Nick Mamatas returned to California in August of last year to become an editor at Viz Media, founding its Haikasoru imprint of Japanese novels in translation. When friends asked him why he was taking a day job after fifteen years of freelance writing, he told them that health insurance would help him pursue his true goal becoming a cage fighter. Mamatas studies tai chi, but the better analogy for his writing, as showcased in his new short story collection, You Might Sleep…, is actually that cage fighting joke itself.
Mamatas’s stories employ an unpredictable array of viewpoints and perspectives, from the wry and bemused to the heartless and bleak. Maybe it is his belief in socialism or a communal love for human beings, maybe it is even because he ended up in speculative fiction even though much of his work is grounded in real world concerns—but the stories are often about people with crazy ideas, some of which turn out well and some of which turn out badly. Reading outside of the confines of the speculative genres allows You Might Sleep to have a wonderful balance of day-to-day concerns (like having to get a day job because the economy is rough) and pulpier concerns (like a cult novelist shucking writing to fight for money).
Jay Lake (author of the recently-released Green) described the artistic dichotomy with this sentiment:
Nick Mamatas binds politics with an aesthetic of the fantastic, finding eldritch horror in everything from Lovecraft to Abu Ghraib. You Might Sleep… is the last roundup of the monsters from the id of the contemporary American psyche. Read at your peril, read at your pleasure.
Reading the 22 stories in the collection is like hearing a double CD of greatest hits by a band that never had a consistent line-up. The stories are precise and move with a comfortable authority, but cover a vast range, as if other players dropped in to add notes. “Withdraw, Withdraw!” starts with sex, moves on to after-sex ritual sandwiches and then ends with Abu Ghraib. The ideas and images from the stories will carom through some readers’ skulls in their sleep—but the work, on the whole, remains unpredictable despite consistently finding that wiggle room between the known and the unknown. The title page says, “You might sleep but you will never dream,” and it is a fair assessment of how Mamatas is able to blur lines.
Whether it is pirates coming back in present day and getting attacked by a flying piano (in “Build a Trebuchet” which subtly links to Mamatas’s most recently published novel, the bomb-in-a-garden-gnome story of Under My Roof) or Joan of Arc taking up blogging (“joanierules.bloggermax.com”), Mamatas writes weird and unsettling stories that still manage to feel familiar. At their best, his stories find a balance between depicting what is most unsettling in our present day world and depicting equally unsettling flames of fierier imagination.
There is no set Mamatas plot arc used in his stories, but plots are always hatching in them. “The Pitch” is a classic horror tale of the movie industry, a basic set up where an industry insider meets Marvin Pentecost, a writer who sells actual dark truths. Like Pentecost, part of Mamatas’s skill is that he does not pull punches. In “Real People Slash,” perhaps the collection’s strongest contribution to traditional “old weird” fiction (with the possible exception of the short scary robot stunner “At the End of the Hall”), a Socialist writer named Nick realizes that the Mi-Go, the Fungi of Yuggoth from H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in the Darkness,” have taken over the world. Like most of the stories in the collection, quotidian details and global menace combine to bring one or the other of those elements, the mundane or the apocalyptic, into starker relief.
As much as the stories are textured and varied, there are consistent ideas underpinning his perspectives. Momentum and curiosity, especially in terms of tearing down power structures, provide a thematic focus for the collection. Nick Mamatas does not pander or stop to make sure the reader follows along, which allows his work to leverage the maximum advantages from the consistent political and satirical core of his work. The fact that he is drawn to stark and dark themes also remains constant throughout.
Whether it is a bloodied, naked woman who is found in an apartment building or Joey Ramone saving the planet or even world leaders fighting like gladiators, his writing style displays his take on writing:
Find a fan of horror, someone who really has a lot of horror novels and who can rattle off lists of his favorites and who fumes at several bad novels at length and whatever he is suspicious of or finds utterly unreadable, read that.
The work is technically precise and sometimes tries to be abrasive, a lot like a cult author who longs to become a cage fighter. Or, more accurately, a writer who brings together social criticism, yucks and dark wonder in a way that refuses to limit what can and cannot be done in short stories. You Might Sleep… takes elements from many traditions and makes a point of rapidly crossing the boundaries that sometimes exist at the margins of such taxonomies.
Geoffrey H. Goodwin is a former bookseller and academic who now writes full-time. His non-fiction appears in Weird Tales and Bookslut.com and his fiction has appeared in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Rabid Transit and the upcoming anthology Phantom, among other places.