Composite Creatures

Composite Creatures by Caroline Hardaker is the kind of book, and reading experience, I find very difficult to talk about. I know that, theoretically, I am capable of actual criticism of the book — like, maybe it’s not great how Hardaker keeps the reveal for the last pages, and then the coda is kind of a retroactive infodump — but then none of that actually matters. This book set me wailing around the house, absolutely distraught for no reason I could identify with precision. It’s like my interior state became too large, too full with the proceedings, and I end up this inchoate mess who has lost language.

I’ve had this experience a handful of other times, where I have this paralyzed, almost jealous feeling about a novel. Notably, they all tend to be debut or early novels by women in often claustrophobic environments: The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke, Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng, Severance by Ling Ma, even God’s War by Kameron Hurley, even though that’s a bit of an outlier in terms of tone. They’re all a little messy, but have the viscera of an artist’s early work.

I’ve always been a fan of the Gothic, which can sometimes be almost cartoonishly large, in both literal and emotional spaces. Degenerate, aristocratic families rot in their crumbling manses, dead wives haunt the folly in diaphanous dresses, and hulking, Byronic figures silhouette themselves on the mountaintop, in the sheeting rain. The trappings of the hardcore, Victorian Gothic are so outsized they verge on comedy, if not deliberately, then in that blinking naiveté which is hard to discern from actual irony. Sometimes the satire can’t be told apart from its object, and Gothics often play with that ambiguity. I’ve been reading the Gormenghast books, for example, and that has both the gravidity and comedy of Gothic fiction in spades.

But Gothic that goes small — that details a cozy bungalow in some suburb, and the inconsequential denizens therein — absolutely catches me where I live. I’m completely susceptible to narratives of women locked in domestic environments which have been rendered inexorably, permanently strange. My outsized reactions might seem easy to psychoanalyze — look at mom, mommishly momming — though I think my affinities are probably at least as messy as the works that provoke them.

We meet Norah on a first date with Art, and everything about it feels jumbled and and wrong-footed. Their relationship with each other has been mediated by an ominous medical corporation called Easton Grove for inscrutble reasons. Though their first date feels no better than average, they are overly congratulatory of how well they got on, and seemingly rush into a cohabitation and marriage. Their first holiday party, to which Norah invites friends from her Life Before, is a master class in social anxiety and dangerous subterranean fault lines. The conversation always dances around some essential violation or transgression of Norah’s, one which must be worse than that Art is boring and American. Norah shies constantly from thinking of her previous lover, the one the friends knew, and this avoidance is a central lacuna, both in terms of narrative, and her personality.

Into this void, Easton Grove sends Nut, a mysterious creature who feels, at least in the beginning, like cross between a cat and an infant. They’re not supposed to name her, nor are they supposed to give her run of the house, but both things happen inexorably, even as these encroachments upend their lives. Art is a midlist writer of crime novels of some success, and Nut’s (and to a lesser extent, Norah’s) intrusion into his writing space disorders his ability to write. Norah more wholly embraces Nut, going against the edicts of Easton Grove, and her everyday companionship with the creature is shot through with anxiety and transgression. Norah often feels to me like Kat from The Mad Scientist’s Daughter: Both live with this inexplicable being in a cozy home in a dying world. Because the world is dying, quite literally, outside the windows of their small domestic spaces.

Norah’s relationship to art is all over this novel, and it would probably be easy to make some pat announcement about domesticity and its impact on creatively or whatnot. For one, her husband’s name is Art, and he is, indeed, an artist (though there’s a lowkey but constant denigration of his crime novels as unserious or lower order, both self-deprecatingly from him, and from others.) More importantly, Norah came into some money — the money that made it possible for her to enter into her relationship with Easton Grove, Nut, and Art him/itself — because of her artist mother. Her mother was locally influential painter, and after her death, her paintings acquired a posthumous cache, and sold for much more than they could have while she was living. Norah, by contrast, works some sort of corporate drone job, and even with Easton Grove’s meddling, is content largely to languish in the middle of the org chart. A large part of her emotional energies go to Nut, and though I think it could be possible to read this as the ways women are lanced of creative purpose by child minding — a sort of A Room of One’s Own where the room contains a fucking baby — but that’s too simple a reading.

