transgressive

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: 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.

Littérature Francaise: Marquis de Sade (part 2)

In May, Ensuing Chapters visited Paris and soaked up the books and culture of France. We’ve been celebrating this experience through the ongoing series, Littérature Francaise. Previous installments have covered Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus and part I of a discussion of Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom.

This week, we conclude our discussion of de Sade. In part I, we covered:

  • The international art scandal surrounding the original manuscript of Les Cent Vingt Journées de Sodome
  • The surface-level content of 120 Days, including layout
  • Some of the absurd fantasies explored in the text
  • Some critical commentary of the work from de Beauvoir and Georges Bataille

We closed with the assertion that despite its occasional absurdity, the book has a very serious side to be reckoned with.

Marquis de Moralist

Let’s begin the reckoning with de Beauvoir, whose essay, “Must We Burn Sade?”, is arguably the greatest critical 120 Days2account of 120 Days. She writes of de Sade, “…though not a consummate artist or a coherent philosopher, he deserves to be hailed as a great moralist.”

There’s a lot to unpack in that conclusion. De Sade’s enduring legacy is having sexual cruelty named in his honor. His definitive work is an epic of non-stop debasement, dismemberment, torture, rape and murder. De Sade was imprisoned more than once for acting out some of these fantasies on prostitutes.

How does he make the leap from monster to moralist?

There is something in de Sade’s philosophy that predicts Nietzsche. Human nature has a cruel streak, but rather than dividing us, it creates a de facto relationship between sadist and victim. This relationship exists prior to and outside of moral or utilitarian judgements. Opinions may be imposed a posteriori, but de Sade is more concerned with the relationship itself — the moment the whip kisses flesh, without the labels of good and evil, in what Sartre would call the unreflective consciousness.

This is where we must consider the Marquis.

He developed his philosophy, de Beauvoir writes, in his youth, when the young aristocrat realized that his sexual appetites deviated from the norm. But he did not wish to be an outsider. “The immensity of his literary effort shows how passionately he wished to be accepted by the human community,” she writes.

I won’t pretend to fully grasp all of de Beauvoir’s reasoning (and recommend you read the source material for yourself), but my takeaway from her essay is that the body limits freedom of the mind and prevents connections between people (what Bataille would call discontinuous beings). This distance robs others of their individuality and leaves us indifferent to one another.

To accept this indifference would be lazy. And it must be said that though the kill count in 120 Days is high, each death itself is singular. The uniqueness of each murder gives meaning to the flesh of its victim.

This sets up a curious tension within de Sade’s narrative. Curval, a judge whose greatest pleasure came from sending innocent men to the gallows (and one of the novel’s four “heroes”), makes the following observation: “What the devil difference can it make to Nature whether there are one, ten, twenty, five hundred more or fewer human beings on earth?”

This sets him at odds with the prostitute-storyteller, Duclos, who, though she dutifully relates her 150 tales, says, “…there is an almost unavoidable monotony in the recital of such anecdotes; all compounded, fitted into the same framework, they lose the luster that is theirs as independent happenings.”

This is a philosophy that would evolve through de Sade’s later writings. Though he wrote 120 Days prior to the Reign of Terror, seminal works such as Juliette, Philosophy in the Bedroom, The Crimes of Love and the third and final version of Justine were written following the Terror. In these books, de Sade revolted against the depersonalization of mass murder.

As de Beauvoir explains, “It is by such wholesale slaughters that the body politic shows only too clearly that it considers men as a mere collection of objects, whereas Sade demanded a universe peopled with individual beings.”

Rationalized or self-righteous murder, particularly in large, indiscriminate quantities, was not to be tolerated. Neither would the neutrality that left one’s conscience clean whilst atrocities took place.

“Is it not better to assume the burden of evil than to subscribe to this abstract good which drags in its wake abstract slaughters?” de Beauvoir writes.

The key phrase here is “burden of evil.” It’s not enough to act good or to avoid doing “evil.” It would be irresponsible to deny the dark side of our nature, and the consequences of willful ignorance are bloody. She adds, “He was sure, in any case, that a man who was content with whipping a prostitute every now and then was less harmful to society than a farmer-general.”

