the federal minimum wage has remained at $2.13 an hour for nearly a quarter-century for those living off gratuities.

Jayaraman argues that the industry and its workers remain handcuffed by mid-1990s legislation put forth by Herman Cain, the National Restaurant Association, and Darden Restaurants, the largest restaurant company in the world. Darden’s flagship chain is the Olive Garden, and until 2014 it also owned Red Lobster.

Of the restaurants where I’ve worked, Darden’s were actually the nicest, which is more commentary on the sad state of the industry than a compliment to Darden. Jayaraman has an even lower opinion of their stores. In each section of Forked, she profiles a company taking the high road in its treatment of workers and a company taking the low road.

Not even unlimited cheddar bay biscuits could salvage a passing grade for Darden.

For me, the most illuminating aspect of Jayaraman’s manifesto is her discussion of sexual harassment. Now, it’s no secret (I don’t think) that restaurants are sexually charged work milieus. They are also an intersection of diverse populations. The back of the house, in my experience, was a mix of drifters, creative types, future scholars and criminals. Many of my co-workers went on to earn advanced degrees. Many of them came to work wearing house arrest anklets.

Meanwhile, the front of the house was mostly staffed by young women, some of them still in high school, who drew the salacious humor and advances of the boys’ club on the line. Some of it was naive or good-natured (I’m thinking of the potty humor and clumsy communication of teenaged boys), but some of it was creepy and misogynistic.

And all of it was inappropriate in the workplace, which is why I haven’t witnessed much of it since leaving the restaurant industry.

But even with this knowledge, Jayaraman’s research was alarming. Consider, she argues, that for millions of young women, hosting or waiting tables is their first job. “It is the industry through which they learn what is tolerable and acceptable in the workplace.”

She backs this up with data (higher rates of sexual harassment in states paying tipped workers differently from non-tipped workers) and anecdotally (women who failed to report sexual harassment in later employment because, compared to what they’d endured, “it was never as bad as it was” in restaurants.

But for all there is to recommend Forked, there is a bias that must be acknowledged. The book promotes the work of ROC, a nonprofit co-founded by Jayaraman, and lacks the outsider perspective of books like Nickel and Dimed and Fast Food Nation.

While this bias is worth keeping in mind, it doesn’t discredit her argument — her research and data are still valid, just maybe not as comprehensive as that of independent lab testing.

That only slightly tempers my enthusiasm for this book. Forked is well-written and informative, and I think it’s a must-read for American diners — especially if they’ve never known the joy of cleaning out the deep fryer.