transgressive

A Darker Shade of Summer (Fiction)

A round-up of ghost stories, thrillers and dystopian anthologies to darken you summer. (Come back tomorrow for our nonfiction edition.)

Ten Short Tales About Ghosts

K.C. Parton10 Short Tales About Ghosts

(Released June 28)

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.

In “The Last Train,” a modest theater-goer arrives late to the station, but by good fortune, his train is waiting for him. Once aboard, he realizes his destination is somewhere other than home. Likewise, a young factory apprentice stumbles upon a shop-floor oddity in “The Cleaner”—and realizes that what he first thought to be a hoax or a hazing is in fact a haunting.

Perhaps the stand-out tale of this collection is “The Heinkel,” a WWII yarn about a young boy fascinated with a downed German plane.

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 (such as my dad’s coworker losing an arm in the blast furnace) and the spooky kind (my grandfather’s otherworldly encounters at the Westinghouse plant).

When it was my turn to work the factories, 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. (His first book, Tales from the Toolbox, recounts his industrial experiences.)

My one critique is that there’s not a lot of mystery to these stories. Characters who believe they are having ghostly encounters truly are, and the nature and cause of the hauntings are typically self-evident. But that’s OK. These stories work not through terror or misdirection, but by tapping into that primal need for campfire tales—the kind that give goosebumps, sure, but leave you smiling in the end.

Ominous Realities

Eds. Anthony Rivera and Sharon LawsonOminous Realities

Once again, Grey Matter Press has delivered the anthology goods. Ominous Realities is the finest indie collection I’ve read in a while. These dystopian tales chill and unsettle, balancing skill, imagination and smarts.

Take “On the Threshold,” an eerie, Lovecraftian tale of science and madness from William Meikle. Last year, I read Meikle’s novel The Hole, and thought it was enjoyable but flawed. Here, Meikle is in control from the creepy opener in the lab to the grim finale. HPL would love this tale of science gone wrong.

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.

An excellent collection from a hot new publisher. Also be sure to check out their Dark Visions II anthology.

Coming Soon

Mean Streak

Sandra BrownMean Streak

(Release date: Aug. 19)

Mean Streak has all the makings of a classic Sandra Brown thriller: abduction, deception, moral complexity and a revelatory rabbit-hole twist. In her new novel, Dr. Emory Charbonneau disappears, and her husband is the primary suspect. Part crime novel, Mean Streak is also a survival narrative, as Emory awakes in the hands of a violent captor who may be hiding his true identity. I haven’t read this yet, but it sounds reminiscent of Standoff, which was one of her best works.

 

The Black RoadThe Black Road

Tania Carver

(Release date: Aug. 15)

While the plot may be a little, well, plausibility challenged, advance press offers Mo Hayder levels of gore and depravity (aka horrific awesomeness). Following a mysterious explosion, criminologist Marina Esposito’s husband is in a coma and her young daughter is missing. The abductor forces  Marina to complete a series of depraved tasks in the course of three days or her daughter dies. So, yeah, it may be plot-challenged, but if you’re looking to spice up your summer with some gore, The Black Road just may be a detour worth taking.

Review: Justice, Inc.

In the introduction to his short story collection, Justice, Inc., Dale Bridges prepares us for the satirical rapture he is about to unleash: God, discouraged by his failed attempts to killjustice-inc-cover 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. Albert Camus wrote: “Man is mortal. That may be; but let us die resisting; and if our lot is complete annihilation, let us not behave in such a way that it seems justice!”

He would love this book.

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.

This is the type of justice that runs through this collection. The settings are typically dystopian and of our own making. It is human nature to barricade the doors or erect walls to repel that which threatens us, only to realize that we have constructed our own prison cell.

Just ask Poe’s Prospero, whose harlequin fortress was child’s play for the Red Death.

Justice, Inc., published by the formidable Monkey Puzzle Press, 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.

The opening story, “Welcome to Omni-Mart,” is reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Deer in the Works” updated for the big-box generation. Leonard was adopted by Omni-Mart as a child and now, at forty-two, lives, works and philosophizes within its walls, deathly afraid of The Outside.

It’s a synthetic, corporate dystopia that is, sadly, all too familiar.