I have two children — teenagers — on the cusp of becoming. I live in a comfortable house occasionally uncomfortably. Outside of our domesticity, the oceans literally burn. While I may (and do) struggle with my creativity — maybe some day I’ll finish that novel of Gothic spaces — I am absolutely paralyzed by how fucked up the world is, how terrifying it is to have brought people into this world, who then have to survive the coming cataclysm. Norah’s crisis is both creative and procreative, and I feel in my guts how they both consume and create one another. The old saw about both art and children is that they are a form of immortality. When the world dies around us, neither feels permanent, which is the whole point of immortality, n’est pas?

There feels like a line out from Composite Creatures to Wittgenstein’s Mistress in a weird and winding way. I know my appreciation of Markson’s po-mo novel is all ass-backwards — like, I couldn’t care less about whatever bullshit he’s going on about i/r/t philosophy, but I am gutted — gutted — by the overt plot of the novel. In Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a woman possibly named Kate is the only living animal left on earth. She writes Twitter-length missives on a typewriter in the basement of a house she’s occasionally inhabiting, about what she’s doing and Classic literature and only very rarely her past. It is a record that will be read by no one, not even the narrator, who eschews retrospection. Of course, it’s fiction, so it is read, and by thousands, but that’s not the point.

The point is a dead and dying world inhabited by a being self aware enough to worry about the future, and self-involved enough to cannibalize whatever is at hand to survive. Kate pulls down a house on a beach and burns it for warmth. Norah, well. Her response is what happens in Composite Creatures, isn’t it?

And you know what? I can’t even blame her, even if much of what she does is unforgivable. There but for the grace go I.

An Incomplete List of Oddball Zombie Movies I’ve Enjoyed

I finally caught the companion film to South Korea’s Train to Busan, the animated Seoul Station. It wasn’t nearly as affecting as its live action antecedent, but I completely appreciated how Seoul Station went in unexpected directions, and focused on relationships not normally detailed in either zombie movies or, like, regular cinema. This got me thinking about more obscure zombie movies I have known and loved, stuff that either goes straight to video, or only hits a theater or two in LA or New York. Many of these movies hail from other countries and cultures, which lends grist to my pet theory about zombie movies being largely about national character, much more so than other monsters.

The vast majority of zombie movies, high or low budget (but mostly low budget), are produced in the United States. There’s a lot of reasons for this: the US produces many more films, in general, than the rest of the West. Also, the United States (and Pennsylvania more specifically) is where the modern zombie was created in Romero’s game-changer, The Night of the Living Dead. I know there were zombie films before this, but Romero so utterly changed the landscape that they’re as different as chalk and cheese. In the same tradition, yes, but it’s like comparing the ghouls in the 1932 film Vampyr to modern vampires: similar in name only.

The ways zombie fictions ruminate on class, race, consumerism, and the nuclear family was set within an American film tradition, and not always or often in a good way. So much of the long tail of American zombie movies — the sort of thing found in deep dives into “if you like this, then” on your streaming platform of choice — is fucking trash. Americans can’t help but America, cinematically speaking, so the instinct to fascism, spectacle as unearned catharsis, and violence as morality pervades a lot of American zombie movies, regardless of budget. TL;DR: many American zombie movies are Libertarian (if not outright fascist) garbage fires, with a sideline in diseased gender roles. (This is somewhat ironic, given how Romero’s zombie films were always brutal social commentary against exactly that.)

Apocalypses in general are local affairs, once the lights dim and the communication systems blink out. The world narrows to the distance you can travel on foot — at least once the gas runs out, and you leave the car behind — the skyline streaked with the smudges of burning urbanity. But zombie narratives go a step further, reanimating strangers, neighbors, family, and friends in the subtle tweaks and twists of national character gone feral: slow or fast, cunning or mindless, diurnal or nocturnal, contagious or endemic. These monsters show what we become in the 24 hours and three meals from the end of it all.

Warning: possible spoilers in the film descriptions.

