ZYZZYVA EventsDecember 5, 2017
ZYZZYVA Winter Issue Celebration in San Francisco
Location: 7 p.m., City Lights Booksellers, 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco
Description: Featuring a conversation with T.J. Stiles and Caille Millner exploring the themes of art and resistance. Moderated by Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. Free.January 12, 2018
ZYZZYVA Winter Issue Celebration in Oakland
Location: 7 p.m., East Bay Booksellers, 5433 College Ave., Oakland
Description: Featuring a conversation with Troy Jollimore, Dean Rader, and Ismail Muhammad on the theme of art and resistance. Moderated by Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. Free.February 15, 2018
ZYZZYVA East Coast All-Stars
Location: 7:30 p.m., Greenlight Bookstore, 686 Fulton St., Brooklyn
Description: Readings by recent and Winter Issue contributors Bino A. Realuyo, Annie DeWitt, Jenny Xie, Melissa Hohl, and Kristopher Jansma. Free.
ZYZZYVA e-mail updates
In this issue:
Art & Resistance Amid Turmoil
Troy Jollimore on how Wallace Shawn’s plays and his latest book, Night Thoughts, illuminate our predicament
Robin Romm on what Imre Kertész can teach us about art as resistance
T.J. Stiles on the road we travelled to arrive at this precarious moment
Andrew Tonkovich on “free persons,” and the risks writers must take
Dana Johnson’s “Like Other People”: In desperate need of a job, a graduate student takes a job cleaning cable boxes, working with folks also hard up for work.
Kristopher Jansma’s “The Corps of Discovery”: On a long road trip with his father, a middle-school history teacher considers Lewis & Clark, loss, and how no matter how much you prepare, “there were things you couldn’t reasonably expect to be prepared for.”
Krys Lee’s “The Jungle”: The trees and the vines have long received the terrified and the wretched; their plight does not go unnoticed.
Mackenzie Evan Smith’s “The Wet Continent”: “I have not set toe on a sailboat in more than a decade. I don’t know the last time I touched the ocean. … I think I am happier now. Am I really?”
Plus an excerpt from Dorthe Nors’s upcoming novel, Mirror, Shoulder, Signal
Victoria Chang, David Hernandez, Ruth Madievsky and Dean Rader on the topic of resistance; plus new poems from Judy Halebsky, Auzelle Epeneter, Bino A. Realuyo, Noah Warren, Christina Olson, and Jenny Xie
Over a home-cooked meal, a boisterous conversation between Matt Sumell and Michelle Latiolais about mentoring, anger, rescue dogs, and what it means to write for a living.
Jenny Sampson’s tintypes of California skaters
Custom cover design & illustration by Josh Korwin
On page after page of Matthew McIntosh’s theMystery.doc (Grove Press), redactions black out key words, crucial questions, and even whole sections of text. I don’t know how far I had gotten through the 1,660-page novel before I stopped expecting the eventual, climactic unveiling of the hidden words, the code-break that would deliver me from all my head-scratching. Surely, it was hundreds of pages after the flip-book sequence that begins on Page 73 with a voice shouting, “>HEY” (flip page) “>DO YOU THINK YOUR SAVIORS COMING BACK” (flip page) “>WHATS HE LOST DOWN HERE”—before I stopped looking for whatever it was that had been lost in those black blocks and began to focus, instead, on the strange constellations of voices and images arranged around the voids.
It can be difficult to recognize a work of real vision. At times McIntosh’s book is profoundly un-fun to read. Without warning the text breaks apart into a cacophony of (seemingly) non-sequitur plot shards, screenshots from classic films, and blips of (seemingly) random dialogue separated by long stretches of emptiness or indecipherable symbols. An uncharitable reader could easily fill up all the black and blank space in this book with dismissals. But the author’s formal trickery can’t be written off as merely evasive, pretentious, or coy. Setting aside the reader’s perfectly valid expectations of entertainment and pleasure, theMystery.doc is some sort of masterpiece—obscure or vulnerable by jagged turns, but in every moment energized by a self-assured sense of purpose: the novel knows, even if you are, for a long time, completely in the dark.