“Life After Men” is a sardonic take on dysfunctional relationships and how we, inevitably, are drawn to, and driven by, the things that destroy us. Oh, and did I mention this plays out against the backdrop of some wild, gender-specific apocalypse?

This segues into the darkly comic (and karmic) “The Girlfriend™” in which the protagonist, Derrick, blurs the line between physical and factitious love. For Bridges, the femme fatale has been replaced by the sentient sex robot. (Of all the dystopias in all the dystopian universe, she had to walk into mine.)

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.

Obligatory disclaimer: Bridges is a friend and former coworker. We worked (and suffered) together at the Boulder Weekly newspaper, where he succeeded me as arts and entertainment editor. We also worked together on Transgress magazine, where three of these stories originally appeared.

I can attest to the quality of the man, his writing and his conviction.

I can also warn you, from first-hand knowledge, that Bridges may very well be the madman Nietzsche wrote about—and the bringer of the end times.

Be warned that there is a fifth steed of the apocalypse, and its name is Justice—and Bridges is lashing the whip, breathing fire and coming for us all.

Last-Minute Literature

The tick-tock of the holiday shopping season is winding down (or perhaps gearing up with desperation). If you’re still needing a last-minute book for the literati in your life, these blurbs should help differentiate the Red Ryder BB gun from the lumps of coal.

Diary of Edward the Hamster (1990-1990)

Miriam and Ezra Elia

I didn’t think anyone anthropomorphized animals more than me until I read this diary,Hamster translated from the notes left behind by Edward the Hamster. Much like the Marquis de Sade, who wrote extensively while in prison and only achieved literary fame posthumously, this artifact of Edward’s incarceration is certain to elicit pathos in readers.

It’s clear that Edward has studied the likes of Heidegger and Sartre. His reflections are wrought with defiance, despair and existential angst. He searches for meaning within his cage. There is food, water, a wheel.

“Is there nothing else!” he cries.

Filled with wit and wisdom, this graphic novel is a black comic tribute to a beloved hamster—the most existential beast within the animal kingdom. The drawings are cute, the entries are funny, but sprinkled throughout the book are philosophical nuggets like, “Why write? Life is a cage of empty words,” and “Is this cage of my own making?”

Along the way, we follow Edward through failed escapes, domestic discord and bliss and a final, bloody insurrection. This is a quick and playful read, with clever artwork, and will bring a smile to the philosopher in your life.

The Never List

Koethi Zan

There is a bitter synchronicity to Koethi Zan’s debut novel, The Never List. Concerning the-never-listthe lives of three women held captive in a madman’s basement, The Never List hit shelves 10 days before Ariel Castro pled guilty to holding three women hostage in his Cleveland basement.

I’m reminded of the Alice Cooper tale of his first trip to England. According to legend, a woman died during the flight, and it fueled his notoriety when he emerged on UK soil trailing a cadaver. Serendipity may not be the polite word, but by dictionary definition…

So, I read this book in July and loved it. The writing is solid and the narrative compelling, and I intended to review it at that time. Unfortunately, it got lost in the barrage of new releases.

There is a news hook, though, as the book is being adapted for television, and will be written by transgressive author A.M. Homes, which should make for wonderfully disturbing television.

The First Thanksgiving

Nathaniel Philbrick

This short work, a reworking of a chapter from Philbrick’s Mayflower: A Story of ThanksgivingCourage, Community, and War, is a great introduction to anyone interested in historical nonfiction who may be daunted by Philbrick’s longer works. There aren’t enough superlatives for Philbrick’s writing, and this appetizer will make any reader want to read the Mayflower, or any of his works, in full.

It’s the history of a holiday that we still celebrate, yet holds little connection to its origin. Here, we get the story we never learned in elementary school—such as the high mortality rates of the Pilgrims. Thanksgiving is now a spectacle of consumption and consumerism. Yet of the roughly 150 passengers and crew aboard the Mayflower, only half survived that first winter. Suffice to say, reading about the hardships of the settlers at the time of the first Thanksgiving will shame anyone who dares complain about Black Friday checkout lines.

God is Disappointed in You

By Mark Russell and Shannon Wheeler

Some jokes never get old, as evidenced in this irreverent abridging of The Bible. The god_is_disappointed_in_you_cover_lghumor is sharp, varying from silly to satirical, and the illustrations add to the humor. While it is funny, there is also an earnestness within the narrative, as Russell attempts to condense the entire text to its core concepts.

