How do you translate the transcendental into words on a page? Is there a way for enterprising writers to convey the way that a highly evolved being might move through time and space in a way that those of us who are merely human might comprehend? Sometimes prose can be at a disadvantage: consider the hallucinatory climax of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the more reality-bending moments of the comic book The Invisibles. In her debut novel Origamy, Rachel Armstrong endeavors to do exactly this: writing from the perspective of someone who manipulates space and time the way that a potential reader might drive a car, bake a loaf of bread, or mold clay.
Go back a few decades in the realm of pulp storytelling, and they abound: stories of adventurers far from home, investigating ancient structures and discovering mysterious events there. There are entire subgenres dedicated to this, and the form has endured. While it’s not nearly as prevalent as it was in the early and mid-20th century, plenty of its DNA shows up in the Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider franchises. But the narrative template of a (generally white and male) hero uncovering lost cultures or artifacts from somewhere in Africa, Asia, or South America is one that hasn’t aged particularly well, and for good reason.
Embracing this narrative unconditionally can mean embracing a whole lot of racist, sexist, and/or colonialist baggage—not the greatest of storytelling decisions. More recent tales of adventure in distant lands have sought to correct this: a whole essay could be written about the arc of the Uncharted series of video games, the latest of which centers the narrative around two women of color. Mat Johnson’s Pym riffs considerably upon Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, but abounds with an implicit critique of the racial politics of Poe’s original story. Nevertheless, it’s also about a scientific adventurer facing impossible odds and uncanny adversaries while on a journey halfway across the world. Johnson’s novel is a prime example of how these older storytelling conventions can still charge a narrative in the present day, as long as a writer is willing to address the aspects of it that haven’t aged well.
And so, this brings us to the case of Ned Beauman’s Madness Is Better Than Defeat, which on the surface has plenty of familiar pulpy elements. There’s a mysterious temple in a remote jungle in Honduras, abundant secrets and duplicity, warring factions within the espionage community, betrayals, violence, and struggles among the wealthy and powerful. In telling this complex story, has Beauman found an equally deft way of bringing pulp tropes to the present day without stumbling, or are we dealing with a complex structure around a potentially retrograde plot?
What happens when the end of the world sneaks up on you? Many a narrative of civilization in ruins cites an inciting event—a war, a natural disaster, a pandemic—as the root cause of devastation. These are narratives where characters can point to a date on a calendar and say, “There. That was when everything changed.” But life isn’t always like that: sometimes change can come without any warning. Sometimes there are no portents of war; sometimes there are no gradually increasing reports of a strange medical condition. Sometimes something terrible just happens, and a society is forever changed.
The beginning of Simon Jacobs’s Palaces is, as the openings of many novels are, an introduction to the style in which the book will be told and an explanation of its milieu. Here, though, it’s something else: the first part is a brief interlude that feels more like the end of an earlier work, a post-script to a story that’s already reached its end. At the book’s center is a couple, John and Joey—though they’re more commonly referred to in the book as “I” and “you.” They’re part of a music scene in a college town, and then they aren’t; soon in to the book, they’ve moved to a larger city, ditched their phones, begun squatting (“our aspiration is to the appearance of abandonment”), and settled into a life there. And then things turn ominous.
Series: Genre in the Mainstream
It’s logical to think that societal progress will line up neatly with the progression of time, to believe that life will get better as we move towards the future. At least, it’s something to hope for: that, just as most lives are better now than they were a hundred years ago, so too will the lives of our descendants (literal or metaphorical) be equally better than our own. But there’s also a pressing fear that things could go the other way—that, instead of a better tomorrow, humanity might have to deal with a vision of the future that looks suspiciously like its own past.
Evoking the past in stories of the future can make for an unsettling read, and it’s a device that certain writers have found useful to tap into a collective anxiety over the collapse of progress.
Series: Genre in the Mainstream
There are certain expectations that a reader might have when reading novels billed as sequels or as part of a series. Chief among them: that a novel will fall into the same general category as its predecessor. The third book of a high fantasy series is unlikely to be a cyberpunk romance; the sequel to a novel set in a dystopian hellscape after the collapse of a futuristic civilization probably won’t be about secretive missions on a pre-cataclysm Atlantis. One volume largely sets the ground rules for a world going forward; the works that follow hew to the existing worldbuilding.
Except when they don’t.