This is the brilliance of de Beauvoir writ large. Whether or not you agree with de Sade’s philosophy, de Beauvoir cuts through the complexity and offers coherence the narrative lacked. In one of philosophy’s more mind-blowing, yet erudite passages, she concludes that de Sade was a moralist for the simple fact that, “He chose cruelty rather than indifference.”

Voice of the Victim

Bataille takes a particular interest in de Sade’s use of language. What is the Marquis really saying with his fiction? What is he truly revealing about himself?

On the one hand, 120 Days is about logical consequences. In a subversive twist on Kant’s categorical imperative, his120 days3 characters strictly pursue Libertine philosophy to its logical end. This is the place where all dogmas and ideologies fail. Belief systems (be they moral, religious or political) belie their logic when strictly enforced and universally applied. The Libertine philosophy of living by no moral constraints, in particular, is on shaky ground.

“One can see how the excesses of pleasure lead to the denial of the rights of other people which is, as far as man is concerned, an excessive denial of the principle upon which his life is based,” Bataille writes in Eroticism.

Libertinism is a self-defeating philosophy. De Sade revels in its fictitious excesses, which Bataille views as paradoxical: “…de Sade’s sovereign man has no actual sovereignty; he is a fictitious personage whose power is limited by no obligations.”

(Without going too far into the weeds, he means the sovereign man is dependent on the subjects who consent to his rule. Absolute power requires no consent, which negates its sovereignty. I think. It’s complicated.)

Let’s bring this philosophy back to the level of language. Bataille observes something curious in de Sade’s narrative, which I missed in my read. Despite appearances, when his “heroes” speak, de Sade’s protagonists use the language of the victim.

“In this way they fall short of the profound silence peculiar to violence, for violence never declares either its own existence or its right to exist; it simply exists,” he writes. “If such people had really lived, they would probably have lived in silence.”

Violence is deed, not words. Words are the realm of the victim, “the ground of the moral man to whom language belongs.” (The song goes “Give peace a chance.” Nobody’s ever had to make a PSA to promote violence. It propagates itself.)

As a result, de Sade is not writing about violence, but rather “a reflecting and rationalized will to violence.”

Bataille admits that reading de Sade is no easy task, both because of the content and the layers of complexity. His preference, he writes, is not to converse with de Sade’s champions, but rather with “people who are revolted by him.”

Enlightenment is not all puppies and rainbows, in other words. To confront reality is to assume de Beauvoir’s “burden of evil.” It is accepting the full spectrum of human capability.

“And if today the average man has a profound insight into what transgression means for him, de Sade was the one who made ready the path,” Bataille writes. “Now the average man knows that he must become aware of the things which repel him most violently — those things which repel us most violently are part of our own nature.”

De Sade shed light on our violent impulses and how they can become tangled up with sexuality and liberation. He posed a moral challenge that continues to trouble anyone confronted with his work.

I cede the final word on that to de Beauvoir, who nails the legacy of de Sade and why his work is still relevant today.

“The supreme value of his testimony lies in its ability to disturb us,” she writes. “It forces us to re-examine thoroughly the basic problem which haunts our age in different forms: the true relation between man and man.”

Littérature Francaise: Marquis de Sade (part 1)

No trip to Paris is complete without a visit to the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay, but our most interesting cultural stop was at the Musee de Lettres et Manuscrits, along Boulevard Saint-Germaine. Something was off from the moment we stepped inside. The entrance ramp was just a rickety plank of plywood set at an incline. Instead of the reverent whispers of the typical museum lobby, there was chatter and the rumble of movers and workmen.

Were they even open?

My girlfriend — fluent in français — was chatting with the woman behind the front desk. I had no idea what they were saying, but deduced that it wasn’t good news. Then the clerk uttered two words I understood: Bernie Madoff.

Sacré bleu!

Turns out the owner of the museum was on the run for defrauding investors and had to close down. (Madoff wasn’t actually involved, but turns out to be an international synonym for “con man.”)

This led me to revise the opening sentence of this essay:

No trip to Paris is complete without stumbling upon an international art scandal!

Mostly, this was better than the museum being open. Instead of exhibits, we got an experience. Still, I regret not 120 Daysseeing the one piece that had led me to the Musee de Lettres et Manuscrits in the first place: the patchwork scroll on which the Marquis de Sade had penned his notorious masterpiece, Les Cent Vingt Journées de Sodome, from within the walls of the Bastille.

