speculative

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.

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: The Monstrous

The Monstrous

Ed. by Ellen Datlow

Funny how some words have lost their meaning over time. Take “awesome” or “sublime.” Historically, these were Monstrouswords of great consequence, usually associated with nature, not a text-message autocomplete. Living in the Rocky Mountains, I experience the truly awesome and sublime often. The top of a 14’er is the perfect intersection of unspeakable beauty and profound terror.

The point being that you should bring a more elemental perspective to Ellen Datlow’s latest anthology, The Monstrous. The “monsters” here do not conform to the creature-feature definition. Rather, these are encounters with the beautiful and the displaced. Characters confront things that shouldn’t be and must reconcile these irregulars with natural law.

Yes, there are literal monsters in this collection, but more often than not the stories in The Monstrous live in our periphery. The terror doesn’t always come from the creatures, but from the intersection of different worlds.

The essential story of this collection, in my opinion, is “Giants in the Earth” by Dale Bailey. It begins with a classic horror trope of innocent laborers unearthing something beyond their comprehension. But rather than something horrible, they encounter something emotionally overwhelming, so much so that witnesses come away with vacant expressions.

This is not terror, but fascination. This is the thrill of the unexplained. I had a strong emotional reaction to this story because it really delved into the subconscious (fittingly set, of course, in the depths of a mine). If you’ve ever cried for no reason, or been overwhelmed by the beauty of something, you’ll get it. From start to finish, “Giants in the Earth” is a deeply impacting tale.

As always, Caitlín Kiernan delivers a satisfying haunt with “The Beginning of the Year Without Summer,” a psychedelic twist of science and speculation that unnerves with its unresolved tension. Like much of her writing, it put me in the mind of Bradbury — and that’s a headspace I enjoy.

Once again, Datlow has compiled an all-star lineup of the biggest names and rising stars in horror. Familiar bylines (Kim Newman, Peter Straub, Brian Hodge, Stephen Graham Jones) make contributions, with Jones’ “Grindstone” being one of the strongest in the collection.

Among the finest tales is A.C. Wise’s “Chasing Sunset,” which puts a Lovecraftian twist on father-son conflict. It’s short and brutal and, like the rest of the collection, disturbingly fun.

But perhaps the darkest offering in the lot is Livia Llewellyn’s “The Last, Clean, Bright Summer,” a thoroughly troubling epistolary that reads like a modern re-telling of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” but set in the Pacific Northwest. Llewellyn is willing to delve into the nightmare spaces even Lovecraft feared to tread.

For my money, this is the official book for Halloween 2015, a collection of shadows, scales, flesh and bone that is beautiful and unsettling all at once. You will recognize some of the monsters in here as ones you’ve faced in your darkest anxiety dreams — and others that you’ve never imagined before, but won’t be able to forget.

Review: The Fold

The Fold

Peter Clines

Peter Clines is my new favorite author in the horror universe. His previous novel, 14, was a page-burner that flipped The Foldthe haunted house tale inside-out (quite literally). For his new book, he makes origami of the space-time continuum.

The Fold begins on the last day before summer vacation. Mike Erikson is a high-school English teacher with a special talent: he never forgets anything. This is both a blessing and a curse. He’s intellectually gifted, but suffers the burden of remembering everything that has ever happened to him. At the prodding of an old friend, he audits a secretive research project in San Diego known as the Albuquerque Door.

At first, the Door — which facilitates trans-dimensional travel via a shortcut through the multiverse — is considered a breakthrough. By a simple bend in space-time (and with the help of some Victorian-era equations), the research team is able to transport objects, animals and people from one place to another.

Erikson soon detects something off with the project, though. Despite the personal rewards and social benefit that would accompany the announcement of their world-changing discovery, the scientists (who are suspicious of his investigation) keep the Door in development for years.

Oh, and there is also that seldom-discussed matter of the researcher who went through the Door, suffered a mental breakdown upon return and has been institutionalized since.

As Erikson digs deeper, he uncovers the shady history of the project and its shortcut through the multiverse. It all comes apart when a transport goes badly. The Door opens a pathway through a nightmare dimension that could destroy all others if they can’t get it shut.

That’s when this dice-roll with the universe becomes a Frankensteinian fable.

Clines is a master at developing quirky heroes in slanted realities. He doesn’t rely on gore, violence or trauma to create a sense of unease. He terrorizes with subtlety, pointing out the off-kilter among the mundane and letting it gnaw at the reader’s mind.

There is horror that sucks you down the rabbit hole through a trap door. Not Clines. He takes you there via quicksand. The dude is merciless.