Series: Genre in the Mainstream
What happens when we can no longer trust our memories? Who are we when we’ve lost our sense of identity? Not surprisingly, science fiction can turn these questions into gripping narratives, taking the stuff of neuroscience and psychology and turning it into thrilling, sometimes unsettling stories of the mind tipping into something uncanny, mysterious, or fully unknown.
Adding a speculative aspect to a narrative about memory can also turn a familiar story on its head. A tale of identity theft, a narrative about a community wondering who they are, or the story of a law enforcement officer dealing with a spate of unsolved crimes are all examples of ways in which familiar plots can be deepened and made profoundly unsettling when a detour is made away from strict realism. The following five books use a host of devices to explore bold questions about the nature and function of memory, venturing into uncharted territory along the way.
In Through the Woods, Emily Carroll’s 2014 collection of comics, the narratives being told feel timeless. They echo the fairy tales of ages past; they feature dwindling families, majestic homes containing awful secrets, and ominous figures biding their time in order to carry out horrific deeds. Told one way, Carroll’s tales could be the sort of story one tells drowsy children as a kind of moral instruction or cautionary tale. Told the way they are in this book, with immersive images, distorted figures, and monstrous forms enveloped in the landscape, the effect is much closer to outright horror. It’s magnificently unnerving, meticulous in its storytelling, and a harrowing example of how hard it can be to discern the line between fairy tale and horror story.
Let’s talk about clones and narratives. As anyone who’s read or watched a story dealing with clones can attest, introducing cloning into a narrative allows storytellers to explore a host of themes: nature versus nurture, the notion of what makes a person unique, the question of what happens when human rights and rampant corporatism collide. In a myriad number of books, stories, televisions shows, and films, cloning has been used to illustrate a wide array of themes and questions—ultimately getting to some genuinely primal ones. What makes us human? What does having the power to replicate a person imply for humanity? And what would it be like to discover that you yourself are not unique?
We all have expectations when begin reading a story. There are boundaries within which we expect the narrative to unfold, and certain ground rules that seem like they should be in place. This doesn’t extend to the point of tropes: it’s more a case of where we can envision a story going. Narrative swerves, such as a thrilling narrative seemingly set in medieval France that turns itself into a space opera, or a drawing-room mystery that abruptly becomes a torrid paranormal romance, can stun readers when done well, but bewilder them if they’re not handled with the deftest of touches.
All of which brings us to the novels of Deji Bryce Olukotun, Nigerians in Space and its followup, After the Flare. Both offer a host of narrative perks: Olukotun writes with a genuinely international scope, and he’s as adept at charting out backroom espionage as he is bolder action setpieces or the inner workings of a dysfunctional family under considerable duress. But even those qualities aren’t necessarily the most notable aspects of these novels. Instead, it’s the qualityOlukotun imparts to these narratives wherein he’s able to shift subtly from one genre mode to another without losing the momentum he’s accrued so far.
Series: Genre in the Mainstream
Invoking the legacy of H.P. Lovecraft in fiction is 2017 is no easy task. On the one hand, you have his visionary take on horror, which remains influential to a host of writers; on the other, you have his loathsome racism that’s frequently inseparable from the stories he’s telling. A handful of nods to the Cthulhu Mythos in a story or novel can sometimes feel less like a warm homage and more of an oversight regarding the more noxious aspects of his body of work.
Some of the work that’s followed in Lovecraft’s footsteps hits many of the same terrifying beats, but opts for a very different sort of worldbuilding: expansive cosmic horror, but of a variety that isn’t beholden to a structure of racist or classist beliefs or spurious theories of racial or ethnic superiority. (I wrote about this in greater detail a few years ago.) Others opt for a different tactic: dealing head-on with Lovecraft’s racism while still finding a way to tap into the profoundly unsettling sense of horror and dread that he conveyed in his work. Last year, two of the most memorable cosmic horror books I read represented each camp: John Langan’s The Fisherman in the former, and Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom in the latter.
Timelessness is a difficult thing. There are certain forms of storytelling, like myths and legends or fables and fairy tales, that have endured up through the present day. Sometimes these read like works that could have endured for centuries: though some of his other works have embraced metafiction and experimental forms, Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is a more straightforward retelling of centuries-old narratives. Others take a different approach: the tales in Joanna Walsh’s Grow a Pair echo the archetypal characters and surreal transformations of fairy tale classics, but add a more contemporary view of gender and sexuality.