McIntosh employs a grand-scale version of the interlocking vignette structure that made his first book, Well, such an exciting and unique debut. Particular voices and narratives emerge, vanish, and recur over the span of several-hundred-page chapters. A photo sequence begun on page 325 returns on page 1,600. The story of a drowned couple is told and retold. The Twin Towers fall again and again. The novel accumulates meaning the way many mosaic-style works do: by the resonances (or dissonances) created between fragments, and—more mystically—by a kind of sustained déjà vu, which reminds us with echoes of familiar dialogue or repeated photos that no detail is irrelevant to the larger image being composed.
“I smoke a cigarette, imagine flocks of birds in the blue sky, and realize I am always going to be a sad person.” So begins Richard Chiem’s You Private Person (125 pages; Sorry House), a reprinted and revised edition of the Seattle author’s first collection of stories. Often in the form of sparse and slender vignettes, Chiem’s stories offer muted portraits of existential malaise among young urbanites. Originally published in 2012 by Scrambler Books, the stories and their running order have since been updated by Chiem, who has already garnered praise from alternative literature luminaries such as Dennis Cooper and Kate Zambreno.
The stories in You Private Person are, by definition, quiet; they appear to take place in a pocket universe comprised entirely of those still and unremarkable moments that make up most of our waking hours, whether it’s watching the clock tick by at work (“I have twenty-two minutes left until I get to go home, she says. That’s like one Simpson’s episode”), or silently listening to the car radio with your partner (“I like that we wait in the car for songs to end before we get out”). These empty minutes are frequently extended for the duration of entire stories, lulling the reader into a false sense of security as You Private Person interrogates the unfeeling stupor of contemporary existence, so that when something momentous does occur—a man falling to his death from a hotel rooftop, a car colliding with a semi-truck on the freeway—the violence has a shattering effect.
In a series of interconnected stories titled “sociopaths,” the narrator contemplates acting out the murder of the man who sexually abused his girlfriend during her childhood. In the icy, Raymond Carver-esque “what if, wendy,” a man derails what could have been an after-bar hookup with a conversation about his own moral failings. “The thing is, I don’t know how to be good anymore,” he confides. Elsewhere, the arresting “how to survive a car accident” details Chiem’s 2008 automobile crash, a traumatic experience that the reader senses must have been life-altering for the author. Each of these stories capture characters arriving at moments of reflection—instances when they are inspired to pause, drink in hand, and contemplate how they managed to go so astray in life. Chiem doesn’t judge these characters, and instead allows them to draw their own conclusions: taking stock of the mess her personal life has become, the long-suffering wife of an ill-tempered boxer muses, “I think I just wanted everyone to be happy.”
Chiem’s prose matches his steely characters turn for turn. His style is stripped down, minimalist but poetic, with frequent pop culture references (the 2003 suicide of Hong Kong superstar Leslie Cheung looms over one story). Recognizable indie acts like Rilo Kiley and Broken Social Scene play in the background of many scenes. Unsurprisingly considering its original publication date, You Private Person does feels like a document of the mid-Obama years, a time of relative societal calm when the primary concern of these characters’ lives would have indeed likely been the struggle to pay bills and maintain a steady relationship.
Chiem proves adept at examining our obsession with the notion of The Other; many of these stories find their perspective pulling away from their ostensible male narrators in order to consider the interiority of the women they love: “Sometimes she cannot tell whether or not she is being cruel or sarcastic or playful on purpose, especially when she doesn’t have anything clever to say. Inside her head, intentions misfire.” When asked in an interview about his tendency to empathize more with the female characters in his work, Chiem stated, “For me it was about giving particular characters a voice, even though they don’t really say much. It’s about having their lives lived.”
These lives and the quiet tremors they create help form the bedrock of Chiem’s stories; they’re why he’s swiftly becoming one of our great chroniclers of urban melancholy. You Private Person understands that sometimes, when faced with the weight of the decisions we’ve made, both good and bad, and the consequences they’ve wrought in our lives, the only choice we really have is to start the next shift at work.
When I started reading Christine Angot’s Incest (207 pages; Archipelago Books), I wondered whether its erratic style was simply the result of how the French language, translated closely, sounds in English. But I soon discovered that it’s not just the translation: French and English-speaking readers alike have found Angot’s book untidy and difficult to decipher. From an artistic point of view, I must commend the translator, Tess Lewis, for resisting the urge to force Angot’s narrative into coherent and clear prose. Rather, her English translation of Incest strives to replicate the same frazzled reading experience as the original French.
