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Tobias Carroll

Unexpected Connections and Strange Experiments: Paul Tremblay’s Growing Things

Paul Tremblay’s fiction gets inside your head—sometimes literally: his novel A Head Full of Ghosts is about what may or may not be a demonic possession, and The Cabin at the End of the World centers around a home invasion by a quartet of people who may be menacing invaders, or who may be on a desperate mission to prevent the apocalypse. Tremblay’s fiction pulls off the difficult task of making the ambiguous scary: rather than show you a monster or demon, he creates the barest hint of one, offers an equally compelling mundane explanation, and allows the reader to grapple with which one is more terrifying in its implications.

His latest book is a story collection, Growing Things. In its range and assortment of techniques, it’s Tremblay’s most ambitious book; it’s also a work that abounds with references to his other novels, although prior knowledge of them is not required to make sense of these. (With perhaps one exception, which we’ll get to in a moment.) Given the range showcased here, it may not be quite as successful as some of his other books—The Cabin at the End of the World was, for me, one of the most unsettling novels I’ve read in years—but it’s still got plenty of kick.

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The Intellectual Horrors of Brian Evenson: Song for the Unraveling of the World

Whose horror fiction would you least like to be a character in? For my money, it would have to be Brian Evenson. As with the work of many of his peers, there’s the not insubstantial chance that I might be murdered, devoured, or otherwise harmed by a zealot, creature, cult member, or creeping eldritch horror. But in Evenson’s work, there’s also the possibility of being unmade on a more primal level, of being erased from the world entirely. (The title story of Windeye, his previous collection, taps into this in a magnificent and horrific way.) Even when he’s venturing into more nominally science fictional territory, as in Immobility and The Warren, Evenson continues to explore questions of identity and the malleability of both it and the body, combining futuristic plot elements with deeply disquieting meditations on the nature of the self and the human capacity for deception.

Evenson is an acclaimed author and translator; he’s also collaborated with the creator of The Purge on a horror novel, Contagion. This, in many ways, exemplifies his appeal: Evenson understands both the precision of language and the gut-level appeal of the grindhouse, and the best of his work skates along the border between the two, combining aspects of both.

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Post-Humans In Space: Michael Blumlein’s Longer

Some fiction explores the known; other fiction delves into the unknown. Michael Blumlein’s fiction takes another route altogether, revealing the unknown and the mysterious in some of the most nominally familiar places out there. It’s something that makes his work simultaneously revelatory and disconcerting: like a host of authors in the speculative realm, he concerns himself with myriad forms of alienation, but Blumlein’s take on these themes is distinctive and unique.

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Subliminal Visions and Secret Manuscripts: Masande Ntshanga’s Triangulum

Sometimes it can help to begin with the text behind the text. Masande Ntshanga’s Triangulum is a surreal puzzle box of a novel, presented as a series of found documents spanning both the recent past and the near future—but its first few lines come via a quartet of epigraphs, encompassing everything from the fiction of Kōbō Abe to the history of South Africa. Triangulum doesn’t lack for ambition and, as it gathers momentum, it conveys a sense of approaching dread, of events both historical and metaphysical approaching some horrific end point. This is a paranoid novel about the end of the world; this is also a novel about the power and ambiguity of apocalyptic narratives.

Triangulum opens in 2043, with a Foreword by Dr. Naomi Buthelezi. An acclaimed writer (with Hugo and Nebula wins to her credit), she is recruited by her colleague at the University of Cape Town, Dr. Hessler, for her assistance in reviewing a series of anonymous manuscripts suggesting that the world will end in 2050. This wouldn’t necessarily be something that merits an investigation, except that, in Hessler’s words, “[i]t predicted the present.” A bombing has taken place, one which created a trianglular symbol that features prominently in the manuscript.

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A Most Subtle Counterfactual: Paul Kerschen’s The Warm South

This year, not even half over, has brought with it a number of novels in which alternate timelines play a crucial role. K Chess’s Famous Men Who Never Lived followed the lives of a group of refugees from an alternate Earth and their efforts to, in part, figure out exactly where their Earth’s timeline diverged from our own. Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me posits that a world in which Alan Turing had not died in the 1950s would be one in which certain technological advances, from the internet to artificial humans, would be a part of the world by the 1980s. In both of these novels, like many alternate histories, the changes to the world are seismic; it’s easy to pinpoint just where things changed.