Ambitious idea, and one not to be taken too seriously, but I dispute the author’s claims of accuracy. For example, which version of The Bible? If biblical scholars have been unable to agree on the official canon, I won’t expect it to be decoded in a humor book.

But taken for what it is, God is Disappointed in You is good, clean fun, filled with soul-lightening humor. If the publisher is smart, they’re already compiling a 365-frame calendar version to market over the holidays.

If so, sign me up.

Doomed

Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck, we love you. Please remember that. Lullaby is one of the most amazing booksdoomed-us_0 I’ve ever read, and I even found a way to work it into my master’s thesis. Choke is cutting social satire of the first order, Fight Club one of the greatest films ever made. Survivor is brilliant in plot, character and execution, and don’t get me started on the thrill-ride that is Haunted.

But I do have a few pet peeves that pop up in Doomed, the sequel to Damned.

First, I don’t have much patience for fiction written in the voice of a child. No matter the skill of the writer, an adult giving voice to a child always comes across as inauthentic and, in the worst cases, foolish. Also, exactly what are we to learn from a child narrator? It certainly won’t shock or disturb any hardened reader of horror or transgressive fiction.

Second, humor in horror is an iffy proposition. When it works, it’s organic, or the comedy is more disturbing than the tragedy (for example, many of the stories in Haunted). Better incidental humor than intentional. Doomed reads more like a Christopher Moore novel (albeit an extremely dark and cynical one).

I’m a fan of Moore’s, but his brand of humor is expected. When I read Palahniuk, I look forward to that nausea that lingers and ultimately consumes me, which I’ve found absent in Doomed.

Review, On Dissent: Its Meaning in America

On DissentNot many books from Cambridge University Press make it to the summer reading list, but On Dissent: Its Meaning in America is one of the better ways to revolt against the light-hearted beach-readers out there. Hell, it’s patriotic. America was born in dissent, and we celebrate it still. With fireworks—even illegal ones (though from now on I argue that M-80s are not outlaws, but rather the tools of dissent).

But why is dissent so much of our DNA? What does it even mean to dissent? These were the questions nagging at Ronald K.L. Collins and David M. Skover, two esteemed political scholars who were surprised to find that there was no true analysis of the concept of dissent.

That’s what they set out to create with this short, thought-provoking work.

For the most part, Collins and Skover accomplish their goal. The tone is philosophical in nature, and the authors begin by attempting to define dissent and identify its practitioners. Sure, anyone can point to the examples of Thoreau, King and Paine, but the authors take on trickier issues, such as how clear the line is (or isn’t) between civil disobedience and criminality. What role does violence play in dissent, or does an action cease to be dissent once it becomes violent?

Collins and Skover do a great job, and scholarly service, by identifying the fundamental traits of dissent, such as its being goal-oriented and indicative of a power dynamic. They buttress their definition by exploring hypotheticals and philosophical dilemmas (is a hired protester a dissenter?), and they do it all with an accessible writing style that will appeal to non-academic readers who might not otherwise seek out this book.

Of course, it’s not perfect, and the biggest issue I have is with the authors’ overreliance on expert commentary, such as that of Howard Zinn and Ralph Nader. The quotations are often redundant and unnecessary. The collective intellect of Collins and Skover is authoritative enough, and I recommend skimming through the offset commentary.

But there’s nothing else I would skim over in this book—particularly the epilogue. Here, the authors move away from definitions and thought experiments and present their own take on dissent—that contrary to rebellion, dissent is a vital and cohesive component of a democracy:

“Consent and dissent are two sides of the same coin. Without dissent, consent is meaningless; without consent, dissent loses much of its animating purpose” (152).

On Dissent is a quick and wonderful read. It will get you thinking. It will get you talking. It will remind you that though we may disagree, the freedom to disagree and express opposing viewpoints is what makes us strong.

Saki and Edward Gorey: The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories

In a wet-dream coupling worthy of GothicMatch.com, New York Review Books Classics has reissued a collection of Saki short stories illustrated by Edward Gorey.gorey

This twisted ballet of Edwardian sensibilities is darkly hilarious, and Gorey breathes new life into Saki’s drawing-room nightmares. Saki’s black humor shines in the dark delicacies “Sredni Vashtar,” “The Stampeding of Lady Bastable,” and “The Open Window.”