Incest is a book that blurs the lines between a novel and stylized nonfiction. The story explores the life of a young woman (who, in a meta touch, shares the author’s name) reeling from a turbulent lesbian love affair as she begins to navigate the emotional trauma of her past, in particular the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her father. The narrator herself is aware of the fractured nature in which she relays her experience. She chides herself, partway through, for remaining so obscure:
“I punctuate my sentences in an unusual way, I’m going to try to stop. I will use punctuation only for clarity, so that readers can find their way. The clarity of my statements. So that my statements are clear, and understood. A bit fastidious, maybe, but this time properly. I won’t write, anymore, for example, ‘I licked her, this woman, whose child is a dog,’ I won’t write that anymore, what’s the point?”
At times the narrator attempts to be more logical, but inevitably slips back into her circular, obsessive mutterings. It is shocking, then, to be faced with the visceral nature of her memories. Angot’s testimony of her abusive teenage years proves both vivid and immersive. You can tell that the narrator, by describing her experiences, is being forced to relive them as well. The book struggles to make sense of anything else in the narrator’s life as it dances around the very real pain of her past.
Some critics hailed Incest as a fresh, brutally honest recounting of a traumatic experience. And yet others stated they couldn’t make it more than 40 pages through its convoluted and frequently repetitive narrative. There are even those who have dismissed the book as sensationalistic navel-gazing attempting to ride its taboo content to popularity. A 2013 Telegraph article labelled Angot as “France’s Queen of Shock-Fiction.”
This seems to imply that there’s something inauthentic about Angot. But there’s nothing inauthentic about the way she examines incest’s effect on her character’s cognition, or her ability to derive meaning and draw connections from even the most horrific of personal experiences:
“I associate things others don’t associate, I bring together things that don’t fit together. Dog-child, incest-homosexuality or AIDS, cousin-couple, blonde-bitch, money-hate, movie star-bitch, Leonore-gold, mass grave-gold mine, Holocaust-ghetto, worker-black, etc.”
Angot calls these associations “incestuous ideas,” and believes that the incest eliminated her mind’s ability to recognize partitions between concepts:
“I reached a point of no return, the word associations were threatening, incestuous ideas were filling my head…There is no partition, everything touches, nothing is untouchable…I’m not making this up. The brain cannot be divided into separate parts. It’s not that I’m missing something upstairs, as the saying goes, it’s a house without walls…”
She’s right. You can’t make stuff like this up. Now it will be for English readers to decide whether navigating Incest’s murkiest passages and disturbing subject matter is worth the price to experience Angot’s searing vision.
“Literature is the question minus the answer.”
“To learn which questions are unanswerable and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.”
—Ursula K. LeGuin, from The Left Hand of Darkness
Perhaps you, like me, find yourself asking a lot from literature these days: greater solace, finer insight, deeper resonance. For me that’s led to thinking more pointedly about such expectations, and I’ve found it is useful to ask not only what literature can do to respond to current events, but also how; not just what meaning literature can make, but how such meaning operates.
Today marks an anxious anniversary of sorts—grave for many reasons, but in no small part because we do not yet know the full consequences of the event we’re reflecting on. We cannot know because it is still unfolding and, whatever the effects are, we are still in the middle of it.
One year ago this evening, as the presidential election results rolled in, Oscar and I texted each other. What should we do, I asked? You should write something, Oscar answered. So on November 17, we sent out a letter. We called it the Solidarity Letter, and we hoped it would serve not only as a way of communing with all of you—our friends, colleagues, contributors, and readers—and reaffirming a set of core ideals (equality and dignity for all, freedom of the press, democratic principles), but also as a statement of intent and purpose as we looked to the future.
Ever since the election—without exaggeration, every day for the past year—we’ve been working to create a Resistance Issue, and on December 1st we’ll share it with all of you. As we’ve shaped the issue, we’ve shaped our evolving vision for the journal, too.
It’s our belief a literary journal can and should be engaged with a world in tumult; we can offer both respite from the often vapid noise of a 24-hour news-cycle and relentless partisanship, and, at the same time, invite deeper, more thoughtful engagement with the most urgent questions facing our culture and our country. We believe there is a role for this journal to play in the current environment, and that we can do so without diminishing our commitment to our foundational cause of contemporary art and literature. We believe we can curate a conversation elevated above party loyalty, one that is thoughtful even when it is provocative, which dares to be both idealistic and intellectual, informed as much by poetry as it is by history.
