fiction

Review: Kill Creek

Scott Thomas

Kill Creek

I would categorize Kill Creek as a cozy horror novel, and I mean that in the best possible way. This is a book built for a windy night and a warm beverage. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a format-busting novel like House of Leaves, Horrorstor or Marabou Stork Nightmares. Other times I’m in the mood for a classic tale, well told, such as Kill Creek.

Scott Thomas plays the hits in his debut novel. He takes on classic themes and pays tribute to a long lineage of gothic/ghost stories: the writer protagonist with a troubled past; a house haunted by an historic injustice; curses that spread like a virus to destroy all infected; and a supernatural presence that preys on its victims’ emotional vulnerabilities.

Our protagonist is Sam McGarver, an author who has had some initial success but has hit a creative dead-end. He spends most of his time teaching at the local university and trying to keep his marriage from falling apart.

Out of the blue, he’s asked to participate in an online publicity stunt–a Halloween sleepover with three other horror authors in one of the most haunted houses in America. Reluctantly, Sam agrees.

Joining him are T.C. Moore, the take-no-shit weaver of extreme horror that likely would have been labeled splatterpunk three decades ago. Sebastian Cole, the elderly statesman/Stephen King type who has had decades of both commercial success and literary street cred. And Daniel Slaughter, who writes young-adult Christian horror with strong moral lessons.

The dynamic between the characters is intriguing, and I enjoyed the action when they were all together for the first time. For me, those were the strongest parts of the book. Unfortunately, their time together at the beginning is too short, and when they reconvene at the house for the final act, they don’t have the emotional bond that would’ve made me more invested in their outcomes.

There are some other shortcomings, such as the characters of Moore and Slaughter. Moore, at least, is an intriguing character, and I wanted more of her at centerstage. For the first half of the novel she’s a badass, but becomes more two-dimensional as the novel progresses. She more or less disappears in the final act, which is a shame.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much to Slaughter’s character. He’s likeable and pitiable when we first meet him, and his affection for his daughter is endearing. There seemed to be a lot of potential there that was left unfulfilled, and I found him to be sadly unbelievable by the end.

Overall, I found Kill Creek very fun and enjoyable, and for the first half of it, I considered it a five-star read. However, the second half really dragged due to an overlong action sequence and predictable plot points.

I was discouraged near the end, but ultimately Thomas delivers a solid ending with an unexpected turn.

Kill Creek was an incredibly fun book to read. It’s a fast and furious adventure as comfortable as a campfire tale. The nights are getting cooler, and pretty soon we’ll be in Halloween season. This is the perfect book to get you in the mood.

Review: A Short Stay in Hell

Steven L. Peck

A Short Stay in Hell

What fresh hell is this? Actually, Peck’s take on the underworld is quite fresh and not at all what I was expecting. Now, if you’d told me that hell was a library where the books were unreadable, I’d say that was some Saw-level torture porn.

But that is not what this book is about. In fact, Peck is at first able to sell this premise to the reader in such a way that it appears to be a pretty light sentence. By the time we realize how truly horrible it is, we’ve learned there are far worse things to be found in hell.

Other people.

That’s right, this book about the afterlife, written by a Mormon ecologist, deserves a place firmly on the existentialism shelf of your library. 

Let’s backtrack a moment for context. In this philosophical novella, Soren, a lifelong Mormon, dies and learns that he has chosen the wrong god and has been sent to a Zoroastrian hell. It’s not too bad at first: Meals are provided. You can still have sex. You can get drunk without hangovers. You are once again 25 and wake every morning pain free. And you live for near eternity inside a library.

However, each occupant of hell has one task, and that is to search the stacks of books until they find the one that tells their life story in full. Once that’s accomplished, this denizen of hell will be reshelved in heaven.

There are two problems:

First, this hell is based on Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, “The Library of Babel,” which concerns a library that contains not just every book that has ever been written, but also every possible book that ever could be written, including all configurations of letters, numbers and symbols.