USA:

Maggie

What makes Maggie notable in the context of American zombie movies, a film that collects together Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, and Joely Richardson, is its taunt, Gothic rumination on the parent-child bond. It opens with Arnold traveling into a disease-ravaged LA to collect his daughter, Maggie. She’s infected with a zombie-ish plague, half-dying and half-alive in some overrun city hospital. All the small cues tell you she left because they were estranged — hard to say whether it was the normal estrangement that finds children growing into adults, or a deeper one. When they return home to the family farm, it’s clear it’s both: she’s a normal teenager fed up with her Boomer father, and then also he’s got a new wife and small children who have supplanted her in some ways. I have some autobiographical reasons for why this resonated hard. Anyway. 

Maggie muses in a sometimes overly self-serious way about coming home. Maggie, the character, does a retrospective of her adolescent relationships — complete with teen party with a bonfire on the beach — just short years, or long months, after she leaves home. When her step-mom leaves with her half-siblings, it leaves her alone in the house with a dad who can’t even begin to understand, but is turning himself inside out trying. The ways they never quite connect, right up to the bitter end, are shattering, the kind of thing that set me sobbing, an outsized emotional response to what is largely an understated and grayed out emotional landscape. This the best, most finely detailed work Schwarzenegger has put to film in his latter day career. 

UK:

The Girl with All the Gifts

When I first learned they changed the race of Miss Justineau, the living teacher of an undead classroom in The Girl with All the Gifts, from black to white, I was worried. In the novel by M.R. Carey (aka Mike Carey, for all you Hellblazer heads), Miss Justineau was black, and the undead child who cleaves to her white. The film reverses this, and it actually works really well, almost better in places. Making Helen Justineau a non-malignant version of the Nice White Lady ministering to children whose humanity is completely denied, and who are black [same/same] says something very different from the reverse, especially with how it shakes out in the end. (And unrelated aside: it’s notable to me how many of the films on this list started life — or undeath muahaha — on the page, and how successful their adaptation. Not everything is World War Z: The Less Said the Better.)

The Girl With All the Gifts is one of a teeny tiny trend of fungalpunk horror, of which maybe the most successful was the Area X trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer. Carey’s story found inspiration in the nightmarish real world story of zombie ants infected by a fungus which drove them to uncharacteristic behavior, after which the fungus would fruit out of their ant heads. The images of ants with fungi protruding from their head carapaces legitimately freaks me out, and I don’t necessarily empathize with insects all that often. The film hews closely to the plot of the novel, a road trippy rumination on a ruined Britain. The girl who plays Melanie is wonderful, playing her smitten child with a sense of resigned sobriety that gives her an out-sized presence. Glenn Close delivers a quietly seething version of the amoral scientist, which is an interesting twist on a trope that tends to oily bombast (e.g. Stanley Tucci in The Core, which is hands down the best version of this ever put to film.) I love both iterations.

Canada:

Ravenous (or Les Affamés)

Sometimes I find the cultural context of specific foreign films so baffling as to render the “meaning” — insofar as that’s a thing — quite opaque. The French-Canadian Les Affamés falls into this category for me, but in a still strangely satisfying kind of way. Much of Ravenous falls into the mode of the zombie road trip, stopping occasionally to eavesdrop on the dead and their inscrutable machinations, or to enact the living’s more visceral conflicts. (And the dead in Les Affamés are truly strange, piling up teetering obelisks of domestic stuff in a clearing in the woods, or here, or there.) There’s this old saw for writers that “dialogue is action” and that almost reductive aphorism maps onto zombie narratives in this weird way. The drama in Ravenous is all in its dialogue and tense standoffs between survivors; the zombie attacks are almost a relief.

Pontypool

The source material for the film Pontypool, Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess, is both typical and an exemplar of his work. Burgess excels at either elevating pulp to high art, or elevating high art to pulp — because he somehow manages to write deeply philosophical works using absolutely sick imagery, while not prioritizing either. (See also: The Life and Death of Schneider Wrack by Nate Crowley.) This is not an easy thing to do! In fact, I can only think of a couple writers who successfully use the vernacular of both highfalutin literature and pulp styling without denigrating either.

Anyway! Point being: Pontypool is somewhat loosely adapted from the source novel, and in the very best ways. I can’t imagine a film version that somehow cut that impossible middle distance between high and low art that the book does; this will not translate to the screen. Instead the film is a taunt, almost stagy locked-room drama which focuses tight on a couple few characters. Some aspects of the film have become quaint — the whole concept of a “shock jock” has been superseded by media twisted into propaganda by authoritarianism — which takes a little sting out of the proceedings. It’s still an excellent film.