The best reworkings of older stories or older methods of storytelling help reinvigorate the archaic, or give readers a new way of seeing the contemporary world. Go the wrong way, though, and you can end up with something that seems tonally dissonant, an attempt to bridge eras that collapses under the weight of a certain literary conceit.
Series: Genre in the Mainstream
Raise a glass to the acid western. It’s a subgenre that derives much of its power from alternately subverting tropes and undermining them altogether. If you’ve seen Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, then you know the drill: a familiar setting—sparse population, lawlessness, a potential for violence—with more than a little concern for altered states and the grotesque. The recent resurgence of interest in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s work suggests the acid Western is gaining ground; novels like Colin Winnette’s hallucinatory Haints Stay and Rudy Wurlitzer’s The Drop Edge of Yonder tap into a similar sense of mood and imagery. The acid Western aesthetic can be spotted further afield as well: in Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher and its television series adaption, and in Ben Wheatley’s film A Field in England.
There’s a whole lot of acid Western in the DNA of Brian Allen Carr’s novel Sip. Admittedly, this isn’t the first of his book about which that could be said: 2013’s Motherfucking Sharks was set in a landscape that could be read as a surreal version of the Old West—or a postapocalyptic landscape in which something has gone horribly wrong with the world. (And by that, I mean: sharks can appear out of nowhere on land, with feeding on their mind.) But Sip pushes against several categories at once: it makes use of a stunning speculative concept, it creates a surreal futuristic landscape, and it heads for the metaphorical and metaphysical in abundance. But at its core is something Western, and something Weird. It’s a high-concept story that never loses sight of the grit.
Some writers straddle genres, but Jeff VanderMeer’s fiction seems bound and determined to encompass as many styles and genres as it possibly can. Looking for metafictional body horror? Perhaps a detective novel set against the wars of an empire? Or maybe a paranoid thriller situated in the midst of a disintegrating landscape is more your speed. VanderMeer’s fiction brings together unlikely elements, smashes them together, and revives them with a frenetic urgency.
Delving into his fiction only showcases part of VanderMeer’s literary contributions. In recent years, he’s contributed introductions to new editions of books by the likes of Thomas Ligotti and Kirsten Bakis. Working in tandem with his wife, acclaimed editor Ann VanderMeer, he’s also involved in the publishing side of things: Cheeky Frawg Books has, most recently, released a massive collection of work by the surreal and dynamic Finnish writer Leena Krohn.
Keeping in mind, then, that this overview is not meant to be exhaustive, here’s a look at some of the shared settings, overlapping themes, and unsettling locales you’ll find in Jeff VanderMeer’s books.
Using a historical setting for a tale of monsters or terror can be a reliable way to increase suspense and provide a counterpoint for the horrors described therein. Whether it’s Edgar Allan Poe summoning up a bygone age—and its accompanying menaces—in “The Masque of the Red Death” or, more recently, John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake setting their graphic novel Kros: Hallowed Ground against the backdrop of the Battle of Gettysburg, it’s the kind of narrative decision that can accentuate certain themes and ratchet up the tension even further.
But a specific point in history can also summon up a number of more mundane terrors over the course of a narrative: totalitarian governments, horrific attitudes about race and gender, and unrestrained abuses coming from the powerful all come to mind. Sometimes reading a story set in the past can haunt us for reasons other than literal monsters that lurk on the page. What follows is a look at five books that explore the demons of the past along with monsters in the past…
One could convincingly argue that horror with a literary spin on it has increased its profile in recent years, with writers like Victor LaValle, Karen Russell, and Brian Evenson tapping into a potent sense of dread and gut-wrenching terror. That said, writers on the literary side of things have always had a fondness for the horrific. Kingsley Amis’s The Green Man and Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori both feature sinister supernatural figures and moments of white-knuckle fear, for instance.
Still, we do seem to be at a point in time when the literary and the horrific have begun to overlap. Thomas Ligotti’s first two collections were recently given the deluxe Penguin Classics reissue treatment. Michel Houellebecq wrote a book analyzing the horror of H. P. Lovecraft. The rise of literary horror is likely happening for the same reasons that more “literary” writers are also embracing science fiction and fantasy: it’s what they grew up on, and they don’t see any reason to change gears now. Some of that may also be a generational thing: the likes of Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Chuck Palahniuk are all generous with blurbs both within and without the genre of horror. (See also: the long shadow cast by Cormac McCarthy’s fiction, especially Blood Meridian.) Here’s a look at several recent books that may appeal to those who love a great scare and a great sentence in equal measure.
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