Until recently, I’d never given much thought to 120 Days. It was one of those books that remains a cultural point of reference, and as a classic of transgressive fiction, I knew it was something I should peruse someday. But, well, it didn’t really strike me as a must-read.

Certainly, nothing penned in the 1700s could still be shocking today.

Then two years ago I read Georges Bataille’s essay on de Sade in Literature and Evil. Then I watched the film translation, Salò, which, despite its reputation, is like a PG-13 version of the book. This is not because Salò is tame (it is one of the most troubling films ever made), but because 120 Days is so beyond anything that could be recreated on screen.

So where to begin when discussing this notorious tome?

Bataille may have said it best, “Nobody, unless he is totally deaf to it, can finish Les Cent Vingt Journées de Sodome without feeling sick.”

This, from the author of The Story of the Eye (which, if you haven’t read it, do so ASAP). The Story of the Eye is an absurd tale of ovular fixation, blasphemy and transgressive eroticism. In it, the narrator and his teenage lover embark on a journey of extreme sexual awakenings. There are blood orgies, spree murders, gratuitous body fluids and a gleeful desecration of the eucharist.

But in both content and exhaustiveness, it’s a viral kitten video compared to de Sade.

Bataille is right. There are some brutally sickening moments in 120 Days. I recoiled more than a few times, and Salomight have even thrown up in my mouth a little. This is not good reading before dinner, as the book’s “heroes” have an insatiable taste for excrement.

However, though it can be thoroughly unsettling at times, for the most part my response was laughter while reading 120 Days. I was enthralled with the prose, appalled by the brutality and intellectually challenged by the philosophy, yet laughing out loud throughout. What other response is there to a purported sexual fantasy of screwing a goat via the nostrils in order that its tongue can work the undercarriage?

You have to laugh, because you just can’t take an anecdote like that at face value. It is these moments that temper the more gruesome scenes. The outrageousness of it creates a buffer for the reader. It’s like that groan-moment in a horror film when the monster is finally revealed in all its plastic-prop foolishness.

In her essay “Must We Burn Sade?” Simone de Beauvoir offers a more sophisticated analysis: “Not only does he tell tall stories, but most of the time he tells them badly.”

Agreed. Does de Sade really expect us to suspend disbelief when a local aristocrat pays a hooker to be dipped in shit so he can lick her clean, head to toe? I was much more disturbed by transgressive classics like Lolita and Evan S. Connell’s The Diary of a Rapist, both of which employ a rational tone that is far more upsetting than the description of their exploits.

But let’s return to de Sade.

What about 120 Days’ plot and characters? It was surprising to me that, despite the book being a cultural touchstone, despite the author having an entire genre of sex and a commonly used adjective named for him, I had no idea what 120 Days was actually about.

Consider it the Winter of Disquiet. In a remote castle, a quartet of wealthy, powerful men indulge their darkest Libertine desires. To assist them are four experienced prostitutes/brothel madames, a handful of servants, hired studs (selected for their endowment) and a harem of kidnapped children, elderly women and the Libertine’s own daughters.

It does not end well for most of them.

Each day, one of the prostitutes tells five tales of her most interesting clients, in ascending levels of depravity.Eroticism Afterward, the Libertines act out the stories on their captives, each page more horrifying than the last. Think you’ve got a dirty mind because you read 50 Shades of Grey? Please. 120 Days makes 50 Shades look like a Disney picture book.

By the way, what’s with all the numbers? De Sade was methodical in outlining the book, and the numbers are very important here. The 120 days are divided into four 30-day sections, each showcasing one of the prostitute story-tellers. They tell 150 stories apiece, so altogether there are 600 sexual acts performed in the book. However, only the first 30 days were actually drafted (the tales of Madame Duclos). The unfinished manuscript was lost when the Bastille was stormed in 1789. (While the remaining 90 days and 450 sex acts were never fleshed out in narrative, de Sade meticulously outlined the entire book, so each of the sex acts, as well as the full plotline and character arcs, are described.)