Denmark:

What We Become (or Sorgenfri)

Many of these movies — at least before they are translated into English — have locations in their titles, like the aforementioned Train to Busan. The Danish zombie film Sorgenfri — named after a Copenhagen suburb — was retitled in English What We Become. Sorgenfri means “free of sorrow”, in an almost obnoxious irony, but we will give writers some latitude to be obnoxious when place names are this on-the-nose. I fully expect places like Minneapolis suburb Eden Prairie to become hellish pit stops on the way to apocalypse because come on.

Anyway, What We Become makes full use of its suburban locale, which I don’t necessarily see all that often, Dawn of the Dead notwithstanding. There’s some hot-neighbor-next-door, community-cookout action before the infection locks the suburb down. Each McMansion is swathed with plastic, (almost like in the quick-and-dirty Spanish film series [rec] — more on this later), and if they try to push back against the impersonal authorities in their gas masks and machine guns, quick and brutal violence ensues. If this was an American film, I’d accuse it of 2A essentialism: we need guns to fight teh gumment!!!! But … it’s Danish, so that can’t be what it’s about. Or … not entirely anyway.

Much as Americans like to paint Denmark as some sort of socialist utopia (and don’t get me wrong: America’s fucked), there’s the same cultural, social, and economic stresses like any other part of the EU. I have Danish cousins, and the amount of chauvinism I’ve seen expressed about, say, Turkish immigrants is notable. And that’s not even getting into what they say about straight up Muslims, Turks or no. What We Become taps into a very (white) middle class, very (white) suburban fear of intrusion by the other, and also the fear that the other is already there, hidden within. These kind of insular communities are always predicated on fear: on the other, on themselves — what have you got, I’m afraid of it. In Night of the Living Dead, Romero murdered what should be the romantic survivors, in addition to the nuclear family. What We Become lets some of its characters survive, but only after putting you through some brutal familial self-annihilation.

France:

The Horde (or La Horde)

When I first saw The Horde not much after its 2010 release date, I thought to myself, there is going to be a real and bloody reckoning in France about how the treatment of France’s immigrant population. I knew just a very little about the French attempts to legislate the bodies of Muslim women — for their own good, natch — and it was years before the Charlie Hebdo shootings. But the bloody spectacle on display in The Horde was enough to make me prognosticate doom. Pulp fiction tends to tap into the societal hindbrain, and The Horde was doing that in the goriest, most bloody way possible.

The Horde follows a group of corrupt French police on a vendetta into what reads to me like the projects — low income housing that warehouses the poor and undesirable (same/same). There’s some back story about some drug dealer or whatever killing a cop, but none of this really matters. The fight is between two rival gangs, one of which wears badges and speaks “good French”, and the other have accents and dark skin. There’s a racist old codger (I think maybe even a veteran, but it’s been a while) and a couple other residents to round out the group. The combatants end up trapped in a old apartment building while the horde presses against doors and windows. And of course, several end up bitten, turning at the worst possible moment.

The Horde‘s zombies are faster than Romero zombies, and often a lot fresher, the blood still red and the zombie vigorously intact. As we approach the endgame, one of the cops is given a lovingly detailed last stand, and even more intimate horrific death: standing on the top of a car in a basement parking lot, he shoots and hacks until he’s overwhelmed by hundreds of zombies, and boy howdy do they not pan away. I know this was shot later, but the framing of this sequence reminds me of the season three ender of Game of Thrones, which found Daenerys Targaryen crowd-surfing a horde of anonymous browns. It’s notable to me that the image of a white lady receiving adoration for liberating brown people and a white guy heroically hacking at a mob until he’s overwhelmed are shot virtually identically. I’m sure something like The Pedagogy of the Oppressed has something to say about this, but it’s been some years since my theory-reading days.

The Night Eats the World (or La nuit a dévoré le monde)

The Night Eats the World begins with a musician dude, Sam, coming to his ex-girlfriend’s flat to retrieve some cassette tapes he left after the breakup. The sequence at the party with its byplay and character development between the people marked as protagonist and the inevitably disposable partygoers reminds me of the opening to Cloverfield (and, weirdly, the Netflix series Russian Doll.) Sam crashes out; when he awakes, there’s blood on the walls and everyone is either gone or a zombie.