Like Saki, Gorey had a love of macabre humor, particularly set in the dramatic Victorian and Edwardian periods. His drawings incarnate the grim, merciless caricature of the English elite.

My favorite is the story “Tobermory,” which concerns the titular cat who discomfits house-party guests when he acquires the ability to speak. Gorey, a devout cat lover, must have enjoyed drawing this twisted tale. As a cat lover myself, I think Saki captured the spirit of how a cat would talk, if he could. He tells the ugly truth about the superficiality of the aristocrats, and he has little use for small talk: “It was obvious that boring questions lay outside his scheme of life.”

This makes him a threat to the partiers because he is the only one willing to scratch (if you’ll pardon the pun) beneath the surface and capable of exposing their dirty laundry and has no vested interest in status to keep him quiet.

So, of course, they set out to kill him.

When Mr. Appin, who taught Tobermory to speak, protests, the others suggest he experiment with less-independent animals “who are under proper control.”

The rich, absurdly disastrous ending both lampoons the artifice of the elite and the dangers one faces when speaking truth to power.

June Recommendations

In another day we’ll be heading off to London, and around this time Transgress will publish its annual summer book preview/review. In the coming days, we’ll be dishing out smaller portions of the issue, beginning with today’s blurbs about some books you may have missed this past month.

Joyland, Stephen King

I plan on devouring this little beauty on the first leg of the transatlantic flight. As joylandyou know, we at Ensuing Chapters and Transgress Magazine are all about funhouses and noir. So, a Stephen King paperback original about a funhouse for the imprint Hard Case Crime?

Bring it.

King’s previous offering through Hard Case was The Colorado Kid, a wonderfully creepy tale about an unsolved murder in a small Maine town. Some of you may also know it as the SyFy program, Haven.

I’ve got my ticket, and I’m already chilled thinking of the horrors that await in Joyland.

Creation: How Science is Reinventing Life Itself, Adam Rutherford

I recommend Adam Rutherford’s Creation for any fan of science writingcreation. However, my endorsement comes with a disclaimer: The electronic review copy I downloaded was corrupted and difficult to navigate. The result is that I didn’t read this book front to back, as I normally do. However, I was able to access about half of it, and what I read I thoroughly enjoyed.

Of particular interest to Transgress readers are the graphic details of surface cuts when explaining how the skin recovers from a wound. The squeamish reader might want to tag this book as horror for this reason alone.

Though I doubt there are any squeamish readers this blog.

Stylistically, Creation blends wit and storytelling with fair doses of hard science. Fans of Sam Kean, Mary Roach and Malcolm Gladwell will find much to love in its pages.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman

Not since Joseph Campbell has an author had both a profound understanding oceanof mythology and the ability to present it to a general audience with such passion. I see Gaiman and Campbell as two sides of an intergenerational coin: the academic who deconstructs myths and the author who creates them.

His new novel, his first for adults since 2005’s Anansi Boys, concerns a young boy returning home–and reconsidering odd events from summers past.

 

The Hole, William Meikle

And what summer would be complete without a subterranean adventure? This twisted treat comes from one of my favorite publishers, DarkFuse, and concerns a chasm (literally, not figuratively) snaking through a rural town. What comes next promises to be delightfully morbid. I’ve got this on my to-read list and can’t wait to descend into its depths. A review will come later this summer.

Come back tomorrow for a review of The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories by Saki, illustrated by Edward Gorey.

A Playground for Insomniacs

For some, sleep is a peaceful proposition. For others, like me, lights out has always been more of a punishment. The latter is the intended audience of Evil Hat Productions’DRTB Don’t Read This Book, a collection of 13 waking nightmares for the hard of sleeping.

These stories are set in the world of the Don’t Rest Your Head RPG, which I haven’t played, but seems perfectly designed for someone like me. My loose understanding of the game, based on reading this book (despite the admonition of its title) and researching a little about the RPG, is that it takes place in a dystopian dreamland (Mad City) populated with clockwork cops, shadow stalkers and any other gritty creature your mind can conjure up. You are among the Awake—insomniacs who have stayed up far too long and find themselves within the freak show of Mad City.