Supposedly, de Sade’s obsession with numbers played out in his real-world rendezvous as much as in his fiction, and, according to Bataille, “His own stories are also full of measurements.” In a story told by one of the many prostitutes he frequented, he savored the lashings of the whip, but hurried to record how many blows he had received when it was finished.

De Beauvoir weighed in on this anecdote: “What was peculiar in his case was the tension of a will bent on fulfilling the flesh without losing itself in it.

“He never for an instant loses himself in his animal nature,” she adds, “he remains so lucid, so cerebral, that philosophic discourse, far from dampening his ardor, acts as an aphrodisiac.”

Despite its occasional absurdity, the book has a very serious side to be reckoned with.

We’ll address that in the next installment.

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: The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins

The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins

Irvine Welsh

Longtime fans will not instantly recognize the author in this new work. Rather than the gray-skied schemes of twinsScotland, the drama unfolds in sun-kissed Miami, and missing is the phonetic text and colorful British slang.

Not absent, however, are the troubled characters, existential peril and sharp-tongued satire expected from the author of Trainspotting.

In his brilliant new book, Welsh entangles the lives of a body-obsessed fitness instructor, an overweight artist and a child-abuse victim bent on his pound of flesh. The three meet on a bridge, when Lucy, seeing a gunman chasing after two homeless men, intercedes to stop the attack. All of this is caught on tape by Lena, who becomes obsessed with the feisty trainer.

Lucy, of course, becomes an instant celebrity, and entertains visions of her own television show and fitness empire. Until it is learned that the men she saved were sexual predators.

Though functioning as satire of social networking, media voyeurism and the fickleness of fame, Sex Lives becomes the story of Lucy and Lena’s budding and devolving codependent and abusive relationship. We are taken for more than a few dark turns by an author famous for dark turns.

I’m a longtime fan of Welsh’s work, but I have to admit that I’ve found his newer books hit and miss. Recent novels have entertained, but lacked the gut-punch of Marabou Stork Nightmares, Filth and Glue. The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins is different from his other novels, but reveals a skilled author straining the old vinegar and aiming it at fresh targets.

Best of 2014

Happy New Year, coming to you live from gate B-11 at Charlotte Douglas International Airport (en route from Pittsburgh to Denver).

Tis the season for arbitrary year-end best-of lists. Even the New York Times, with its battalion of bookworms, can’t cover and judge all new titles. I read more than 50 books this year, more than 30 of which were new releases. From this tiny sample, how can I present a definitive list of best books of the year? 

What I can do is highlight the finest books that reached my nightstand or my Nook. So here, in no particular ranking, are my top reads of 2014.

Spectacular Science Writing

The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things FunnyThe Humor Code

Joel Warner and Peter McGraw

“We’re here to explore the dark side of humor, how comedy can divide and degrade,” write Warner and McGraw. “Here,” in this case, is Denmark, but also Japan, Palestine, Peru and beyond. For more than two years, this odd couple of comedy—Warner a journalist (Westword, Wired, Slate) and McGraw a humor researcher/marketing instructor (at the University of Colorado at Boulder)—traveled the world to learn what incites nasal milk projectiles in other cultures.

Specifically, the intrepid twosome tested whether McGraw’s Benign-Violation Theory (BVT) of humor applied to an international audience.

For that, Warner and McGraw visit a humor science library in Japan; deliver clown therapy to a Peruvian barrio alongside Patch Adams; interview notorious Danish cartoonists; participate in laughter yoga (yes, that’s a thing); attend comedy festivals; and McGraw even gives stand-up comedy a try in Denver’s toughest room.

That’s a lot to fit into a single book, but you’ll want to read every word. The Humor Code is an engaging blend of science writing, travel writing and narrative nonfiction. This is one of the best books you will read this year, and it is deserving of major awards.

The Tale of the Dueling NeurosurgeonsThe Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons

Sam Kean

The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons is a brisk and engrossing read, and Sam Kean’s most impressive yet. He digs deep into the archives of psychology to discover little-known and sometimes forgotten gems that have had a great impact on modern science. You will laugh. You will learn. At times you will pick your jaw off the floor and ask yourself, “That happened?”

If you’ve never read Sam Kean, start now. You will devour all three of his books in a week. If you’re a longtime fan, prepare to be wowed once again.