The Night Eats the World is light on zombie kill thrills, if you’re into that sort of thing, much more focused on Sam’s solitary existence and worsening metal state as he holes up in his ex-girlfriend’s for months. The film manages to find some unexplored corners in the zombie apocalypse: this portrait of fearful loneliness in a teeming city. When I first saw The Night Eats the World, I have to say it didn’t affect me much. My enjoyment was largely intellectual: oh, huh, this is almost a silent film; who even does that? But almost two weeks into my family deciding to shelter in place, the detailing of Sam’s mental state as he rattles around the same couple hundred square feet and considers the death just outside the door: well, this is suddenly, horribly relevant.

Germany:

Rammbock: Berlin Undead

Like The Night Eats the World, Rammbock opens with a dude going to his ex’s apartment to transfer some stuff, and also maybe sorta to rekindle their relationship. She’s not there, but two plumbers are; when a zombie outbreak overtakes the neighborhood, ex-boyfriend and the plumber’s apprentice ride out the zombie apocalypse in the apartment. With other monsters, writers can get a little schematic. This is especially true with vampires. You often see complex list of rules about what a vampire can and cannot do, and then, of course, inevitably how to break those rules. (The most recent Dracula limited series, first from the BBC and now on Netflix, exemplifies this sort of thing.)

Zombies, though, they don’t tend to go this way. The rules are simple: a person dies, they reanimate, then they hunger for the flesh of the living. Oh, I suppose there are some other conditions that may or may not come to bear: does killing the brain kill the zombie? are we all infected or is it contagious through a bite? fast or slow? But these are more set-dressing than, like, necessary for the storytelling. Rammbock‘s zombies, by contrast, are photosensitive, a detail it takes the principles some time to work out. Then when they do, they work towards exploiting this detail in order to save their own lives. Rammock is, again, maybe not the most exciting zombie film ever made, but the location, relationships, and the weird taxonomy of zombies make it worthwhile.

Spain:

[REC]

This scrappy Spanish found footage horror film was so successful it spawned a movie series and an English language remake (which was retitled as Quarantine.) (The Spanish series has diminishing returns: the second relocates to an airport, which is fine, while the third goes eschatological in a way I did not appreciate at all. Oh, and there’s apparently a fourth I never saw, REC 3: Apocalypse which is by the filmmaker of the first two, but not the third, which is promising. ) REC follows a Bridget Jonesy reporter on a ridealong with some firefighters. They head out to a call in an old apartment building with six or eight units. One of the residents has gone murderously feral; they contain her, but not before one of their number is bit; when they panic-run to the exit it turns out the building’s on some sort of horrible lockdown.

The film ends up being a locked room horror show as various people get infected and infect others. There’s also apparently a plot where it turns out the authorities are evil, but who even cares. It’s obvious they were evil when they locked an entire apartment in to die. Again, this film had certain meanings back when I watched it whenever, but in the middle of a global pandemic, things read a little differently. The willingness to sacrifice first responders stands out, as does the bickering in the doomed apartment building about the motives of those that locked them in. That the outbreak is legible, with known origins and therefore, potentially, a cure is another fun aspect of fiction. It turns out that real life is much more bleak, which is saying something, given the end of REC.

Japan:

One Cut of the Dead

Frankly, One Cut of the Dead is the best godamn zombedy produced since Shaun of the Dead, and in some ways it exceeds Edgar Wright’s most excellent film. Filmed on a budget of $25,000 (JFC), the film relies on what could be a gimmick, but ends up being just a beautifully written script. The first half hour or so of the movie is one continuous take, telling the story of a low budget zombie movie lorded over by a tyrannical director which is then attacked by real zombies. (Not dissimilar in setup to Romero’s 5th outing into his formative zombieverse, Diary of the Dead, but that reads pretty Boomer-y these days.) After this impressive feat of film-making is a crazy bananas twist that had me all-capsing to my viewing partner, the indomitable sj, for at least the next half hour. It’s just … the whole thing is so well done it makes me tear up a little.