The forthcoming Resistance Issue asks many questions about art, culture, and political engagement, and endeavors to offer a few ideas for consideration. The robust special section is comprised of essays by Troy Jollimore (on how Wallace Shawn’s work illuminates our predicament), Robin Romm (on what Imre Kertész teaches us about art as resistance), T.J. Stiles (on the road we travelled to arrive at this precarious moment), and Andrew Tonkovich (on “free persons” and writing), as well as poetry by Victoria Chang, David Hernandez, Dean Rader, and Ruth Madievsky. Beyond these themed pieces, the issue also includes stories by Kristopher Jansma, Dana Johnson, and Krys Lee; an excerpt from Dorthe Nors’s forthcoming novel; poetry by Judy Halebsky, Bino Realuyo, and Jenny Xie; and a riotous conversation between Matt Sumell and Michelle Latiolais on writing, mentoring, and anger. And it’s all bound up in an exquisitely-crafted, illustrated cover by Josh Korwin—a piece of art in and of itself; one evocative of these strange times.
Please join us as a subscriber and guarantee yourself a copy of this landmark issue of ZYZZYVA. We hope you’ll take part in the community and conversation we’re striving to curate.
Yours in solidarity,
If you’re anything like the ZYZZYVA team, you occasionally like to spend Halloween curled up in front of your screen of choice for a frightening film (or two…or three). From Rosemary’s Baby to The Exorcist, we can’t help but observe the fact that many – if not most – of the iconic horror movies of the last fifty years have drawn their source material from the written word. In celebration of the holiday, we thought we’d recommend a selection of some of our favorite or under-appreciated horror movies adapted from works of fiction for you to check out.
Pin: A Plastic Nightmare (1988) – Andrew Neiderman’s 1981 work Pin is not a great novel, but it’s one that continues to linger in the imagination of readers thanks to its genuinely strange premise and the way Neiderman conveys the cold, clinical psychopathy of its narrator, Leon. The story opens on the dismal childhood of siblings Leon and Ursula Linden, who face an overbearingly obsessive-compulsive mother and a cold, emotionally withholding father. The only comfort they find in their early years comes from each other and the medical dummy their physician father brings to life thanks to his prodigious gift for ventriloquism. Leon’s connection to the anatomical model, whom Ursula nicknames Pin (short for Pinocchio), turns out to be so profound that even into adulthood the sheltered young man is unable to connect with anyone outside his cloistered circle of Ursula and Pin.
When Leon and Ursula’s parents are killed in a horrific car crash, Leon promptly moves Pin from his father’s practice to the sibling’s expansive but lonely estate, and the stage is set for a disturbing psychodrama worthy of Robert Bloch. Surprisingly, the film adaptation from director Sandor Stern (a filmmaker who has helmed more Lifetime movies than feature films) is remarkably faithful to its source material. While Stern perhaps wisely chooses to tone down the incestuous subtext and render Leon a more sympathetic but no less unhinged figure, the director proves most adept at conveying the suffocating air of privilege and mental decay in the Linden household, as well as the systems of abuse that can exist within a family. Aided by a dreamlike synthesizer soundtrack and a convincing turn from Cube’s David Hewlett as Leon, Sander’s version of Pin often brings to mind the moody and sterile-feeling horror of fellow Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg. Most importantly, this is one of those rare and relatively bloodless films from the genre that proves far more sad than gruesome, and Pin is all the better for it.–Zack Ravas, Editorial Assistant
Coraline (2009) – Fair warning: if you’re terrified of spiders, dolls, or any combination thereof, this next film may not be for you! Coraline, based on a book of the same name by Neil Gaiman, is the story of a young girl who is unhappy about her parents’ decision to move to the dilapidated Pink Palace Apartments. That is, until she discovers a small door to a parallel universe in her new living room. Traveling through the portal, she finds an idealized version of her life on the other side: a place where her parents are more loving, food tastes better, and everything seems great. Of course it seems great, and of course it isn’t – darkness lurks underneath. Don’t be fooled by the movie’s childlike aesthetic, this is horror. The 3-D stop motion animation manages to employ some of the usual visual tropes of children’s cartoons – each character has an oversized head and eyes, for instance – without sacrificing the whimsically eerie atmosphere that Gaiman’s books are known for. Coraline is a visual treat, which makes it all the more riveting.–Rebecca Rand, Intern