And if you’re a judge for any of the big literary prizes, in the name of all that is just and good, start etching Sam’s name into the trophy.

Faith and Wisdom in Science

Tom McLeishfaith and wisdom in science

McLeish explores the history of both scientific discovery and biblical narrative, finding commonalities in the ways humans in each arena are awestruck and inspired by the natural world. There is room, he argues, for the sublime in science. The earliest scientific studies were not the cold, heavily controlled research we have today, he writes, but passionate probes of the natural world. There has since developed a rift between the science and humanities. Science got custody of the brain in the divorce, and humanities, the heart.

If you still feel the sublimity of mountain peaks, marvel at existence at the subatomic level or can be moved to tears by a sunrise, you’ll enjoy Faith and Wisdom in Science.

 

Dystopian Literature

Justice, Inc.

Dale Bridgesjustice-inc-cover

In the introduction to his short story collection, Justice, Inc., Bridges prepares us for the satirical rapture he is about to unleash: God, discouraged by his failed attempts to kill off the human race, comes to the realization that “…when left to their own devices, they appeared to do a fair job of exterminating themselves.”

And thus the chain catches on the death-coaster, drags it to the summit and lets that fucker drop.

Hang on.

These are masterful tales of human obsolescence, cruel absurdities and species self-deliverance. In Bridges’ world, justice is self-imposed, whether or not his characters realize it. You want the convenience and savings of a Wal-Mart? Fine, but you have no one else to blame when you wake up in a world controlled by Wal-Marts. Punishment fits the crime.

Justice, Inc. manages to be both observational and engaging, philosophical yet lyrical at the same time. You’ll find yourself caring as much for the characters and their plights as for the underlying philosophy within each tale.

Bridges writes not with a pen but a skewer, piercing the absurdity of our cosmic sitcom with clarity and humor. Justice, Inc. is philosophical satire in the vein of Vonnegut and George Saunders—fellow madmen who have stared into the abyss and come away laughing.

Ominous Realities

Eds. Anthony Rivera and Sharon LawsonOminous Realities

Once again, Grey Matter Press has delivered the anthology goods. Take “On the Threshold,” an eerie, Lovecraftian tale of science and madness from William Meikle. Keeping up the intensity is “Doyoshota,” by Ken Altabef, a haunting intersection of conspiracy and cacophony that makes tinnitus sound like a Beethoven sonata.

Eric Del Carlo’s “We Are Hale, We Are Whole” is deserving of any “best-of” anthology, a smart, thoughtful piece of writing that should be a must-read for anyone attempting to world-build within the confines of a short story. It also takes a philosophical bent about quality of life, aging, health care and sacrifice.

 

Best Biography

Happy Clouds, Happy Trees: The Bob Ross Phenomenon Happy Cloud, Happy Trees

Kristin G. Congdon, Doug Blandy and Danny Coeyman

Beloved painter Bob Ross is all the more mysterious for the minimal amount of unauthorized or paratextual materials surrounding him. Mostly, what we know of Ross comes from his TV program. The mystique of the painter’s life has fueled his cultish following, and the authors do a wonderful job of exploring the man, his devotees and that ineffable thrill of creation. Bob had a word for it.

He called it joy.

An Infuriating American: The Incendiary Arts of H.L. Mencken

Hal CrowtherAn Infuriating American

The tone of this extended essay is established up front by a quote from the subject himself, H.L. Mencken:

“To the extent that I am genuinely educated, I am suspicious of all the things that the average citizen believes and the average pedagogue teaches.”

Mencken, one of America’s finest journalists, was also a world-class iconoclast, and the tone and spirit of his work is captured wonderfully in this short study by Hal Crowther, himself an esteemed author (and 1992 recipient of the H.L. Mencken Award). Mencken should be required reading for everyone (particularly prospective journalists), and An Infuriating American is as good an introduction to the writer as you’ll find.

The Mad Sculptor: The Maniac, The Model, and the Murder that Shook the Nation

Harold SchechterThe Mad Sculptor

“You can certainly learn as much about a society by which crimes people are obsessed with at a particular time,” says Schechter. “I think, in a general way, the crimes that become national obsessions, that strike a deep communal chord, symbolize the particular cultural anxieties of the moment.”