The trouble with talking about One Cut of the Dead is the several spoilers in serial that happen in the second act. All that aside, I can say that the shifts in tone in One Cut are masterful, running from comedy to terror and back again without even a blink.

Go Large or Go Home: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness was a real oddity to me, because it felt like that class of Gothic fiction that attempts to take things seriously — like, the scholarship was spot on, as was the description of academic research, historical detail, and just general academic jockeying — but then the serious tone slips to the soporific and everyone falls asleep. This book is crazy boring. Gothic fiction tends to have a lot of blood and violence in it — both metaphoric and literal. Wuthering Heights is a fucking bloodbath, an absolute hatecast where very few make it out alive. I mean, sure, Cathy and Heathcliff are terrible people, but hot damn are they fun to watch. If they weren’t terrible people there wouldn’t be any heat and there wouldn’t be a story. High passions are the bloody engine; this is Romanticism run feral.

So when the writers of modern Gothics try to make everyone sensible and reasonable, I wonder what the point it. People have to be a little touched just to get the juices flowing. Stephenie Meyer, in New Moon, tried to make everyone a good person, which would have been boring, but it turns out her sense of what makes a person worthy is so completely bonkers that the book still kind of works as a Gothic. Edward, Bella, and Jacob are all terrible people, so the hatecast can work its Gothic magic. The Demon Lover by Juliet Dark strives for a sensible, measured tone and its characters mostly don’t act like twats, but two things keep The Demon Lover from being a snoozer like A Discovery of Witches: There is a real current of high emotions, even if the prose is measured, and the metafictional elements make the narrative satisfying on a different register. A monster yoga class is most bananas thing in A Discovery of Witches, but it mostly reads as silly and incongruous, not the Gothic kind of bonkers. Mostly people sit around, read, and drink absolutely prodigious amounts of wine.

But A Discovery of Witches? Yawn. The lead, Diana is the scion of two seriously important magical families, but she won’t use her magic because reasons that make almost no sense. I can see, given her childhood, why she might reject her witchy powers. Her parents died young under cloudy/tragic circumstances, and she was raised by fun witchy aunts after their deaths. I can imagine a psychological mechanism by which she rejects her parents’ origins because she believes that this got them killed or some other pop psych nonsense. But that is not her professed motivation. Instead, she wants to succeed in academia on her “own merits,” question mark? Which, isn’t magical ability one of her own merits? She’d regularly prissy and condescending to her aunties about their magic. I grew right tired of how helpless she was, and how she was simultaneously a big deal Chosen One type. Her love interest is a fancy vampire tosser, and their courtship is spent talking about antiques. When they confessed their love for one another, I was like, did I miss something? You’re in love with each other after having a not very interesting sounding dinner? Which is not something I should ever be saying reading a Gothic; go large or go home.

I’ve seen a lot of people dismiss this novel as “like Twilight” or “just a romance”, but I think that might be both wrong and kinda sexist. Twilight, for all its stabs towards real world resonance, is absolutely fucking bonkers. You may have trouble getting through the prose, but the book fairly teems with Bella’s anxieties and passions and emotions. While Diana shares Bella’s almost sneering condescension to everyone around her — Bella doesn’t like anyone — she doesn’t share Bella’s high emotions, or, dare I say it, clumsiness? Meyer’s over-reliance on Bella’s propensity to the faceplant as a meaningful character trait is sloppy and ridiculous, of course, but it does gesture to the ways her relationship with Edward disorders her world. Diana is prim and priggish through the entirely of her interactions with the supernatural. There is precious little fascination; mostly magic is a pain in her ass. And as I’ve said before, her relationship with vamp dude is based on so much Tory smugness that it completely lacks juice. Most romance novels I’ve read, even the boring ones, do a better job of stoking the heat. If someone slags A Discovery of Witches as “just a romance”, that pretty much tells me all I need to know about their understanding of both Gothic and romance novels.

Anyway, I don’t want to put the knives in too hard. I think the exercise of trying to make rational grownup type characters plot their way through genres that tend to fall more on the Romance end (by which I mean in the Nathanial Hawthorne sense, not like modern romance novels, exactly) is an interesting one, but this outing is not a success. I don’t particularly like Diana — she’s a unappealing mixture of conceited and useless — but I get the distinct impression I’m supposed to. Frankly, if this were written in such a manner that we were expected to laugh at her self-satisfied bullshit instead of cheering it on, A Discovery of Witches would be aces.