The Shining (1980) – Adapting a horror novel to film has got to be one of the most thankless tasks in writing. The sense of fear constructed by a novel’s omniscient narrator isn’t easily replicated in film, and dialogue that once crackled in our heads often turns bland when we hear it from an actor. So when anyone raises the stakes of the horror genre by taking the written word and exceeding our most terrifying literary imaginings onscreen, there’s little holding it back from becoming one of the best films –full-stop – of all time. Stanley Kubrick’s psycho-thriller adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining is one such film, required viewing for both cinephiles and horror junkies alike. Kubrick worked loosely from his source material (King is famously dismissive of the movie), re-imagining the world of the Overlook Hotel into a space where the inexplicable layers on top of the otherworldly to create a Möbius tapestry of fear. Perhaps most impressively, Kubrick married the slow-building terror literature excels at with the visual scares endemic to campy horror movies, creating an indescribable nightmare that exists outside any logic but its own. Kubrick and Diane Johnson’s eerie screenplay is taken to legendary heights by every member of the cast, even the one-time supporting appearances; I’ve been hearing “Play with us, forever” ringing in my ears since I first watched this film over a year ago.
During much of the film, it’s almost impossible to even say what we’re scared of – there’s no easily named fear in many of the scenes, and fans have spent decades attempting to decode the symbolism in the film to work out Kubrick’s own nightmare-logic. But that’s the very point: fear is a feeling, floating in the air and through our minds, not a thing we can look at and name. We have nothing to fear, but fear itself. The best films coil back on themselves, evading explanation, over and over again with every repeat viewing; The Shining similarly locks us into its labyrinth, doomed to the endless loop of a dream. All we have to do is wake ourselves up.–Kailee Stiles, Intern
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) – Though it works perfectly on its own as a paranoid thriller and creepfest, Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (based on Jack Finney’s 1956 novel) has a particularly unsettling resonance for anybody who remembers San Francisco before 2000.
The tech boom and its corrosive effect upon who gets to live here has bubbled forth a mucous pod of a metaphor for the 1978 movie that simply wasn’t there before. So as Donald Sutherland’s health inspector stumbles through the mystery of why people are acting so peculiarly, and as regular seeming working stiffs and suited businessmen start to gather conspiratorially, the eerie feeling that something huge is afoot—and that whatever it is it’s not good—can’t help but summon a dread that has nothing to do with being replaced by an alien species but everything to do with being replaced by a kid in a hoodie bearing a start-up logo.
Aside for its story, the movie can be watched for the nostalgia its setting evokes. San
Francisco is portrayed as something of an urban village full of working-class people.
For anybody who recalls the perhaps now lost egalitarianism of the city, it makes
complete sense that a couple of Department of Health employees, a poet (Jeff
Goldblum) who runs a mud-bath business with his wife (Veronica Cartwright), and a
famous psychiatrist (Leonard Nimoy) should all know and hang out with each other.
(Every other column by the late, great Herb Caen attested to this sort of thing.) Even
as the movie’s dastardly plot unfurls, the various moody shots of the city remind us
of a time when this was a beautiful place to which nobody driven by the need to
make millions in a hurry was especially attracted to.
But San Francisco is where they came just the same to make their fortunes, and the
city has pretzeled itself to accommodate this new reality. Disquieting enough,
Kaufman’s movie addresses the situation. At one point, one of the characters is
revealed to be a pod person, their human self replaced by the invaders from space.
“We came here from a dying world,” the creature informs us. “We drift through the
universe, from planet to planet, pushed on by the solar winds. We adapt and we
survive. The function of life is survival.”
Go to sleep and accept the inevitable is the advice being given. It’s painless. Wake up
in your new form. Then congregate down on the corner, wait for orders, and help us
spread through the rest of the planet. Everyone will adapt. But first they’ll die, and
then it’ll be as nothing changed.–Oscar Villalon, Managing Editor
With the approach of Halloween, we polled our staff and contributors about which literary works of horror (or of just plain ol’ spookiness) they’d like to point our readers to. From the progenitor of the macabre short story, Edgar Allan Poe, to the psychological stylings of Shirley Jackson and Joyce Carol Oates, these works display a keen understanding of the utter fragility of the human mind. It may be a well-worn genre, but horror retains its power to effectively probe our darker impulses and explore cultural traumas:
Paul Wilner, ZYZZYVA Contributor: I generally stay away from horror literature – it’s a step above science fiction, but it still gives me, you know, the creeps. That’s the intention, of course, but it feels a bit…intentional for my taste.