It’s not infinite, but may as well be for practical purposes. Even worse, not only does it take eons to find the correct book, it is next to impossible to even find a readable one. (In this biblio multiverse, there necessarily exists a book consisting only of periods, another of semicolons, and every combination of the two.)

Books, books everywhere, but not a one to read.

It’s a fate worse than that of Henry Bemis, who at least could take comfort in suicide or look forward to a natural expiration date.

The second problem with this hell is that Soren is not alone, which is a mixed bag. On the wall of the library, there is a list of rules for enjoying a good afterlife. The first rule:

“Please be kind. Treat others as you would like to be treated. Failure to do this will bring unhappiness and misery to you and your fellow citizens.”

Considering how poorly humanity followed this rule on Earth, you can imagine how well this goes over in hell.

A Short Stay in Hell is a quick and easy read. I read it in less than two hours, but don’t be fooled. The final page is just the beginning of the exercise, not the end of the book. Unlike most philosophy, the reading is the easy part. It is the thought experiment that occupies your mind long after that is the challenge. I’ve struggled so much to describe this book that I’ve already referenced Dorothy Parker, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Twilight Zone, existentialism in general and the Saw franchise in search of analogs.

And I’m not done. There’s some Kierkegaard coming as well. That’s a lot to pack into a 102-page book.

That said, it’s not perfect. Parts of the novella would have benefited from a deeper study (such as the rise and reign of the Direites, a violent cult that takes control of Soren’s region of the library). The quality of the prose is also inconsistent. Peck has a lot of strengths (philosophy, science, writing, theology), but urban fantasy is not one of them. His depiction of the Zoroastrian demon feels like a clumsy attempt to mimic the humor of Christopher Moore or Tom Robbins (though I was picking up some major Sean Murphy peripatetic vibes).

Otherwise, his writing is direct, easy to read and unobtrusive, but Peck’s intellect and ideas are much stronger than his prose. He has masterfully recreated an absurd scenario that would make any of the French existentialists proud:

A man finds himself inside a near-infinite library of gibberish and is tasked with finding the true story of his life (or the meaning of his existence, you might say). He wakes in a random point in the library that is of no relation to the location of the book he needs to find. He has no map. There are others who have, by chance, been born around the same time as him and happen to also occupy the same random section of the library. And in the afterlife, as in the original, the search for meaning often gets sidelined by disasters, distractions and creature comforts.

There are nine rules posted to the library walls, and they read like an existentialist creed: be kind, try not to die, everything is temporary, you can feel incredibly lonely despite never actually being alone.

Mostly, it’s the other people that make the library unpleasant. As above, so below.

So what about Kierkegaard? The library is divided by a wide chasm, with no way to cross from one side to the other (and what if the book you need is on the other side?). It’s an unbridgeable gap of unfathomable depth. An abyss, if you will. Soren (like his Danish namesake) considers leaping into it, but doesn’t do so until it becomes the only way to escape the daily torture of the Direites.

He quickly learns that in the abyss you can fall for thousands of years and still not hit the bottom, dying a million times from starvation along the way.

It’s a fate worse than Kierkegaard ever contemplated. Missing is the romance of surrender, the glorious descent and the annihilation of self. When our Soren leaps into the gap, it is an act of desperation, not salvation. And it’s a long way down.

Simone de Beauvoir, The Blood of Others

De Beauvoir’s novel of romance and resistance, set against the backdrop of an advancing German war machine, is rich with tension, moral turmoil and philosophy. On the surface, there is a love story between Jean and Helene, but beneath the richly layered text is an Existentialist argument on personal responsibility and collective guilt.

First, we must address the style of writing. The ever-shifting tense and POV is jarring and unsettling, but as the first chapter resolves, it is breathtaking. It had such a profound effect on me that I went back to the beginning and started reading it all over again.