The Fold incorporates many genres, from detective fiction and literary horror, to science fiction and Lovecraftian terror. Clines’ prose sweeps you through the chapters, breathing in and out of the tension without ever losing the narrative pace. I could have easily read this in one sitting, and just may have if my plane hadn’t landed in Reykjavik before I reached the end.

Though easily one of my favorite books of the year so far, The Fold does have some flaws. Erikson, on the whole, is an engaging and likeable protagonist, and for the first 200 pages or so is entirely believable. However, as we approach the climax he becomes too powerful and loses his vulnerability. It’s easy to root for the humble, nerdy English instructor. Not as much when he’s able to score women outside his area code and fend off other-worldly monsters more skillfully than the Marines.

Despite these stretches of the imagination, The Fold, is a smart thriller that uses quantum physics as a launchpad for terror. Like Lovecraft, Clines knows that the greatest threat is not the one that seeks you, but the one you stumble upon, that stares back at you when you gaze too long into the abyss.

In any dimension, the greatest threat to mankind is, well, mankind. The greatest horrors are those of our own making.

Understanding this is what makes Clines one of the best horror writers of the moment — and makes The Fold a must-read summer thriller.

Review: Get in Trouble

Kelly Link

Get in Trouble

Ordering the TOC of a short story collection is as much an art as creating the perfect mix tape. A well-crafted opener not only immerses the reader ingetintrouble its singular world and characters, but sets the tone for the remainder of the book and (please forgive the MFA speak) instructs the reader how to manage the text.

One of the finest examples I’ve read is “The Summer People,” which opens this new collection from the brilliant Kelly Link.

In this darkly beautiful fable a troubled teenager, Fran, is abandoned by her derelict, single father. Despite having the flu, Fran is tasked with caring for “The Summer People” on her own. Let’s just say that these are not the usual demanding bnb folks, and their manner of expressing their displeasure is far more sinister than writing a negative review on TripAdvisor.

What makes Fran so compelling is the way she calmly navigates between the grim earthly realm and the fantastical one that is equally familiar to her. Like many teenagers, she is suffocated by her small-town bubble and difficult home life, yet also has the mental elasticity to take the magical in stride.

In short, she is overwhelmed by her father’s alcoholism and religious fugues, yet unfazed by houseguests from the spiritual realm.

And so it goes through all the tales in Get in Trouble. All is possible and plausible in Link’s slipstream world, in which awkward teenagers are thrown to the wolves. These stories are reminiscent of Ray Bradbury, not necessarily in style, but in tone. It’s a celebration of youth, imagination and nostalgia for an age when anything was possible.

“The Summer People” reminds me why I love short stories in the first place.

Next up is “I Can See Right Through You,” a weird and hilarious romp through fame, celebrity and heartbreak. Two past-their-prime actors, who were formerly on- and off-screen lovers, have descended to the depths of shameless quasi-fame: she a television “ghost hunter” and he the star of a leaked sex tape. They cross paths at a “haunted” nudist camp (which sounds like Heart of Darkness reimagined by Chuck Palahniuk), and despite the bizarre premise, the ending is absolutely beautiful.

As are all the stories in this collection, a world of lonely, precocious youth and unlikely superheroes (and the occasional dentist) that blurs the magical with the mundane.

Link is an author who has long teetered on the brink of superstardom, cultivating a diehard following with her first three story collections. Get in Trouble, her fourth offering, should bring her the widespread literary acclaim she deserves.

M.K. Wren, A Gift Upon the Shore

It’s interesting reading M.K. Wren’s classic novel nearly a quarter century since its release in 1990. For one thing, a nuclearGift apocalypse sounds downright quaint and makes me eerily nostalgic for my childhood fears of nuclear annihilation.

Aside from that, A Gift Upon the Shore is timeless—and even prescient. Following a wave of destruction, two women begin building a library in coastal Oregon, dedicated to preserving the great works of literature, history, and, by extension, civilization. Unfortunately, their only neighbors are a group of fundamentalist survivors who promote the destruction of all books other than the Bible.

In 2013, libraries and bookstores are struggling, Texas school boards are editing history and I downloaded the novel, in a matter of seconds, from a Web site onto my e-reader (unthinkable in 1990).

OK, Wren isn’t exactly Nostradamus. Folks were probably declaring the death of books within hours of Guttenberg’s invention, and fundamentalists have far less sway than they did during the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. Even Salman Rushdie has been able to come out of hiding.

But like Wren’s protagonists, digital publishing has guaranteed that our literary history will live on, from the freedom of publishing in the medium to noble endeavors like Project Guttenberg.

A Gift Upon the Shore remains a wondrously beautiful novel, whatever the era, and one worthy of a revisit or a first look.