The Awake are in quite the pickle. Fall asleep and you die. But stay awake for too long and you’ll go mad and permanently inhabit the nightmare.

This is genius. Having been lifelong frenemies with the Sandman, I recognize this world, and it is more terrifying than most fictional places. Probably because I know what it feels like to go to work on your fourth day awake. I know the psychedelic side effects of clocking out from your graveyard shift and then clocking in at your day job a few minutes later. Things move in ways they shouldn’t, you lag a few seconds behind in every conversation and, worst of all, a mechanical noise fills your ears—not a buzz or a ring, but a machine-like pulsing that clouds thought and creates the sensation that someone is constantly following you.

Hallucinate from staying awake? Been there. That’s why the nightmares within Don’t Read This Book, edited by Chuck Wendig, are familiar territory for me.

And thoroughly enjoyable.

Standouts include Stephen Blackmore’s “Don’t Lose Your Patients,” Mur Lafferty’s “Don’t Bleach Your Memories” and Harry Connolly’s “Don’t Chew Your Food,” but this is a solid anthology front to back.

Gamers, steampunks, urban fantasists and horror fiends will find something to love in here. But those who may enjoy it most are us insomniacs.

Those of us who know that the torture of falling to sleep is worse than any nightmare that may be lurking on the other side.

Peter Clines: 14

If I’ve learned anything from my lifelong obsession with horror, it’s that:14

  1. If someone introduces you to an opportunity too good, and too convenient, to be true, you probably shouldn’t take it because it can only mean trouble. And,
  2. If someone introduces you to an opportunity too good, and too convenient, to be true, you definitely should take it because you are guaranteed adventure—most likely one shadowed with conspiracy and gore.

So it goes in 14, by Peter Clines, in which an apathetic data-entry temp (Nate) is referred to a cheap apartment, where rents are suspiciously low, utilities shockingly free and the neighbors… well, the ones who stick around are… interesting.

The setting for this quasi-Lovecraftian, quasi-apocalyptic story is the Kavach building, which seems odd even by L.A. standards. Early in his stay, Nate notices some curious features of the old building: all the units have different dimensions; the plumbing is an inefficient web of pipes; there are discolored lights; green, mutant cockroaches; and, best of all, certain apartments are padlocked shut.

Among them, apartment 14.

This is where Clines truly excels. He develops a chilling atmosphere and social dynamic within the walls of the Kavach, and I absolutely devoured the first half of the book. The dialogue is shallow in spots, but the characters are as mysterious as the building, and as more secrets unfold, we follow a resilient crew of tenants into the deep tunnels beneath the Kavach.

Of all that I loved about the first half of this book, the tunnels were by far my favorite. The subterranean setting is magnificently drawn, and it’s that sweet spot in the book where the characters are fully realized and revealed, and the reader is absorbed in their struggle.

The second half of 14 is very entertaining, particularly the third quarter, but lacks the literary muscle of what came before. The first half was tight, focused, suffocating. It narrows until we get to the bottom of the tunnels, but then we begin expanding and things get a bit turbulent. Clines does a solid job of planting intriguing clues to be sussed out later, but the ending suffers from too much revelation.

I’d like to illustrate this with an anecdote.

My first apartment was a crumbling duplex on Tamplin Street in Sharon, Pennsylvania. It was dumpy and narrow, but the perfect incubator for two eventual writers (me and my roommate, Todd).

Particularly inspiring was the basement.

There was a biohazard sign on the basement door, with the words “Fallout Shelter.” The house was old enough that the sign could have been legit, though we suspected it was decoration. The basement itself was a throwaway slab of concrete—functional, boring, filled with spiders. The only thing scary about it was the rickety set of stairs.

And the unexplained, nailed-shut door on the northern wall.

The mystery door was almost a square, shaped more like a large window than a door, and rather than starting at the floor, the bottom edge was two feet off the ground. The top edge was only a few feet higher. It was the size and shape of a cupboard or a crawlspace. But why was it nailed shut?

