fiction

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.”

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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.

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: 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: 2.2.16

Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-Four Books That Can Changes Lives

David Denby

When I was in high school, I wanted to write my junior project on Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. I chose it 9780805095852_LitUp_JK.inddbecause it was a controversial and frequently banned book, and I thought, from the title, that it might be a horror novel. I went to our school’s library and looked it up in the card catalog (here is a link if you don’t know what that is), only to find that it was already checked out.

The library had one other Vonnegut book, so I figured I’d give that one a try. That book was Cat’s Cradle, and it’s not hyperbole to say that it changed my life forever.

That’s what great books are supposed to do. Great books stay with you. They inspire you. They grow with you. I’ve read Cat’s Cradle two more times since high school, and I look forward to reading it a few more times before I die.

I may have never picked up that book — and pursued a literary life — were it not for that junior project. This is why education and youth literacy is so important — and why New Yorker staff writer and culture critic David Denby’s new book, Lit Up, is a must-read.

In something of a sequel to his Great Books, Denby returns to 10th grade English class to see what literature is being taught and how it is being received by youth whose lives are dominated by LCD screens.

I hope that somewhere, some alienated teenager has flipped to the last page of Cat’s Cradle, intoxicated by its madhouse narrative, and is reading that devastating final paragraph that begins, “If I were a younger man, I’d write a history of human stupidity…”

I also recommend Denby’s 2009 book, Snark.

 

The Sound of Time

Jeremy Essex

This book may as well have been custom made for me. It involves the graveyard shift, factory workers and aThe Sound of Time psychology student. There wasn’t much I enjoyed about working in a steel mill, but one thing I loved was the creepiness of the rusted factory.

Cleaning the warehouse evoked a unique sense of dread. I was alone, sweeping the aisles between stacks of steel coils fifteen feet high. Knowing that if one of the coils fell, it would be a long time before they found me.

Essex’s novel is less about the physical threats of factory work, but more about the ghosts allegedly haunting the place. Essex incorporates quantum physics to add another layer of creepy.

Forget ghosts. The spooky implications of quantum physics can elicit more chills than a campfire tale.

The combination of setting, science and quality storytelling make The Sound of Time a hit for horror fans.

Review: Dead by Midnight

Pamela Clare

Dead by Midnight

As 2015 comes to an end, so too does the best romantic suspense series in the genre. Beginning with 2005’s Extreme Dead by MidnightExposure, and totaling seven full-length novels and five shorter works, Clare’s I-Team has earned a rabid following and produced numerous best-sellers.

The series comes to an end (for now) with the wonderful short novel Dead by Midnight.

For the finale, Clare brings together all of the previous I-Team characters, who have the misfortune of attending a holiday party at a hotel targeted for a political attack. Though the narco-terrorists claim to want nothing more than a hostage release, the I-Team learns that they intend to leave no survivors.

Working against the clock, and with an outside assist from the FBI Hostage Rescue Team (consisting of characters from the best-selling Kaylea Cross book series), the I-Team faces the realization that they might not survive to see another year.

First off, a disclosure: I do have a connection to this author and this series. Clare is the pen name of acclaimed journalist Pamela White, and she was my editor from 2003 – 2007 at the Boulder Weekly newspaper. Also, she named one of the I-Team characters (the hunkiest one, of course, Julian Darcangelo) after me, and a few years ago I was her guest at a romance writing convention.

Regardless of these connections, I loved this book. I devoured it in three sittings. Clare’s writing style is intense and engaging, and the characters so well-developed that you’re quickly invested in their stories, even if this is your first I-Team encounter (though I would recommend starting with books one, Extreme Exposure, and two, Hard Evidence).

Clare’s specialty is hot, edgy sex scenes, and she does not disappoint in Dead by Midnight. It begins with a sex scene, and the first stiff member appears in the opening paragraph. Classic Clare. The romance is paired with equally visceral scenes of violence and heroism. Clare is the rare author who can titillate, terrify and elicit cheers from her readers in a single chapter.

