Today you can at last pre-order FIGURES UNSEEN, the new retrospective of Steve Rasnic Tem’s fiction, published by Valancourt Books. A sort-of sampler, pulling the best stories from his various collections, this volume gives a great overview as to why Steve’s work has been and continues to remain so vital, and I was absolutely thrilled to be asked to pen its introduction. I go on at length about Steve’s work in my piece for the book, so I won’t go too deeply into it here, other than to say that in many ways both his work as an author, and his career as an author, were what I’ve held up as my goals when I started my own writing. If I could be half as talented and respected, I’d consider this writing lark a worthwhile endeavour. It’s also important to note that Tem’s work in mixing genres has been textbook “weird fiction” since long before the term gained its recent popularity. I strongly urge readers to not miss this volume.
The past twelve months have been rather quiet for me on the writing front as I’ve been focusing my energies on completing my next collection (which should be published next autumn). But a fellow can’t write all the time (even should he want to) so I’ve been filling the rest of my moments with catching up on some reading. This year, at least, I was able to read more books than I bought, which means I’m slowing whittling away the dreaded “to be read” pile that every reader has towering in some room of her or his house or apartment.
This year, I had two goals: the first was to alternate, as much as possible, between collections of stories and novels; the second was to ensure at least half the books I read were written by women. Though I can’t say I achieved perfect success with either of these goals, I feel comfortable in noting that I came very close in both instances.
By dipping into contemporary and past work, I was able to visit a lot of writers I haven’t spent enough time with before, and some I hope to spend more time with in the future. Some of the standouts for me this year included the weird science of William Sloane’s THE EDGE OF RUNNING WATER; the unnerringly fantastical of Kij Johnson’s AT THE MOUTH OF THE RIVER OF BEES; the nested novella that comprises the heart of John Langan’s THE FISHERMAN; the eastern vibe of Marc Joan’s THE SPECKLED GOD; the always affecting Steven Millhauser’s VOICES IN THE NIGHT; Peter Straub’s A DARK MATTER, the codex for his current work; the stunningly written RUNAWAY by Alice Munro; the bizarre UBO by Steve Rasnic Tem; Helen Marshall’s award-winning GIFTS FOR THE ONE WHO COMES AFTER; the genre-sparking tale of Thomas Tryon’s THE OTHER; Nadia Bulkin’s fantastic SHE SAID DESTROY; Kelly Link’s inspiring GET IN TROUBLE; Kristi DeMeester’s horrific debut, BENEATH; another fascinating look into the world of the Ladykiller with Peter Straub’s THE PROCESS (IS A PROCESS ALL ITS OWN); Alex Smith’s aggressive HIVE; the brilliant Margaret Atwood’s brilliant THE HANDMAID’S TALE; Gemma Files’s intensely personal EXPERIMENTAL FILM; the disorientingly brilliant A COLLAPSE OF HORSES by Brian Evenson; Dale Bailey’s exploration of people and apocolypses in THE END OF THE END OF EVERYTHING; Carmilla Grudova’s weird (in the truest sense of the word) THE DOLL’S ALPHABET; the brutal horror of Bernard Taylor’s THE GODSEND; the masterful terrors of Reggie Oliver’s HOLIDAYS FROM HELL; Grady Hendrix’s nostalgic PAPERBACKS FROM HELL.
And that’s just some of what I encountered. There were individual stories mixed in occassionally, and a few books I started but for various reasons did not complete, or completed but cannot talk about at present but will in the near future.
Some of the books I read I’ve spoken about here already at greater length, but not all, which should not be taken as any kind of signal about relative worth. Sometimes, one reads a great book but has little to say about it that feels at all interesting or original. In those cases, I leave it to others to extole those books’ respective virtues.
In a few days, it will be 2018, and I’ll start again reading as many books as I can find time for and talking about those that impressed or affected me. I hope there are some readers who glean something of interest from my small insights, and are thus inspired to read some of the books I’ve mentioned. That’s what books are for, after all: to be read. And despite what some might have you believe, there’s an audience for all of them, sometimes comprised of the most surprising readers. I’m hopeful you find and fall in love with a book that will surprise others. It’s within these unexpected cracks and nooks that our true selves are ultimately and utterly laid bare.
This is not a review. It’s a disorienting experience to read something as strange as Camilla Grudova’s THE DOLL’S ALPHABET (Coffee House Press, 2017). The stories themselves read, at times, as though they are translations from some other language, from some other country that is unstuck in time. Folkloric, fable-like, mixing bizarre imagery in unexpected ways, these tales are also at times grotesque and repellant. On top of this, they all seem to share a single world—not where character or locations are concerned (at least, as far as I could tell) but instead in terms of items and environments. Reoccurring devices, scents, foods. Many characters’ lives are more than a few steps below poverty, vermin of all sorts reappear time and time again. There is a vein of body horror through her work, as well, though not in the manner one might expect, and even still it’s all filtered through a narrative style that intentionally unsettles. I’m at a loss how to adequately describe this book in a way that gets across how unique it is. Which is perhaps the greatest thing one can hope for from a book by an author one is unfamiliar with. For those of us who prefer our dark short fiction collections to be pieces of art that achieve something more, something greater overall than its single stories might initially indicate, I can’t imagine a better book to recommend.
This is not a review. Dale Bailey’s collection, THE END OF THE END OF EVERYTHING (Arche Press, 2015), tells a series of short science fiction stories where the science fiction is besides the point. It’s there, in the background, providing a canvas for Bailey’s work, and though, yes, these fantastical elements are part of the story and cannot be divorced, they are hardly the point of the work. Instead, like canvas, they provide a substrate upon which Bailey paints his tales of the complexity of interpersonal relationships, of how people interact in groups versus intimately, and just how disruptive it can be when the barriers between those two weaken and blur. You don’t read stories like these for the surprise and inventiveness of their speculative aspects—although to be clear, the speculative in these tales is always surprising and inventive—but instead you read them in order to try and piece together just how it is people can ever understand something as utterly unknowable as other people.
This is not a review. Having finished Brian Evenson’s A COLLAPSE OF HORSES (Coffee House Press, 2016), I find myself thinking about how much or how little footing writers can grant their readers. A great many writers, especially genre writers, aim to provide a good amount of footing for their readers, by which I mean that even in the most bizarre moments of a character’s encounter with the unknown, the reader is comfortable with their knowledge that what the character sees is more-or-less what is before him or her. The character’s experiences are true. Yet, with Evenson’s work, I find that footing not just minimized but often removed completely. This isn’t dream-logic, where the connections between moments are subconscious, but rather a wholesale implied state of disreality, where it’s impossible to understand what is real for the characters at all. Can a story succeed when it’s impossible to know this truth? Apparently so, as Evenson does so here time and time again. Funny enough, one of the most straightforward tales in the book is “A Seaside Resort”, the story I selected for AICKMAN’S HEIRS. The story had to be more concretized to make it hew closer to Aickman. It’s fascinating stuff. I know not everyone reading this sort of liminal fiction is a writer, but speaking as a writer it’s of the utmost value to me to read a work that makes me reconsider my tools and how I might deploy them differently. Fiction that reminds or clarifies just what the written word can do. That sort of fiction you keep close, bury it inside you in hopes one day it will sprout into something wondrous.