What first felt disjointed was ultimately evocative as it established the characters, setting and emotional tone in a far more effective manner than straight narrative. (I’m not comparing these two books, but an analog would be Slaughterhouse-Five, which is all the more powerful for its disorienting jumps in time and space.)

Beneath the stylized prose is the core of Existential thought: Life does not contain inherent meaning. We do not choose to be born, nor do we choose the conditions into which we are born, yet we are, to an extent, at the mercy of these conditions—whether one is born wealthy or poor, during a time of war and plague or one of peace and prosperity.

Whatever the conditions, the only truly objective fact is that we exist. Now what?

Jean is the son of a wealthy capitalist, but as he reaches adulthood he can’t bear the burden of unearned affluence. He cuts himself off from this family and their money and takes up a trade so as to live as a member of the working class. But as his working-class pals explain to him, he will never belong to that social class because he had the luxury of choosing that life.

So what is Jean’s obligation? Should he benefit from the accident of higher birth? Or should he toil for the sake of a solidarity that he knows he’ll never achieve?

As the Nazis advance across Europe, the debates about class and organized labor shift to whether France should intervene in Austria and Poland.

While those around him argue the virtues of pacifism and nonviolence, Jean offers a counterpoint.

“I’ve learned from this war that there’s as much guilt in sparing blood as in shedding it,” he says.

He argues that while killing German soldiers and French collaborators would make them guilty of murder, they are equally guilty for the Jews being murdered due to their inaction.

This is the moral crux of the novel: Both the actions we take and those that we don’t (either by choice or ignorance) have profound consequences on others, even those we will never meet. Therefore, if it is impossible to act in a way that doesn’t harm others, what is one’s moral obligation?

De Beauvoir has essentially created an Existentialist version of the trolley problem.

Or as Rush sang, “If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice.”

Another aspect of The Blood of Others that I really appreciate is that it provides a different perspective of WWII. Western culture clings tight to this time period because we see it as the last era of moral absolutism—the last time there was a righteous, uncontested war.

At least that’s how we choose to remember it.

While in hindsight, yes, WWII was a righteous cause, but choosing how to engage with Germany in advance was far more complicated than we think of it today. De Beauvoir shows us a different perspective of Paris both before and during the Occupation, when a western society that valued peace and nonviolence was forced to contend with fascism.

“What could we do if, by living up to the values in which we believed, we brought about their defeat? Were we to become slaves to remain free, or kill to keep our hands clean? Must we lose our freedom because we refused slavery, and sully ourselves with a thousand crimes because we would not kill? I no longer knew.”

The Blood of Others also transcends its era. Though set during WWII, it conveys an important message to our current times. Generally speaking, the west has spent the past 75 years basking in the glory of WWII, and has enjoyed the luxury of moral certitude.

But recently, fascism has taken hold in the west, just as Camus warned us it would at the end of The Plague. In describing how the west was at a crossroads, de Beauvoir could very well be speaking to the U.S. and England during the run-up to the 2016 elections:

“Is it possible to stop a country from committing suicide?”

While de Beauvoir masterfully represents the various arguments for and against France’s entry into the war, she is ultimately an Existentialist. We exist. Now what? The triumvirate of de Beauvoir, Camus and Sartre agreed that the only way for meaning to exist is by imposing it onto an absurd, meaningless reality. If there is as much guilt in sparing blood as in shedding it, Jean decides that it is better to accept that burden after acting on one’s conscience.

“You have not given me peace; but why should I desire peace? You have given me the courage to accept forever the risk and the anguish, to bear my crimes and my guilt, which will rend me eternally. There is no other way.”

Such is the nature of the absurd.

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: The Cabin at the End of the World

The Cabin at the End of the World

Paul Tremblay

I have enjoyed other novels by Tremblay (A Head Full of Ghosts and The Little Sleep especially), but The Cabin at the End of the World (which won the Bram Stoker award for CabinattheEndoftheWorldbest novel earlier this year) is his most artful and thought-provoking book yet. Part home-invasion, part-apocalyptic tale, Cabin is an innovative take on both genres, and I confess that the opening chapter caught me flat-footed.