Review: The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher

I first stumbled upon T. Kingfisher not quite knowing what to expect. Or, that’s not precisely true: I stumbled on The Seventh Bride thinking I was going to get one thing — dumb, light romance-adjacent fairy tale retelling — and then what I got was decidedly not that — smart, twisty, disturbing iteration of an already disturbing tale. I mean, most of this misapprehension was on me, because who is going to write a romance-adjacent version of Bluebeard with a straight face, at least that I’m going to run across and then think is a good idea to read. The Seventh Bride was really top shelf stuff, the kind of thing that made me make note of the author’s name. (I’m fairly disastrous with names, so this is a much bigger deal than it might appear.) So I picked up The Twisted Ones on the strength of The Seventh Bride, and I was oh so richly rewarded.The Twisted Ones is the sort of novel that infected my dreams, my evil, eldritch subconscious redressing my nightmares with imagery from the novel because so much of it is horror-adjacent to my own subconscious terrors. Yeesh.

A thirty something woman called Mouse returns to her grandmother’s home in one of the Carolinas to clean it out after her death. Her father, her grandmother’s son, is wasting from one of those unspoken tangle of diseases — maybe cancer with some dementia thrown in — so he doesn’t feel up to emptying his childhood home. Mouse’s grandmother was a hateful old hoarder, and no one much mourns her passing. Nothing about this set up seems a good idea, even to Mouse, who is our rueful, retrospective narrator. She’s constantly breaking in to say: yes, I know how bad this looks, and you’re reading this thinking I should have just cut bait, but that’s not exactly how people work when hip deep in a situation. It might seem a little like meta-textual fuckery, but she’s not wrong. Which is exactly the worst thing about it.

When I was a house painter, I spent a lot of time in people’s homes. Mostly, they were in habitation while I was working, the family mostly off set during the day as they worked or went to school. The house would have a kind of ringing emptiness, so when I was there changing the skin of the house, there was the impression of visitation. Working for hoarders is like this, but also somehow more full. They tend to keep themselves in residence while you work — lest we disrupt the fragile teetering equilibrium — but there’s another presence of the stuff itself. For hoarders, their house and its contents are a memory hoard, and you can feel the weight of that memory as you work in the house.

An anecdote: Due to a tangle of friendships and professional obligations, we worked once for a hoarder in a post-war expansion suburb. We went to pull a permit before we began work, and — I swear this is true — no less than three inspectors manifested, their faces full of thunderous disapproval. She had been in arrears to the city for so long, and so egregiously, that they were about to throw her in jail. My business partner and I did a little softshoe — we’re here to help, not hinder — but they were right sick of her shit, and had little to no faith we could fix anything. You really really have to be fucking up, as a land owner, for the civic system to escalate to that level. Mostly you can do what you want if you own land outright, America being what it is.

We would push into rooms and start the process of beating back mold and powdered plaster. In the afternoon we’d clean up, leaving things empty and drying. When you work in the average person’s home, they don’t want tools and drop cloths set down mid-work, to be picked up in the morning. Something about it is unsettling to homeowners, so we tried to keep a light footprint from the end of one workday and the start of the next. But at the hoarder’s house, we’d return in the morning to find a truly prodigious amount of activity in our absence, as the homeowner busied herself moving the mass of her hoard right into our workspace, trying to cover our disruptive rehabilitation with whatever her shit represented. This did not go well; there was yelling; we eventually cleared it back out.

So Mouse’s project of clearing out a hoarder’s house felt very accurate, to my experience, full up with not just the ghosts of the dead, but the strange fullness of memory and the indefinable tenor of any given person’s stuff. (I’ve also emptied houses after a person’s death or incarceration, and you get this weird sense of a person through their stuff. I have dozens of strange anecdotes that go nowhere about how people live.) Mouse finds a journal, which tries to recreate another journal, which details the supernatural experiences of both journal writers. Again, this could be just preciously meta-textual — a wry commentary on the Gothic novel and its bracketed and embedded narratives — but Mouse’s voice is so authentic, so perfectly pitched, that any literary assholery by me was well and truly disarmed.