Paul Kerschen’s novel The Warm South also tells the story of a world in which something occurred differently than it did on our own. But it falls into a more modest scale: think of Bruce Sterling’s story “Dori Bangs,” or Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Remaking History.” In these stories, certain alterations to history as we know it have occurred, but the focus is less on dramatic social or political changes, but simply to how individual lives might have been altered in unexpected ways.

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Moral Quandaries and Misdirection: Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me

Ian McEwan’s fiction frequently grapples with grand moral issues and explores the grey areas that can arise when imperfect people—or, you know, people—attempt to solve problems that may not have a perfect solution. Ian McEwan’s fiction has also been known to possess an unnerving or even uncanny streak: his novel Black Dogs stops just short of venturing into the horrific, for instance. So it’s less bizarre than it initially seems for him to be venturing into the realm of science fiction.

Machines Like Me is a curious work, though. At times it reads like two shorter novels woven together, linked up by the couple at its center. One of these narratives is overtly science fictional, while the other ventures into the same unsettling moral territory as some of McEwan’s best fiction. But it’s also set in an alternate timeline, an early 1980s Great Britain where the timeline shifted from our own several decades earlier.

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Infinite Pathways and a Sense of Menace: Liz Harmer’s The Amateurs

Sometimes, you have an idea of what you’re getting yourself into. Case in point: before you read a word of Liz Harmer’s novel The Amateurs, you’ll encounter a comprehensive-looking table of contents. The novel, it tells you, is divided into three parts: “The Amateurs,” “The Professionals,” and “The Travellers,” each with distinctly-named chapters and a brief interlude. If you’re prone to reverse-engineering novels from their tables of contents, and I’m sure some of you are, you’ll find plenty to ponder here.

Sometimes, you have no idea of what you’re getting yourself into. Case in point: the situation faced by the world of Harmer’s novel. When the book begins, it’s the aftermath of an event that’s decimated the Earth’s population. Initially the novel centers around a small community in a Canadian city: specifically, one which is “down to forty-two, not including pets” as the novel opens. This isn’t the result of a war or a global pandemic, however—though Harmer’s novel does neatly encapsulate the tried-and-true scenario of a handful of survivors grappling with the end of the world that they’ve always known. Instead, the responsible party is a device known as Port, the invention of a tech visionary named Albrecht Doors.

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Where Futurism Meets the Liminal: The Short Fiction of Sarah Pinsker

The stories found within Sarah Pinsker’s collection Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea are a wide-ranging bunch. There’s a meticulously-constructed examination of life and culture on a generation ship; a tale of a young mariner endeavoring to outwit a group of sirens; and a neatly metafictional mystery involving a gathering of the Sarah Pinskers of various parallel Earths, including one who, just like the author, is a Nebula Award-winning writer.. But this book isn’t simply a showcase of its author’s range—although that’s certainly (and memorably) on display. Instead, it illustrates another aspect of her work: the ability to juxtapose meticulous worldbuilding with a thoughtful exploration of ambiguity.

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Fugue States in a Fragmented London: Lord by João Gilberto Noll

What happens when a profound alienation from the world takes a turn for the surreal? While it’s not explicitly a tale of the fantastic, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled avoids realism as it tells the story of a musician whose circumstances are in a state of constant flux; add a mysterious device or two and you’d have a prime Philip K. Dick-style narrative on your hands. Michael McDowell’s Toplin eschews the outright supernaturalism of some of his other works but abounds with plenty of horror nonetheless.

The last few years have seen an abundance of work by the late Brazilian writer João Gilberto Noll being translated into English: first Quiet Creature on the Corner and Atlantic Hotel, and now Lord. (Adam Morris translated the preceding two novels; Edgar Garbelotto handled translation duties for Lord.) All three novels tell tales of profound alienation from the outside world. The narrator of Quiet Creature on the Corner is imprisoned in a space where time seems to move differently for various people, while Atlantic Hotel centers around a man who arrives at the hotel in question and finds that his identity is in a state of constant flux. Lord is somewhat more buttoned-down, at least at first: Its narrator is an aging Brazilian writer visiting London who finds himself extremely disoriented upon his arrival in a new city.