The premise is simple enough: A couple, Andrew and Eric, take their young daughter, Wen, on vacation to a remote cabin in New England. A stranger approaches Wen and introduces himself as Leonard. He is physically imposing yet disarmingly friendly and immediately hits it off with Wen. It’s a slow-burn as the two of them interact, because clearly there is menace behind Leonard’s courtesy.

Part of what makes Cabin so powerful, though, is that while there is menace, there is no malice behind Leonard’s actions. He, along with three other end-times enthusiasts, believe they have been chosen to save the world from destruction. But they lack the glee of your typical doomsayers, and instead are apologetic and polite — yet firm in their conviction: One of the three occupants of the cabin — either Andrew, Eric or Wen — has to sacrifice their life to save humanity.

That’s it. Seven characters, one claustrophobic location (with the exception of occasional flashbacks and a few glimpses of the television) and brilliant characterization.

What makes this tale so unnerving is how mundane and poorly improvised everything is. Look, I’m a fan of the home invasion genre, but the criticism that it is lazy is often deserved. Typically, the perpetrators are criminal savants who devise flawless traps and morality puzzles while somehow maintaining a pathological drive to get to the people inside the house.

Tremblay’s intruders are all too human. They stumble, they bicker, they second-guess themselves, and in turn this makes them all too real. Most home invasions aren’t carried out by evil geniuses. They tend to be sloppy affairs performed by amateurs who are scared and desperate and don’t often have a plan once they get in the door.

And when we learn the tactic they use to apply pressure on Andrew and Eric it becomes even more apparent how delusional they are.

Philosophically, this is Tremblay’s most ambitious effort, and the interplay between the narrative and social commentary is well-managed. The message comes through organically, and the uncertainty of whether what is happening in the outside world is real or not is disorienting and adds to the horror.

In fact, the inability of any character, or the reader, to fully comprehend what is true (has the apocalypse really begun?) allows every character to exculpate their behavior. For Leonard and his fellow eschatologists, who periodically turn on cable news during the occupation, the catastrophic reportage of broadcast media confirms their prophetic visions. For a pragmatist like Andrew, media sensationalism is the cause of their delusions, not confirmation. And for the gullible and concussed Eric, it could all be coincidence, or it could be something else.

At the end of the day, The Cabin at the End of the World is a delightful horror novel first and social studies second, but the unsettling truth of the book is that through technology we’ve all become the occupants of a personal version of Tremblay’s cabin, so to speak. We cut ourselves off from others, consume media that confirms our worldviews and infer the motivations of others to fit our own narrative. Even Andrew, the most grounded of all the characters, falls prey to a conspiratorial line of thinking that influences his perspective of the intruders.

This brings us to the role of sacrifice and the group’s requirement that any deaths be voluntary. It’s a curious move on Tremblay’s part, and at times makes Leonard’s behavior self-contradictory. But the truth is humans are messy, and we often contradict ourselves, especially when working from incomplete information and in heated moments where we reduce our opponent’s intentions to the basest of motivations.

In the end, we only hurt ourselves or the ones close to us. At one point, Andrew and Eric share a silent, uneasy moment that says as much about our current affairs as it does about the two of them:

“We’re afraid for each other and we’re afraid of ourselves. How can we go on? At this shared thought, we turn away from the television screen and away from each other.”

A brilliant line in a brilliant novel, and a fitting epitaph for the human race should the world truly end tomorrow.

Review: Tinfoil Butterfly

Tinfoil Butterfly

Rachel Eve Moulton

This dynamic debut novel begins in motion — two strangers in a van charging throughTinfoilButterfly the barrens of South Dakota — and never lets its foot off the gas. Our narrator, Emma, leads us on a brutal and heartbreaking journey that is as delightful as it is disturbing.