Her two-plus decades as a reporter lend authenticity to the I-Team series, which centers around a team of investigative journalists. Some of the darkest elements of her tales come directly from personal experience, and this brings verisimilitude to her narratives. She also incorporates insider details to flesh out her stories, including the financial struggles and political landmines of working in the industry, the personal risk of the profession and the emotional toll of publishing power dynamics.

My favorite parts concern the I-Team’s dirtbag editor and publisher, who bear striking resemblances to our former boss, as does, fittingly, the lead villain in Dead by Midnight (“The way to his heart wasn’t through sex or money, but his ego. That’s how it was with all narcissists”).

But even if you’ve never picked up a newspaper, let alone worked in a newsroom, you’ll enjoy Dead by MidnightThis short novel is the perfect holiday read. It’s got something for everyone, and for the I-Team faithful, it is both reunion and farewell.

But only for now, I hope. Further adventures will be on the wish list of all I-Team readers in the coming years.

For the time being, finish out 2015 with this delightful read, the culmination of a decade of thrilling twists and unforgettable trysts.

Review: Suspended in Dusk

There are 19 good reasons to read Suspended in Dusk, including contributions from new and veteran writers such as Ramsey Campbell, Karen Runge and Angela Slatter. Dusk - New CoverBut if you could only read one story in this collection, I’d direct you to Chris Limb’s “Ministry of Outrage.”

The best horror goes beyond the surface scare to uncover the darkness that lurks beneath. It’s refreshing when an author reveals something new or offers a unique perspective on something known. In “Ministry of Outrage,” Limb captures the spirit of troll-driven message boards, cyber-witch hunts and divisive political rhetoric.

Limb’s premise is startlingly simple: What if the horrific news stories we see online are fake? We’ve all wished for that to be true at some point, when confronting an atrocity so deplorable that you tell yourself it can’t be real. The ever-churning news cycle helps. Bad news disappears as quickly as it emerges. Remember the story of the stomped Pomeranian? We don’t want it to be real, and once it’s gone from the headlines, it’s easy to imagine that it never happened.

We move on to the next atrocity.

Except that sour burn in our gut remains. The venom percolates, though the snakebite is forgotten. What happens to that unresolved rage? It carries over to the next horror-show, compounding until we’re not even sure where it came from.

And when we find a deserving victim, we attack with all that self-righteous rage.

Maxwell is the narrator of Limb’s tale, and it’s his job to generate this negativity. He creates propaganda films disguised as headline news designed to enrage, and thereby control, the masses.

One such video shows protesters at the trial of an alleged child-killer. He describes the appearance of the angry mob.

“A woman’s face, contorted in anger, the light of hell burning in her eyes. The eyes. Beneath the fury there was something almost happy about them. A joy at being permitted such anger.”

That is Maxwell’s terrifying revelation. The people are already angry. It’s his job to invent a safe target at which they can direct it. Hate is not reactionary, but is rather an effect seeking a cause to justify it.

Want proof? Peruse the Facebook postings of your most partisan friends, whichever side they may support. You’ll find commentary ostensibly responding to the news of the day. But look closer. You’ll read yesterday’s anger spilling into a new vessel.

Hey, I’m no better. We’re all guilty. It’s part of being human. And that’s what makes “Ministry of Outrage” so chilling. As Maxwell’s boss explains, “Not far beneath the veneer of civilization lurk these barely human monsters.”

Spree killings. Rampage violence. Donald Trump. These are not the products of isolated events. These are not proportionate responses to reality. These are the results of aimless rage for which we seek a straw man to blame and punish.

Sartre taught us that existence precedes essence, and so it is with vindictive anger. Rage precedes reason. The time-bomb was set before its target was identified. This is as horrifying as it gets.

And this is horror fiction at its best.

I don’t mean to give short shrift to the other contributions in this anthology, such as Alan Baxter’s “Shadows of the Lonely Dead” and Anna Reith’s “Taming the Stars.” These are fabulous stories worthy of equal discussion, and you’ll find your own favorites within the pages of Suspended in Dusk.

But you may want to follow that up with some Pema Chodron.