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The Conundrums of Ecstatic Time Travel: Tentacle by Rita Indiana

Time travel occurs in contexts both science fictional and fantastical. Stories centered around it can explore the bizarre paradoxes that it generates, or lose the reader in the thrills or dangers that can arise from journeying into the past or future. To say that there are certain tropes that surround time travel would be a massive understatement, and yet: I’m not sure there’s ever been a story of moving through time quite like Rita Indiana’s heady and surreal novel Tentacle.

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Ambiguity Turned Ominous: Anne Serre’s The Governesses

What to make of the title characters of Anne Serre’s short novel The Governesses? Are they, in fact, three young women residing in an opulent and isolated house, or is there something far more uncanny afoot here? Serre’s novel can be read as a take on class, emerging sexuality, boredom, and isolation—but the detached way that its central characters navigate the world suggests something stranger.

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Stories Within Stories Within Nightmares: Dale Bailey’s In the Night Wood

There’s a point midway through Dale Bailey’s novel In the Night Wood wherein protagonist Charles Hayden ventures out to the forest around the English manor where he and his wife Erin have relocated following a tragedy on the other side of the Atlantic. In his exploration, Charles discovers a part of the forest that seems somewhat different from the rest: some of that can be chalked up to a sense of fundamental wrongness, and some of that can be be ascribed to a difference in temperature. But the sense of two places bordering one another, similar but with fundamentally different properties underlying their very nature, is a convenient metaphor for this novel as well, which is both a story about literary obsession and a story whose twists and turns may well lure in literary obsessives.

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When Toxic Masculinity Goes Bionic: The Rebirth of David R. Bunch’s Moderan

For some writers, mechanical or otherwise technological changes to the human body are a way to examine the gulf between self-image and reality, or a means by which the nature of humanity itself can be discussed. The stories that make up David R. Bunch’s Moderan, first published in the 1960s and ’70s, take a somewhat different approach—one that reaches a much more pessimistic conclusion about the future of humanity, while also resonating uncomfortably with our own age of toxic masculinity run rampant. An earlier version of this collection was published in 1971; this new edition adds additional stories (as “Apocrypha From After the End”) and feels all too contemporary—both in its psychology and its vision of a ravaged planet.

Bunch’s book describes, in great detail, life in a future in which mechanical parts (known as “new metal,” which may temporarily confuse any Limp Bizkit superfans reading this) have taken the place of much of the human form. There’s more than a little overlap between Bunch’s “new metal” and the “new flesh” of David Cronenberg’s film Videodrome, from the discomfiting and visceral descriptions of its place in this society to the fanatical way in which its devotees speak about it.

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A Demon-Haunted Life: The Unusual Literary History of Patient X

David Peace’s literary career began with the Red Riding Quartet: four literary novels set in a specific period of time and a specific place, with a stylized and haunted prose approach that signified a penchant for the works of James Ellroy. In the years since then, Peace’s fiction has expanded in scope: he’s continued to tell crime stories, but he’s also brought his approach to fiction to bear on a number of different projects.

Chief among them are his pair of novels about soccer, The Damned United and Red or Dead. In these books, especially the latter, Peace uses language and structure to echo the rhythms and nuances of the game at the heart of the real-life subjects of the novels. It’s an unconventional approach to storytelling, but it’s one that fits its subjects well. All of which is to say that Peace’s latest novel, Patient X: The Case-Book of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, echoes his novels about soccer, even as it’s nothing like them at all.

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The Anti-Nostalgia League: Ling Ma’s Severance

So frequently, stories set after a catastrophic event that disrupts or destroys society concern themselves with a re-establishment of the status quo. It might be in rebuilding that which came before; it might come through the quest for some lost home, in the slim hope that some sliver of the past might be preserved. In those stories, nostalgia in the face of terror may be the only thing that keeps humanity alive.

Ling Ma’s Severance is not one of those stories. It’s a novel that sneaks up on you from all sides: it’s an affecting portrayal of loss, a precise fictional evocation of group dynamics, and a sharp character study of its protagonist, Candace Chen. It also features one of the most hauntingly plausible end-of-the-world scenarios I’ve encountered in recent fiction, one which folds in enough hints of the real to be particularly unsettling. “The End begins before you are ever aware of it,” Candace observes early in the novel, and much of Severance’s power arrives through this: the sense that something terrible and seismic might happen, and no one would even notice.

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