Emma is on the run from her troubled past, wounded physically and spiritually, and hitches a ride with a dirtbag named Lowell. We meet her in peril, but soon learn that Emma is not as vulnerable as her circumstances suggest.

Leaving Lowell for dead by the side of the highway, she drives his van toward the Badlands as a snowstorm rolls in. Low on gas, Emma takes an off ramp in hopes of finding a rest stop, but instead rolls to a stop in front of a shuttered diner — but she is not alone.

Enter Earl, a precocious child wearing a tinfoil mask to cover scars of his own.

Emma is thrust into Earl’s nightmare home life, where they are stalked by his sadistic father. World’s collide when a figure from Emma’s past finds her in this abandoned town, bent on revenge.

Emma and Earl may be an odd couple, but both have a resourcefulness borne of abuse, and they have to fight together if either are to survive the Badlands.

This is easily one of the best novels I’ve read this year, and an introduction to a new author I’m excited to read more from. Among new authors to watch, I would place Moulton alongside Carmen Maria Machado (Her Body and Other Parties) and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (Friday Black).

Hopelessness reigns throughout Tinfoil Butterfly. Emma claws her way out of one crisis into another, and the only victories available to her are Pyrrhic. By the end of this deathmatch all the characters have shed blood and flesh and will wear the scars forever.

Likewise, this book will haunt the reader long after it’s been finished and placed on the shelf.

Review: Friday Black

Friday Black: Stories

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

Friday Black is the most exciting debut of short fiction I’ve read since Carmen Maria Friday BlackMachado’s Her Body and Other Parties, and I would argue this is the most important work of fiction of the past year. If you’re troubled by the rise of white nationalism and right-wing terrorism, this book will in turns console, enrage and rally you.

I ground my teeth reading these stories, horrified at the injustices revealed within, particularly two inspired by George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin in 2012 but was acquitted of second-degree murder charges.

However, to say that injustices are revealed is not exactly the right term, as Adjei-Brenyah doesn’t show us anything we don’t already know. These are not quite reflections of reality either, but rather refractions, a spoon bending in a glass of water.

I would include the lead story, “The Finkelstein 5,” in my all-time top 40 short stories. In this tale, a black man, Emmanuel, navigates each moment conscious of his “Blackness.” Talking on the phone, he can dial down his “Blackness” to a 1.5 out of 10, but in person the lowest he can go is a 4.0.

At the mall, he maintains a “smooth 5.0.” When a cashier forgets to give him a receipt for his purchase, he asks her for it, knowing that the store’s security guard will ask for proof of purchase on his way out.

The degenerative effect of this constant self-monitoring and the frustration it causes screams from the opening paragraph:

“Fela, the headless girl, walked toward Emmanuel. Her neck jagged with red savagery. She was silent, but he could feel her waiting for him to do something, anything.”

In the story, a George Zimmerman-inspired character, named George, has beheaded five black children with a chainsaw outside a public library. He was acquitted because he believed he was in danger, and as his attorney argues, in America, “if you believe something, anything, then that’s all that counts.”

While en route to a job interview, Emmanuel bumps into a friend who is part of a vigilante group seeking retribution. They engage in “Naming”—attacking random white people while chanting the name of one of the murdered children. Emmanuel joins the group in the park, and, armed with a baseball bat, they find a target. As he chants the name “Fela St. John,” he allows his “Blackness” to rise to a 10.0.

What follows is an unexpected, but inevitable conclusion.

It’s no surprise that Adjei-Brenyah studied under George Saunders at Syracuse, as both men use near-future dystopias to reveal the absurdities of quotidian life that we accept as normal. From retail shops to classrooms to theme parks, Adjei-Brenyah explores the ways in which the totalitarian infects our daily lives, not with subtlety, but hyperbole.

