Text has texture to me. Sentences can be saline, sweet, some beautiful combination of flavor notes; a paragraph can be a course onto itself, eliciting genuine frissons of delight. My brain decodes poetry as amuse bouche, short stories as three-course meals, and novels as sprawling examples of literary cuisine.
Synesthesia is fun.
No. Really. It is. Except when you’re talking about bad books, bad writing. Fortunately, we’re not talking about bad books, but instead about excellent books. Books that feel like they were hand-prepped by Gordon Ramsay, or whichever haute chef appeals to your own particular sensibilities.
The Breaker Queen by C.S.E. Cooney
At the risk of sounding crass, C.S.E. Cooney’s work has always tasted of sex to me: a smell of sweat on skin, of panting bodies, of arousal. Strawberries and chocolate. Decadence, bent to a single purpose. Cooney’s work is dizzyingly sensual and The Breaker Queen continues the hedonistic trend. Far shorter than I’d have liked it to be, Cooney’s novella is a love story, a tale of lust, of faerie politics and art. I’m keeping the description for this one short because The Breaker Queen is an experience, best consumed in private, with nothing between skin and skin.
Southern Gods by John Hornor Jacobs
Smoke and cheap whiskey, ashes in the aftertaste, a sweetness like maple, and something else, something our tongues lack vocabulary for. If the blues had a taste, if you could map those downbeats to esters, weft the rhythm with protein molecules, you’d get Southern Gods. John Hornor Jacobs’s debut novel will always have a special place in my soul: it is the first example of Southern Gothic that I’d was truly mesmerized by. In some ways, it is the inspiration for A Song for Quiet, an open doorway through which a Malaysian could look into the sweltering, sultry shadows of the South. There’s an elegance to the novel that comes across most exquisitely in its portrayal of music. Jacobs uses his background wonderfully here. More than that, he works music into the rhythm of the prose itself, building a hypnotic story of sacrifice, redemption, and otherworldly horrors towards its grim climax.
The Girl With No Hands and Other Tales by Angela Slatter
When I think of Angela Slatter’s writing, I think about bread. Not the cheap stuff that you get out of the nearest convenience store. Expensive bread. Good bread. The kind you think twice about dipping into olive oil, about blaspheming with condiments because you’d much rather feel its bare texture on your tongue, experience its nuances as you chew. Even the crust has a melody to it. Angela Slatter’s prose is relatively spare, rarely self-indulgent; every word is picked with care. Like good bread. But under its austerity, a new taste inevitably blooms, some undeniable sense of umami. Something dark. Hemlock, perhaps, tamed and trained for palatability; a bite that reminds you that the world is deeper, stranger than you can possibly conceive. Every story in The Girl with no Hands and Other Tales reads like a fevered dream of a better world, a place that held a pair of unrepentant Sisters Grimm, who couldn’t care less about what you thought was appropriate.
The Least of My Scars by Stephen Graham Jones
The Least of My Scars taste of tin, cheap wine, something sour yet compulsive. In places, it has a kind of mealiness to it, like a mouthful of cooked maggots. And I know that doesn’t sound appetizing, doesn’t seem concurrent with the title of this round-up, but The Least of My Scars is compulsive. Hypnotic and hallucinatory, the book is about … a serial killer, you could say, who lives in a room and deals with, among other things, the victims that are sent his way and the voices in his head. He has rituals, reasons for everything that’s going on, and Jones’ voice for the character is infectious. William Colton Hughes, our protagonist, is immensely compelling, and by the end of the book, it becomes almost impossible to separate his reality from your own. The aftertaste that The Least of My Scars leaves is unpleasant, to say the least, but culinary delights are all about lasting impressions, aren’t they?
The End of the Sentence by Kat Howard & Maria Dahvana Headley
Dark, woody with a flavor that makes me think of mesquite and cacao. There’s something bitter to The End of the Sentence. A beautiful, strange book that doesn’t get half as much love as it deserves as far as I’m concerned, it is a ghost story, a redemption story, a dream-like vignette that teases at horrors untold. But it surprises with its conclusion. For those who haven’t read the book, The End of the Sentence has a man named Malcolm Mays corresponding with a bizarre entity, a creature that identifies itself as Dusha Chuchonnyhoof. And the pacing of the novella reminds me of a degustation menu, something expensive and sleek, subtly but inexorably moving towards a foregone ending carefully conjured by chefs more clever than the rest of us. It lingers, this book. Even now, while I write this, I find myself delighted anew by its elegance, the decisions it makes. It helps that the prose is exquisite, smoky and sensual as only these two authors can make it.
Originally published October 2017.
Cassandra Khaw is the business developer for micropublisher Ysbryd Games. When not otherwise writing press releases and attending conventions, she writes fiction of varying length. The first two novellas in her Lovecraftian noir Persons Non Grata series—Hammers on Bone and A Song for Quiet—are available from Tor.com Publishing.