Horror fanatic that I am, I tried to pry it open at least enough to glimpse what was on the other side. Thankfully, I wasn’t able to. Most likely, it was just a collapsed storage space (this was a mining/steel town, and it was fairly common for back yards to become ravines). It contained probably nothing more than the earth-packed remnants of a sinkhole.

But because I never got a look behind the mystery door, it has never lost its magic. Instead of a sinkhole, in my mind that door seals off a series of tunnels that burrow beneath our town, perhaps an old Prohibition-era bootlegging route, or perhaps it connects with the old cemetery two blocks away. Instead of storage space, there is a cache of forbidden scrolls. Or, befitting my Poe-obsessed youth, this is the subterranean vault where our slumlord buries alive his tenants.

Who knows, maybe even a bomb shelter.

The point is, I’m still fascinated by that shuttered basement door.

And that’s why the first half of 14 is an absorbing read. This is literature for anyone who has searched every new apartment for secret passages, hiding spots or trapdoors. Crawled through cobwebbed eaves, the musky underbelly of mobile homes and believes, always, that every building has a secret history to tell.

But unlike that basement door on Tamplin Street, we do learn what’s inside those padlocked rooms at the Kavach building. What we find there is original, for sure, but it dispels the magic. Each new revelation takes us further away from believability until 14 enters camp territory. And I’ve got nothing against camp. Truly, this part of the book is fun.

But it doesn’t mesh with the earnestness of the setup.

The action-packed finale further untethers the reader. The sequences are rushed, and where dialogue and observations from the characters should anchor us, we get snarky quips and CGI visuals. There is a nice homage to Lovecraft throughout, but HPL’s great trick was that we seldom saw what his creatures did. Rather, he hinted at what they could do.

Clines is a hell of a writer and storyteller, but here, he opens one door too many.

But that’s not entirely a bad thing, and certainly not a deal breaker (I just have a preference for more existential horror). This is a book I highly recommend. It’s fun, engaging, and I only give it four stars instead of five because of the overload of revelation at the end.

I’d prefer to leave a door or two shut. I want to imagine what’s behind it. A body? A tunnel? Treasure? Or nothing?

The best part is that I’ll never know.

Review: Tenth of December

Proud to be a Dystopian

by Vince Darcangelo

It was a warm autumn evening at the Gramercy Theater, Oct. 5, opening night of the 2012 New Yorker Festival. The room was thick with literati, and on stage were threeSaunders heavyweights: Jennifer Egan (A Visit From the Goon Squad), Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale) and George Saunders, whose new collection of short fiction, Tenth of December, was released on Tuesday, Jan. 8.

The theme of the panel was “Utopia/Dystopia,” and Atwood led off with a brief history and deconstruction of the genre. Utopias and dystopias go hand in hand, she said, because with any utopian idea “there’s always a catch, and the catch is this: Everything’s going to be fine, but first we’ve got to get rid of these people.”

And then we came to Saunders, whose works, such as the exquisite CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, often contain dystopian themes or settings, along with healthy doses of humor and satirical absurdism.

“I never really thought I’d write a dystopian (story),” he said, adding that he first tried to emulate iconic writers like Hemingway and Raymond Carver. It wasn’t working, so he tried something different.

“If I set something in a theme park or the near future,” he said, “the language comes alive.”

And thus, a great writer, and celebrated literary subversive, emerged.

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Tenth of December is a short and bittersweet 10-tale offering of gripping short fiction, incorporating science fiction and otherworldly elements (similar in tone, in my opinion, to Kurt Vonnegut). The book’s opening tale, “Victory Lap,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker in 2009, concerns an attempted abduction of a teenage girl and the hijinks that ensue.

That’s right, hijinks.

As silly as it is serious, it is the humor that sharpens the dark edge of “Victory Lap.” This is a bold piece of work. Saunders takes chances by shifting points of view and writing from the interior voice of teenagers, but he pulls it off as only he can. There’s a jazzy rhythm and flow to the piece, and it deserves to be read aloud. The story really came to life for me when I heard Saunders read it at the University of Northern Colorado in 2010.

Probably my favorite story from Tenth of December is “Escape from Spiderhead.” It has the classic elements of his fiction: people in the near-future in a seemingly powerless position; the intertwining of corporate and institutional control; wacky goings-on; funny, yet fitting, product names; and an unlikely hero who somehow manages to carve out his acre of humanity within this madhouse.