It’s a reminder that dystopias are not imposed upon humanity—humans create them by elevating our worst tendencies (racism, vanity, consumerism, nationalism, etc.) into virtues. In fact, the oppressive environments and social customs in Adjei-Brenyah’s world are so believable that I worry it may be dismissive to refer to them as dystopias when they could well be different POVs of current reality.

The tale with the sharpest teeth is “Zimmer Land,” which concerns the inner turmoil of a black actor, Zay, working in a theme park where visitors can embrace their prejudices. His role is to walk along the sidewalk of a gated community and be confronted by the “homeowners.”

He wears a special protection suit equipped with blood packets for when he is inevitably shot in the name of law and order.

In one of the most heartbreaking passages, we see how this plays out. A patron runs from their house to confront him, asking him what he’s doing here. Zay says he lives there and asks what the patron is doing there. It’s a cyclical conversation that serves as pretense for the patron to shoot Zay in the street.

These two men asked each other the same question, and each gave the same answer. But clearly, “I live here” is only an acceptable answer for one of them.

Zay struggles with the ethics of his job, particularly when the park’s owner, Heland Zimmer, begins to allow entry to children.

Friday Black is a collection of funny, depressing, impactful stories of people trapped in impossible situations. It’s a biting look at 21st century America, and the arrival of a powerful new voice in fiction.

Review: Mira Grant, Into the Drowning Deep

I am grateful that the back cover synopsis of Mira Grant’s Into the Drowning Deep is vague about the plot. I’m usually not a fan of creature horror, and had I known the antagonists were mythical sea beasts, I likely wouldn’t have cracked the spine.

But I’m glad I did, because I absolutely loved this book. It is a page-burning horror cruise that generates terror through both claustrophobia and infinite Drowning_Deepspace (more about that later).

It begins with found footage of a documentary film crew searching for cryptids in the ocean (horror at sea and found footage—two of my favorite things!). But is the footage real, or simply a publicity stunt?

Considering the impossibility of what appears on the film, and a conspiratorial public ready to scream “crisis actor” when confronted with visual evidence it doesn’t want to be true, it’s unclear whether or not the video is a hoax.

Seven years later, a team is assembled aboard the Melusine to retrace the path of the doomed ship and return with answers to these questions. On board are dozens of scientists, a journalist (Olivia) and armed guards—and most notably, Tory, the sister of one of the victims of the earlier voyage.

So how is Grant able to elicit both claustrophobic and infinite terror at once? The appeal of seafaring horror, for me, is that it captures the smallness we feel when confronted with the vastness of the universe. Like Bowie’s Major Tom, a threshold is crossed at which point help is not possible.

Though the safety tethers aboard the Melusine are mostly psychological to begin with—radio contact, ornamental defense shields—when they are severed, the crew aboard the Melusine comes undone.

Once the creatures have breached the deck the infinite is replaced by something equally menacing: the finite. Following the scientists as they navigate the levels of the ship (in particular Olivia’s ascent through a glorified laundry chute) is true white-knuckle reading.

Thus far, this review has been quite vague—perhaps because I don’t want to reveal the monster component. Creature features only work when there is an element of social commentary, and Grant does a wonderful job of balancing a diverse cast of humans, creatures and their interactions without falling into the traps of cliché.

The ship becomes its own floating ecosystem. Relationships begin, loved ones are lost and when the social bonds of the passengers break down, it becomes a microcosm of a society that no longer knows how to communicate with one another.

For Tory and Olivia to survive and pursue their seafaring romance on land, they’ll need to overcome not only the threats of nature and sea, but also the voyage’s corporate sponsors and the other passengers.

Grant is a gifted writer, and she knows how to draw us in and then break our hearts. She gets us to invest in her characters, and isn’t afraid to kill them off. The blood and gore are bountiful on this adventure, but it’s the characters who make this one of the best horror novels of the past few years.