But I make an exception for Edgar Allan Poe. Besides being the lead Goth of his time, inspiring everyone from Baudelaire to Lou Reed, there’s a hysterical realism to Poe’s prose that continues to be relevant, even incorrigibly modern.
The Poe story that has stayed with me most is “The Tell-Tale Heart.’’ First published in 1843 in The Pioneer, a magazine edited by James Russell Lowell, a poet about as far from the aesthetic of the bard of Baltimore as it’s possible to imagine.
In it, the unreliable narrator recounts the “perfect crime’’ of murdering the old man who lives in the house they share, whether as a servant or family member.
Poe strikes the High Romantic note from the outset.
“True! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses – not destroyed, not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad?’’
How, indeed? Let us count the ways.
Trying to explain his motive for the crime, he discounts the usual: “Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me…I think it was his eye! yes it was this! One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture – a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold…”
In the dead of the night, he falls on the old man with a shriek, pulls his bed down over him, dismembers him and buries his remains in the room. Move over, Hannibal Lecter.
When the police arrive – neighbors had heard the commotion – he entertains them cordially, confident “in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph’’ and places his chair above the spot where the corpse had been hidden. But as he tries to continue his small talk, he hears a sound, persistent and growing ever louder – the heartbeat of his victim.
“Was it possible they heard not! Almighty God! – no, no! They heard! – they suspected! – they knew! they were making a mockery of my horror! – this I thought, and this I think.”
Chattering in terror, he confesses, prefiguring a thousand Raskolnikovs.
Poe is considered the father of the detective novel, a banal ambition. But he was so much more. His excited sentences leap forth and grip us still, even in these short pages.
He anticipates Baudelaire’s famous challenge – “Hypocrite lecteur – mon semblable – mon frère,’’ and Rimbaud’s later derangement of the senses.
Found delirious on the streets of Baltimore on Oct. 3, 1849, he died a few days later. There’s an apocryphal report that the cause of death was “cooping’’ – a form of 19th century election fraud in which unwitting victims were kept in a room (or “coop’’) and plied with liquor until they voted, often several times, for a particular candidate. Or maybe he was just drunk, and took too many drugs – he never needed much encouragement in that regard.
Regardless, “The Tell-Tale Heart’’ still makes me shiver. I see Poe’s wild man, and his victim, in my mind’s eye. Wherever we may go, he is waiting.
Rebecca Rand, Intern: “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is one of Joyce Carol Oates’ most famous short stories, and it is an incredibly eerie work of psychological horror. It recalls the experience of a teenager named Connie, approached by a creepy man who calls himself Arnold Friend, who she finds seductive in spite of herself.
When a character in any story utters the line, “You’re a monster!” to a human villain, it is usually after s/he has committed or promised to commit some inhuman act of violence. Oates manages to make Arnold Friend an incredible monster without any violence. We question his humanness because he is grotesquely phony. He has shaggy black hair that is “crazy like a wig,” a face covered in mask-like foundation makeup, a nakedly aged throat, eyelashes covered in tar, and boots stuffed to make himself look taller. His disguise is clumsy and careless–he trips over his obviously-stuffed footwear. Connie sees all this, know’s he’s a fraud, and yet he still exerts psychological control over her. This is part of what makes “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” so freaking scary. And a perfect short read for this Halloween.
Zack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: If you walked into a mall bookstore before the year 1995, chances are you saw them: the rows and rows of mass market paperbacks with evocatively rendered skeletons, masked killers, and insect hordes adorning their covers. While you may have thought that titles such as Night-Shriek, Toy Cemetery, and The Accursed – with their almost microscopic fonts and outlandish storylines – had been resigned to the dustbin of history, one man has made it his mission to preserve their dubious legacy. Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks From Hell is both a survey of and a love-letter to the lurid horror novels of the 70’s and 80’s, skipping over the big names like Stephen King and Dean Koontz in favor of the lesser known and forgotten authors who contributed to the genre during the mass market paperback boom.