In the 1920s it was poisoners; in the ’70s Charles Manson personified the worst fears of the counterculture; the ’80s had phantom Satanists and the ’90s belonged to the serial killer; and today we have the rampage shooter.

But in the 1930s, it was the sexual deviant that haunted and titillated the public.

Enter Robert George Irwin, the subject of Schechter’s new book.

Irwin was a troubled and talented artist whose stunted psychosexual development (and religious obsession) fueled romantic fixations, violent outbursts, numerous hospitalizations and an attempted self-castration. It climaxed with a vicious triple murder in 1937, made all the more newsworthy because one of the victims, Veronica Gedeon, was a pulp magazine cover girl.

 

Notable Nonfiction

Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League

Ian PlenderleithRock n Roll Soccer

The groundwork for today’s soccer popularity was laid by the North American Soccer League, the subject of Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer. Plenderleith documents the folly, effrontery and ultimate failure of the NASL—an impressively thorough tome that benefits from solid research and a witty outsider’s perspective (though now living in America, Plenderleith is British and brings a European’s passion and insight to football writing).

Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer is an excellent work of sports journalism and, regardless of whether you follow football or futbol (or both), it is worthy of any fans’ bookshelf.

The Perfect KillThe Perfect Kill: 21 Laws for Assassins

Robert Baer

It was not hard to get me to pick up The Perfect Kill. Advice on how to pull off a flawless assassination? From a CIA insider? Sign me up. But before you begin stockpiling your arsenal, don’t think of this as a modern-day Anarchist Cookbook, but rather an engaging work of military history—an insider’s view of the Middle East through the eyes of an assassin.

While the subject matter alone is interesting, Baer’s writing makes this a thrilling read from start to finish. He has a narrative voice that is concise, informative and though he occasionally drifts toward the conspiratorial (which isn’t a bad thing), he tempers it by clearly defining what is fact and what is conjecture.

 

Illuminating Lit

Beautiful You

Chuck PalahniukBeautiful You

Palahniuk took on male malaise with Fight Club and mocked cultural over-consumption with Choke. Snuff (ostensibly a novel about pornography) lampooned self-destructive excess and exploitation in a manner that could very well have served as a hyper-sexualized predictor of the impending financial crisis of 2008.

In Beautiful You, he wanted to write what he calls gonzo erotica, and in the process has penned an anthem for an overstimulated, multi-tasking, computer-coma society.

Penny Harrigan is a nice Nebraskan girl working in New York City when she catches the eye of the world’s richest man, C. Linus Maxwell. Next thing you know, Penny is the talk of the tabloids and the envy of her coworkers.

Behind closed doors, however, is where Penny is truly transformed. Maxwell introduces her to a world of unimagined, if clinical pleasure. Penny has her reasons to question Maxwell’s motives (especially after a bizarre bathroom tryst with his bitter ex-lover), but is too enraptured with her new-found fame and sexuality.

Oozing with plot twists only Palahniuk’s sardonic tone could make palatable, Beautiful You aspires to remarkable levels of absurdity, but is it any more absurd than the daily inundation of product and marketing? Many reviewers have criticized the gratuitous satire in this novel, but is the idea of world domination via dildo really that far-fetched in a culture that has financially sustained multiple cable shopping channels for three decades?

We are a culture of instant gratification. We are a culture of distraction. We are the lab rats hammering away at the pleasure bar for a taste of sweet, sweet oblivion.

And much like Maxwell, Palahniuk is there wearing a lab coat, taking copious notes and holding up a funhouse mirror to our cage, so that we might catch a distorted glimpse of what we’ve become.

The Children ActThe Children Act

Ian McEwan

Fiona Maye is an experienced judge on the cusp of old age who is questioning her lifetime of restraint (as well as her decision not to reproduce). We enter her story mid-conversation to discover Fiona reeling from her husband’s proposed (and possibly in-progress) infidelity, just as she’s preparing for a high-profile case with a child’s life in the balance.

Cut to the courtroom, where a precocious teenager is refusing a blood transfusion on the grounds of being a Jehovah’s Witness. Invoking the Children Act of 1989, Fiona gives her ruling, the consequences of which ultimately lead to a spontaneous, classically McEwan mistake, one that risks undoing her marriage, her career and a lifetime of calculated decision-making.