Specifically, our hero, Jeff, is a convict in a research prison, where his punishment is to be a lab rat for chemical experimentation. As part of a sex study, he is given drugs that create feelings of intimacy and attraction to another person; another that induces loquacity; a performance enhancer (Vivistiff™) that makes Viagra seem like a sugar pill; and another chemical that lowers one’s “shame level.”

The experiments take a dark turn when he is enlisted in a Darkenfloxx™ study. As Jeff describes the drug: “Imagine the worst you have ever felt, times ten. That does not even come close to how bad you feel on Darkenfloxx™.”

The scene is reminiscent of the notorious Milgram experiments, and it concludes brilliantly—somehow both uplifting and tragic. It’s a reminder that great literature doesn’t resolve with the hero winning or losing, but rather redefines what it means for that character to win or lose.

“CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” for example, is set inside a rundown theme park overrun with violent gangs (to the point that the Civil War re-enactors pack live ammunition in their muskets). The protagonist is a working-class dreamer and father of two who endures disappointment and the threat of violence for the sake of his family. But his idea of winning and losing changes in this theme park.

“Sea Oak,” from his 2000 collection, Pastoralia, is a genre-bending story incorporating new-wave male strippers, a post-industrial ghetto and a dead aunt who refuses to go away. Likewise, it concerns a poor family burdened with violence, and takes a fantastical turn that recalculates the stakes for all involved.

“Sea Oak” won an O. Henry Award Prize and was also nominated for a Bram Stoker Award. How many Bram Stoker nominees have received gushing praise from the New York Times?

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At the heart of Saunders’ fiction are class issues (he comes from a working-class background and earned an engineering degree from the Colorado School of Mines); the impact of an ever-invasive corporate culture (see “I CAN SPEAK!™” from 2006’s In Persuasion Nation); and the absurdity of the modern workplace.

An example of the latter in Tenth of December is the story “Exhortation,” which is told in the form of a memo from a boss to his underperforming crew. The memo is in reference to “March Performances Stats” and attitudes toward the work being done. He begins by comparing their duties to cleaning a shelf, but of course, it becomes apparent that their labor is far more sinister:

“Even you guys, you who do what must be done in Room 6, don’t walk out feeling so super-great, I know that, I’ve certainly done some things in Room 6 that didn’t leave me feeling so wonderful, believe me…”

Whatever goes on in Room 6, it clearly has nothing to do with shelves. This story calls to mind Saunders’ classic short story, “The 400-Pound CEO,” concerning a worker drone whose job is to kill raccoons for the company Humane Raccoon Alternatives.

In both of these stories, Saunders guides us through a sausage mill as unpleasant as any Upton Sinclair encountered. We see characters doing menial and often unpleasant work, and manipulative and often cruel bosses attempting to put a positive spin on their duties, if for no other reason than to create a healthy façade for the buying public. Greed and rampant corporatization has left the working class in the absurd position of having to abase themselves and others to get by.

I can’t think of a better description of dystopian fiction. Often, the term calls to mind an enslaved, automated world gone grey: a dramatic vision complete with conflicts worthy of the Thunderdome. But with Saunders, the dystopia is more workaday, which makes it all the more chilling.

For Saunders, it’s a way “to say here’s the way we look at habituated reality,” he said at the New Yorker Festival. His fiction breaks the surface of this habituated reality, and it offers us a fresh and not-always-pleasant look at our daily lives.

But it’s not all bad. It’s a world filled with humor, even if it’s of the gallows variety. It’s populated with colorful and unexpected heroes, bizarre-yet-feasible scenarios, and it’s always a fuzzy line between winning and losing.

“For me, the ideal position is to say, yes, it’s horrible,” Saunders said, “but yes, it’s wonderful and let these two things play out.”

Audio Interview

Sorry for the delay in writing, but we’ve been busy prepping for the holidays. From now until Dec. 24, we’ll be posting a daily review of a literature-themed Christmas gift. You can make it a last-minute gift for the literary subversive in your life, or just enjoy the reviews for review’s sake.

We begin with an audio interview with best-selling author Carrie Vaughn, whose new novel, Kitty Steals the Show, would make the perfect stocking stuffer for the lycanthrope lover on your list.