While Hendrix’s deadpan, often ironic tone may not be to every reader’s liking, his genuine excitement when he stumbles upon a gem in the dusty stacks proves infectious. His enthusiasm is palpable as he describes the work of William H. Johnstone, whose novels routinely featured muscle-bound Vietnam vets battling Satan-worshipping deviants in small town America, as well as the more clinical and psychologically-driven stylings of Andrew Neiderman (his book Brainchild depicts what happens when a straight A science student turns her household into a laboratory maze for humans). Don’t be surprised if you come away from this book with your own wishlist of macabre titles to track down. An ideal read for the October season, Paperbacks From Hell serves as a nostalgic ode to a paperback era long gone and a reminder of the assorted treasures that might be lurking at your local used bookstore.
The idea of the “haunted house” novel is at least as old as the Gothic genre itself, dating back to the late 18th century with The Castle of Otranto. But it wasn’t until Anne Rivers Siddons published her cult favorite The House Next Door in 1978 that readers learned a haunting, much like real estate, is all about location, location, location. While urbanites who migrated to the suburbs may have thought they were leaving behind the crime and blight of the inner cities for a more tranquil existence, the horror novels of the Seventies were there to teach readers that America’s pastoral regions had their own share of maladies—and often the supernatural variety.
It’s a lesson that continues to reverberate in the latest novel from Jac Jemc, The Grip of It (288 pages; FSG Originals), as young married couple Julie and James flees the temptations of city life (namely James’ gambling habit) to settle in a low-cost fixer-upper in a more rural part of the state. A welcome twist on this familiar set-up is how Julie and James react upon learning of their new house’s hidden compartments and hideaways: “I squeeze James’s hand and he squeezes back because we have this way of feeling the same about the unexpected, and I know, like me, he is excited about the secret passages…” Genre connoisseurs may find themselves thinking, now here’s a couple I can relate to.
It doesn’t take long for the duo’s excitement to fade, however, as the otherworldly occurrences pile up: local children play a strange game called Murder in the woods; painful bruises sprout upon Julie’s skin, seemingly without cause; Julie and James’ inexplicably keep waking up in their neighbor’s house; and worse. The stress, understandably, puts a strain on the couple’s relationship, each partner wondering if the other’s outsized behavior is merely retaliation for some perceived slight:
“There’s a room behind that wall, but it’s gone now.”
He looks at me strangely. “That can’t be. It’s the guest room on the other side. There’s not enough space.”
I’m too tired to convince him. “Well, I didn’t make it up.”
I can tell he wonders if this is all a bid for attention, if I was ever even trapped. “Talk to me, Julie. What’s going on? Are you mad at me? Are you trying to get back at me?”
I don’t know.
Despite an ominous tone, The Grip of It proves a brisk read thanks to Jemc’s punchy, to-the-point chapters, each one typically alternating between Julie and James’ perspectives. Because Jemc never roots us in a stable point-of-view, she is able to foster in us the same sense of paranoia her characters are experiencing—how can we be certain what Julie or James are up to when they’re off camera? This selective vision creates the suspicion we may be witnessing a case of folie à deux, a shared psychosis between a stressed husband and wife pushed to the brink by home ownership, managing addictions, and keeping up appearances for friends and neighbors. “The inability to trust ourselves is the most menacing danger,” James muses. “What is worse? To be confronted with an obvious horror, or to be haunted by a never-ending premonition of what’s ahead?”
The novel deliberately blurs the line between the supernatural and the mundane, but as with any great horror novel the genre-trappings are merely a framework employed to discuss the pressures of modern life. The looming horror doesn’t just rest in the child-like drawings Julie and James discover on a cave wall near their property, or within the secret journal entries they find in the house. There is also their real fear that their relationship can’t survive the lure of addiction and the anxiety of becoming bourgeois and out of touch in the suburbs, and that their work life will suffer as a result. Even as possible explanations for the surreal happenings surface—a rare disorder of the nervous system, an extreme reaction to fungal mold—the reader is left to contend with the remaining mysteries that aren’t so conveniently solved. “We experience our fear privately,” James remarks. “When I see an errant shadow, I tell myself it’s nothing. When I notice a row of photos turned facedown on the shelf, I right them.” Perhaps that is all we can do when faced with the myriad of experiences that unsettle, that linger without explanation: a quiet resolution to fix the crooked frame.
