There are a lot of analogies for why writing short stories is so difficult; but I think the image of someone constructing a jigsaw puzzle while totally unsure as to what the image is supposed to be is the most apt. To do this once in your life—write a killer short story—is a total miracle. But if you’re some kind deranged monster like Lincoln Michel, you can churn these puppies out in your sleep. And in Upright Beasts (his first collection) he mashes up every genre imaginable and packs his stories into a book that feels pregnant with other books.
My knowing Lincoln Michel personally is probably a good thing to tell you right now. Saying I knew this author before reading his book admits that I had a bias going in. And yet. Lincoln was a guy I knew primarily for being a great editor and whip-smart funny on Twitter. (In 2013 he was among Brooklyn Magazine’s 30 most essential literary Twitter accounts) So approaching Upright Beasts I thought to myself: “Well, I like this guy as a guy, but what if I don’t like his fiction?” And then, after the nice people at Coffee House Press sent me a review copy, I promptly put off reading the book for about three weeks.
But I had nothing to be worried about. Because the book is great and not just because it ticks off certain literary boxes. It’s great primarily because it’s so different. Allow me to introduce you to my friend Lincoln and his insane talent.
Like a lot of books and authors I’ve written about for Tor.com, Upright Beasts is not marketed as science fiction or fantasy in any way. And yet, the content of many of the stories and Lincoln Michel’s personal tastes hew toward genre fiction, big time. Before this collection was released, the author was perhaps most famous for his “Monsters of Modern Literature” trading card series wherein he created portraits of well-known authors recast as ghoulish creatures. This past year, along with co-editor Nadxieli Nieto, Lincoln put out the flash science fiction anthology Gigantic Worlds, a beautiful independently published volume which curates authors the editors loved, emerging voices that came in on blind submission, and a few previously uncollected stories from people you might have heard of like Philip K. Dick. Whenever I see Lincoln in New York City, he has a million things to say to me about science fiction. He loves Octavia Butler. He’s working on a novel about super villains. Have I convinced you of his SF cred yet?
The stories in Upright Beasts are divided into four sections: “Upright Beasts,” “North American Mammals,” “Familiar Creatures,” and “Megafauna.” I’m tempted to say science fiction and fantasy readers will primarily enjoy the stories in the last section, but if you skipped the other sections, you’d be doing yourself a huge disservice. True, that Megafauna section does contain the super-hilarious story “What We Have Surmised About the John Adams Incarnation,” which reads like book-report written by a far-future historian trying to piece-together the relevance of John Adams only to recast him as a kind of demon or at one point, “…a familiar or minion to George Washington.” (Shades of that awesome Brad Neely Internet classic “Washington” are totally present, intentionally or not.) Megafauna also contains the excellent zombie story “Getting there Nonetheless,” which I refuse to detail here because it’s just way too good to spoil.
Characters in Lincoln Michel’s stories are often lost, bewildered or lacking all the information. In what seems to be a straight-forward story about a woman going to an artist colony, wraith-like beings are often seen in the distance while the protagonist hardly ever encounters another single human. It’s not a spoiler to tell you this, but not all the questions in “Colony” are totally answered. In “Things Left Outside,” a rural couple discover a body and report the death to the police. But is this body actually the future version of the woman who discovered it? Did she create her own death by discovering her body? Is her husband the killer? It’s not stated outright, but as you turn the pages hungrily, you hardly care. In a lot of ways, the stories of Upright Beasts function as inverse-Twilight Zone episodes. When you stop to think about it, you’re pretty sure an inversion of reality actually occurred at some point BEFORE the story actually got going.
This is particularly true of the first story in the book titled simply “Our Education.” Here, a bunch of students exist in a school, but the teachers have mysteriously vanished. A Lord of the Flies situation emerges pretty fast, but the most interesting thing is that soon it becomes heresy to say there ever were teachers in the first place. The existence of “adults” becomes a myth and if you believe in crazy things like “having ridden on the bus,” or “doing homework,” you’re going to get it. It was not only chilling in that creepy other-worldly way, but familiar because it reminded me of the classic Star Trek episode “Miri,” in which the concept of someone who is a grown-up is treated as a monstrous thing, because well, those grown-ups do turn into monsters.
If there’s one piece that could represent the totality of Upright Beasts, I would nominate the story “My Life in the Bellies of Beasts.” When a narrator is swallowed up by a sly fox almost immediately after being born, you would think the story can’t get any crazier. The idea of being contained with beasts and continually existing inside of them is not only cleverly profound, but also totally hilarious. It’s a great metaphor for all of Lincoln Michel’s stories because what you’ve got are pieces of fiction which seem to contain other pieces of fiction inside their bellies. You’re never quite sure in each of these tales when some other kind of story is going to emerge from inside of it. This feeling of uncertainty is not only effective as genre fiction, but above all, is comes across as almost completely and utterly new.
Upright Beasts is out now from Coffee House Press.
Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com, where he has written about all sorts of things, but has been long obsessed with “mainstream” literary works which SFF fans might love. He’s the author of the essay collection Luke Skywalker Can’t Read and Other Geeky Truths out next month from Plume (Penguin Random House.)