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Tobias Carroll

An Aged Mystery in a Surreal Landscape: Marian Womack’s The Golden Key

Marian Womack’s fiction finds the middle ground between haunting landscapes and the surreal. She’s edited an anthology in collaboration with Gary Budden, whose work occupies a subgenre known as “landscape punk.” And a review of her 2018 collection Lost Objects in Weird Fiction Review cited the story “Kingfisher,” and highlighted “a blurred boundary between an initially recognizable world and a later turn toward something much weirder.”

While much of Womack’s work to date has been set around the present or in a possible future, her new novel The Golden Key opts for a very different locale: England in 1901.

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Every Story is a Science Fiction Story to Someone: Michael Zapata’s The Lost Book of Adana Moreau

One of the most difficult tasks for any fiction writer telling a story about the life of a fictional writer is coming up with believable fictional stories to fit within the larger work. If the plot of a book involves a critically acclaimed novel and the summary of that novel doesn’t ring true, the whole structure of the work begins to collapse. Some authors have taken this to its logical extension and published books nominally written by fictional characters they’ve created. It’s an expansive club, ranging from Rainbow Rowell to Antoine Volodine.

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Broadswords, Time Travel, and the End of the World: Nick Mamatas’ Sabbath

Readers familiar with Nick Mamatas’s work will know that he’s more than capable of finding a comfortable place between genres—and is more than willing to use that position to make his readers deeply uncomfortable. His 2016 novel I Am Providence riffed on toxic fandom and horror fiction, even as it kept readers guessing as to whether its central mystery would end up having a supernatural solution. The stories in his collection The People’s Republic of Everything offer a good overview of his strengths as a writer: sharp characterization, a terrific sense of place, and a willingness to change things up among them.

In the acknowledgements for his new novel Sabbath, Mamatas alludes to growing up near L’Amour, a storied Brooklyn venue referred to in one article as “a CBGB’s of metal.” Mamatas is making this allusion for a reason: as you might be able to tell from the cover design—including a sword, gothic lettering, and plenty of fire—Sabbath might as well have a blistering guitar solo play as you begin reading. But when I say “Sabbath is a very metal novel,” that’s not to imply that its tone is monolithic. And the impressive trick that Mamatas pulls off here is how he pivots this novel from one style of supernatural fiction to another.

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Time Travel, Extremism, and Identity: Johannes Anyuru’s They Will Drown in Their Mother’s Tears

Johannes Anyuru’s novel They Will Drown in Their Mother’s Tears (translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel) begins with a scene that seems all too familiar. An artist being interviewed at a comic book store finds himself under attack. His name is Göran Loberg, and his aesthetic is one of provocation—specifically, provocation of conservative Muslims. (There are echoes here of 2010’s “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” and the attacks on Charlie Hebdo’s offices in 2015.) One of the extremists involved with the attack, a young woman, is periodically overtaken by the sense that something is fundamentally wrong, that events are not playing out the way they should.

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The Mundane and the Monstrous: Inside Benjamin Percy’s Suicide Woods

What a difference a decade makes. 2010 saw the release of Benjamin Percy’s novel The Wilding, a novel with a subplot about a man who finds release wearing a suit made from animal pelts. Percy had, initially, written fiction with a sense of horror lurking just below the surface, but from there, he embraced genre elements more fully. His later novel Red Moon focused on werewolves; and now, one of the stories in his new collection Suicide Woods focuses on a bear who, after a harrowing encounter with hunters, begins to have a go at emulating the life of a human.

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Dissonance and Myth: Stefan Spjut’s Trolls

The idea of unearthly or folkloric creatures living alongside humanity is one that plenty of writers have embraced over the years. Using that as a starting point, countless authors have told stories that range from the mythic to the comic, from the horror-laden to the sublime. Trolls, the new novel from Stefan Spjut, also makes use of this conceit, but the author takes it to a very different place than most of his peers—somewhere decidedly bleak and disquieting. It doesn’t always click, but when it does it’s bone-chillingly effective.

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A Very Punk Future: Sarah Pinsker’s A Song for a New Day

Sarah Pinsker’s A Song For A New Day starts with an ending and a beginning. Luce is a touring musician in the near future; while on the road, Luce and her band start to notice things happening around them that suggest their society is on the verge of something big. A bomb threat prompts their hotel to be evacuated. Soon, they band learns that this isn’t an isolated incident, that something larger is happening. By the end of it, an element of American society will have been pushed past its breaking point, with large gatherings of people—concerts, sporting events—made illegal. Luce will find herself with the dubious distinction of being the last major musician to perform live before society changed forever.

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Blockbuster Action, Body Horror, and Wicked Humor: David Koepp’s Cold Storage

Content Warning: mention of animal death.

Cold Storage is David Koepp’s first novel, but odds are good that you’re familiar with his work as a writer in a different medium. As a screenwriter, he adapted Jurassic Park for the big screen and wrote the David Fincher-directed thriller Panic Room. As a writer-director, he channeled the menace and social commentary of vintage Twilight Zone with his film The Trigger Effect and told an unsettling ghost story with Stir of Echoes, his adaptation of Richard Matheson’s A Stir of Echoes.

It will likely shock no one to hear that Cold Storage, a novel about the effort to contain a mutated versions of the cordyceps fungus, has a decidedly cinematic quality.

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Isolation, Violence, and Body Horror: Sarah Davis-Goff’s Last Ones Left Alive

When the term “dystopian” has become shorthand for nearly any vision of a future that isn’t all friendly robots and rejuvenation technology, it’s nice to have a reminder of what a genuinely horrid vision of tomorrow might look like. Sarah Davis-Goff’s Last Ones Left Alive sits uneasily between science fiction and horror, which places it in an ideal place to offer readers a harrowing vision of the near future. Davis-Goff’s novel details a future hostile environment, and charts out the effects of living in such a world. This isn’t a place in which the objective is to rule or acquire cool skills; instead, it’s one where survival means doing terrible things, and where the collapse of civilization has allowed the worst of humanity free rein to entertain their worst impulses.

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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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