To begin, 7×7 has a list of local relief efforts that we can contribute to, including food donations and fundraising socials, while KQED highlights ways to help animals that are affected by the Northern California wildfires. In addition, the compassionate crowdfunding site YouCare is raising funds for fire victims in the Santa Rosa community.
Please feel free to share links to similar relief efforts in the Comments section.
Her Body and Other Parties (Graywolf; 241 pages) by Carmen Maria Machado, which was recently shortlisted for the National Book Award, lives up to the critical acclaim it has accrued. This collection of stories utilizes elements of gothic, speculative, and horror fiction to examine life in a female body and its relationship to sex, food, disease, and the supernatural.
Following horror tradition, objects carry great significance here. The first story, “The Husband Stitch,” was inspired by Alvin Schwartz’s children’s horror story “The Green Ribbon,” in which a woman relies on a green choker to keep her head attached to the rest of her body. Machado’s rendition follows this green-ribboned woman’s relationship with her husband, whose curious fingers constantly mess with the ribbon—trying to slip under it or untie it. The woman, dismayed by this invasion, asks him to let her have this one thing, this one secret. But he cannot.
Machado’s use of horror amplifies the bizarre pains, joys, and restrictions women face. In “Eight Bites,” a woman’s basement is haunted by her old body after she undergoes gastric bypass surgery. When the narrator confronts her former self, it is a soft, helpless ghoul: “It is just a body with nothing it needs: no stomach or bones or mouth. Just soft indents. I crouch down and stroke its shoulder, or what I think is its shoulder. It turns and looks at me. It has no eyes, but still, it looks at me. She looks at me. She is awful but honest. She is grotesque but she is real.”
“Real Women Have Bodies” is a speculative piece which imagines a world where, for no discernable reason, some women start “going incorporeal,” becoming more transparent and permeable until they are essentially nothing. Sex is an important component of this story, as the main characters struggle to hold onto their bodily joy while they still can. (“I come fast and hard,” the narrator says, “like a bottle breaking against a brick wall”). Some of the vanished women, entirely dematerialized, allow themselves to be sewn into the lining of prom dresses. In Machado’s work, emotions materialize and materials become embedded with emotions.
She also has a fascination with pandemics, which she explores in not just “Real Women Have Bodies” but elsewhere. “Inventory” recalls a modern viral plague through one woman’s detailed list of her sexual encounters. The threat of disease hangs heavy over these women as they try to live their lives with as much happiness (and as many orgasms) as they can get away with before being swallowed up by death or disappearance.
Many of Machado’s characters are haunted. “The Resident” tells the story of an artist in residency at a rural mansion who cannot shake off the abuse she experienced as an adolescent at the hands of her fellow Girl Scouts. In “Difficult at Parties,” a woman tries to get over a terrible sexual trauma by watching porn, and realizes she can hear the thoughts of the characters in the films. “Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order: SVU” takes the notion of a haunting to the next level: after watching Law & Order straight through with a high fever, Machado was inspired to synopsize an SVU from a parallel universe, where the same characters are plagued by doppelgangers and victims of “especially heinous” crimes, including ghost girls with bells for eyes. “She stands over Benson’s bed, the right bell tinkling faintly, and then the left, and then the right again,” Mochado writes. “This happens four nights in a row, at 2:07 am. Benson starts sleeping with a crucifix and pungent ropes of garlic, because she does not understand the difference between vampires and murdered teenagers. Not yet.”
By taking to its ultimate (and extreme) conclusion the significance of inhabiting a female body, Machado makes the supernatural and madness feel eerily familiar.
Poet, translator, professor, and editor Matthew Zapruder was born in Washington, DC. in 1967. He earned a BA in Russian literature at Amherst College, an MA in Slavic languages and literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and an MFA in poetry at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he studied with Dara Wier, James Tate, and Agha Shahid Ali. Zapruder is the author most recently of Sun Bear (Copper Canyon, 2014) and Why Poetry, a book of prose about poetry (Ecco/Harper Collins, 2017). An Associate Professor in the MFA at Saint Mary’s College of California, he is also editor at large at Wave Books.
When the Oakland-based author visited City Lights last month, ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon talked to him about Why Poetry. Zapruder also read from the book.