Sinclair Lewis: It Can’t Happen Here

Following the 2016 election, George Orwell’s 1984 was sold out online and rushed into sinclair_lewisanother print edition. Last year’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was a monster hit, and expectations are high for HBO’s stab at Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

If nothing else, the election has made dystopian fiction great again.

There is another classic that should be required reading for our times: Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here.

What sets this 1935 novel apart from the others is that there is no great cataclysm throwing the country into turmoil, and we are not dropped into a future dystopia with little understanding of how we got there. It Can’t Happen Here disturbs by how blasé the descent into fascism can be.

Before delving into the narrative, it’s important to distinguish between political philosophy and the rhetoric of politicians. Having particular opinions about fiscal policy, foreign diplomacy, and tax rates doesn’t make someone evil or racist or fascist.

Political philosophy is something that decent, intelligent people can debate with merit. They can share a common goal, but disagree on how to achieve it.

The rhetoric of politicians, however, is another matter, and this is what is most startling and prescient about It Can’t Happen Here. The novel begins at a Rotary meeting, with a populist speech by anti-suffragette Adelaide Tarr Gimmitch, calling for a return to traditional values.

“We don’t want all this high-brow intellectuality, all this book-learning,” she says.

Seated in the crowd is the hero, Doremus Jessup, local newspaperman. He warns the crowd of the dangers of fascism disguised as nationalism, the likes of which was rising in Germany and Italy at the time. When members of the audience dismiss his warnings with the refrain that it can’t happen here, Doremus prophetically retorts, “The hell it can’t.”

It’s been more than 80 years since the book was published, but the populist rhetoric is eerily familiar. The outside challenger to FDR is Buzz Windrip, who, parroting the words of his chief strategist, appeals to the “Forgotten Men” who don’t feel appreciated now that women have the right to vote. Windrip goes after other populist bogeymen: labor unions, minorities, Commies, and the press.

While that is the rhetoric of modern Republicans, it is not proprietary to any party. Windrip runs on a socialist platform in the novel, and for a real-world example, read Democrat George Wallace’s disgusting 1963 inauguration address (“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”).

As Lewis writes, “nothing so elevates a dispossessed farmer or a factory worker on relief as to have some race, any race, on which he can look down.”

During the campaign, Jessup muses that President Roosevelt and Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins (the first woman appointed to a U.S. cabinet position) “were far too lacking in circus tinsel and general clownishness to succeed at this critical hour of the nation’s hysteria, when the electorate wanted a ringmaster-revolutionist like Senator Windrip.”

Jessup can’t understand Windrip’s appeal and how he can draw such large audiences. “The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store.”

In one speech, Windrip vows “to make America a proud, rich land again.”

Cue the dystopia. Once empowered, Windrip erodes civil liberties and Jessup is torn between fighting as part of the resistance or fleeing to Canada. Resistance fighters (or those simply accused of this) are herded into camps.

Remember, this novel was published in 1935: before Pearl Harbor, before we learned of the concentration camps.

While Lewis can’t match Orwell, Atwood, and Bradbury for creative totalitarian societies, he bests them in verisimilitude—what Hannah Arendt would later call the “banality of evil.” There are no two-way TV monitors or book-burning firemen, but there are heavily armed militias editing all newspaper articles and “encouraging” loyalty from businesses and citizens.

Inevitably, there are camps, and there is a resistance force… but it is clear to Jessup that the resistance has come too late. What good could pamphlets do against propaganda? Not surprisingly, fatigue and hopelessness set in: “What conceivable reason could one have for seeking after righteousness in a world which so hated righteousness?”

Fast-forward 80-plus years, where daily scandals, transgressions, incoherent Tweets, and deceptions have become mundane. The inundation has numbed us to the absurdity. Whether it’s noble or naive, Lewis, through Jessup, encourages us to soldier on, even if the cause is lost.

Jessup answers his own query about why one should seek “after righteousness”: “He never did find any particularly good reason. He simply went on.”

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.