The Children Act is a short, but dense novel, as is usually the case with McEwan. The man is a master of reflection and interiority. The opening chapter encompasses but a moment in a 30-year marriage, but lays bare its successes, failings and a lifetime of insecurities and second-guessing. The tragedies unfold in slow motion and a lifetime of torment is distilled into a bitter, lingering moment.

 

Quality Quickies

We Should All Be Feminists

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichiechimamanda-ngozi-adichie-we-should-all-be-feminists

This brief and brilliant essay (it comes in around 20 pages) from the celebrated author of Half of a Yellow Sun, is one of the most interesting pieces I’ve read all year. “Feminist” is a word long-since stripped of its original meaning: politicized, glorified, demonized. It’s got more ill-fitting baggage than an overhead compartment. Adichie cuts through the connotations to get at the core value of feminism and how it celebrates and benefits both men women.

It’s a call to arms to imagine a generation of children raised without the biases that, consciously and unconsciously, perpetuate gender norms. It’s a call to rethink masculinity so that the next crop of men grow up healthier than the last. It’s a call for all of us to “do better.”

The essay may be short, but the conversation it generates is long and important.

Legion: Skin Deep

Brandon SandersonLegion

StephenLeeds is afflicted with a mental disturbance wherein he has imaginary friends who enable him to solve crimes. His mental manifestations, which he calls “aspects,” have names, back-stories and seemingly a life of their own, though they are bound by the limits of Leeds’ finite knowledge and experience.

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

What makes the Legion books so amazing is not so much the outer conflicts, but the inner ones. Who are we? How do we define who we are? Would we all be better served to, ahem, use our illusions? These are the deeper strings Sanderson plucks in the Legion series.

May there be many, many more.

 

Horrific Hits

The Winter People

Jennifer McMahonWinter People

What is it about New England that inspires isolated, small-town horror tales in which the blood runs as cold as the weather? I’m not sure what it is exactly, but having spent many a wintry a night in Maine, I am familiar with that feeling. And I can’t get enough of it.

Jennifer McMahon captures that frostbite feeling perfectly in this heartbreaker of haunted legends and legacies, curses and karma, and, more than anything, unendurable loss.

The Winter People is well-written and bursting with heart. There are mysteries at every turn, and reminders that grief can be deadly. Or worse. Like a modern retelling of “The Monkey’s Paw,” there are consequences for disrupting the dead, and The Winter People reminds that despair can drive even the most sensible among us to dangerous depths.

Ten Short Tales About Ghosts

K.C. Parton10 Short Tales About Ghosts

Typically, the hallmark of a great ghost story is that it unsettles the reader. When reading K.C. Parton’s collection of English ghost stories, however, one is filled not with dread, but comfort. These 10 tales are reminiscent of the kind my father would tell me over campfires—and those, of course, will always be my favorites.

Parton’s stories have that same appeal. These are not tales of terror, but subtle chillers made all the more spooky for their familiarity. Stories that make you think twice before cutting through the graveyard, not to avoid falling prey to a Saw-like killer, but for that abstract fear that tickles as much as it terrifies.

A big draw for me is that most of the stories have an industrial setting. Growing up in the Rust Belt, I was exposed to the real-life horror of the steel mills, and I found much ghostly inspiration in the rusted machinery, secluded warehouses and the imaginative possibilities of the graveyard shift. Parton’s stories fit that mold, which shouldn’t be surprising, as he came of age in England’s post-war factories.

These stories tap into that primal need for campfire tales—the kind that give goosebumps, sure, but leave you smiling in the end.

The Cutting Room

Ellen Datlow, editorThe Cutting Room

“With no dreams left to search for, I have only nightmares to anticipate.”

This is one of the most haunting lines from the tremendous opening story, “The Cutter,” by Edward Bryant. It sets the tone for all the delicious horror in Ellen Datlow’s latest anthology. Disturbing images and the blurring of reality is a common theme in this collection. Stephen Graham Jones’ chilling “Tenderizer,” for example, David Morrell’s “Dead Image” and the wonderfully titled “Filming the Making of the Film of the Making of Fitzcarraldo” by Garry Kilworth.

Anticipate many nightmares within these pages.