Mouse’s voice is so forcefully written — and with such a ringing trueness — that I never questioned why she was staying in this horrific home full up with doll bones and the lingering hatefulness of an old hateful woman — not more than she did. The Twisted Ones reveals the horror slowly, a lapping reveal of the uncanny and the unearthly. The slow reveal is excruciating, the kind of storytelling that reveals the sinister behind the everyday, like the tok tok of what must be woodpeckers, or the almost-not-quite figures in stone. Kingfisher beautifully captures the itchy discomfort that city dwellers feel in the woods — even, and maybe especially, woods we encountered in our muzzy childhoods. She does a nice job with the sort of nosy and judgy experience of being in small towns, but then how such communities will fiercely claim people with even tenuous, distaff relationships in the right circumstances. She draws excellent portraiture of a long-eared dog, whose unflappable dumbassery was an odd comfort in the most horrible moments. All told, an excellent novel, and for sure I’ll be seeking out more of her work.

I received my copy from Netgalley.com

Octavia E. Butler’s The Parable of the Sower: The Opera

Maybe two months ago, I became aware of a musical version of Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower which was being staged at the O’Shaughnessy theater on the St. Kate’s campus in St. Paul. I pretty much blacked out and bought tickets on the spot, figuring I’d find a way to the Twin Cities for the show somehow. That show was last night. What an altogether moving staging.

I feel like Parable of the Sower has been popping up again and again for me. I write a series for B&N SciFi and Fantasy about the Nebula awards, reading through the nominated books and trying to handicap who’s going to win. A book I read for that series recently reminded me of Parable — reminded me that Butler took home the Nebula for both Parable of the Sower AND its sequel Parable of the Talents. I wrote a listicle about religiously motivated missions to the stars, and included Parable of the Talents, because of Lauren’s Earthseed. (The never-published third in that series, Parable of the Trickster, which takes place on the alien planet, would have been a better fit … but of course it was never published.)

I read both books years ago. Reading through the plot summaries to jog my memory bolted me down, ran a wire up my nerves: the camps for reeducation, the separation of families from their children (often permanently), President Jarret’s Make America Great Again rhetoric as he perpetrates the most inhuman cruelties. Butler was a godamn prophet, and it’s a cold feeling to read her warning while the dystopia is in full swing.

The opera version is fully aware of the icy inevitability of Butler’s classic, but wraps up the narrative in a warm call-and-response, in a call to arms. The staging was less like a traditional stage play — I’m fairly sure if I had no familiarity with the text, I would have been at sea. Instead, the character beats of the novel are jumping off points to explore the various ideas — and characters — in song.

This didn’t really register for me when I read the novel because it isn’t my lived experience (an altogether precious way of saying I’m white), but the opera centers the religious dialogue between Lauren and her father — which of course is centered in the church in Black America. Much of the first section — in the walled neighborhood before the walls are breached — is staged like a pulpit and pews. Her father preaches, and then Lauren responds. From him: “God don’t never change.” From her: “God is change.” The music touches gospel, the rhetorical style of Black preachers, old spirituals.

Oh, but another thing: the chorus. I don’t necessarily see this that often in either film or theater, because it is weird and old school, but: Parable of the Sower kinda had a Greek chorus. The chorus in Greek theater kinda functioned as a social superego, like an intrusive narrator who interjected on the events of the play, or ran the gloss, or gave you whatfor.

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

Romeo and Juliet

You can find choruses in Shakespeare, real minimally, but that was almost half a millennium ago, which, even factoring his long shadow, was a long ass time ago. In Parable of the Sower, there are three people noted in the liner notes called “The Talents”: two singers, Helga Davis and Kenita Miller, and one of the writers, Toshi Reagon. I’m going to go ahead and presume that “talents” refers to the sequel — The Parable of the Talents. (There’s a pause here where I go to brush up on Jesus’ parable, and find that it’s one of the messy contested ones where different gospels have different takes, which is altogether perfect.)

The talents in the play are a modern take on the chorus, especially when Toshi Reagon — folksinger, writer, singer, musician — cut in. Near the end of the first act she broke through the music just to talk to us, to tell us about her vision of Butler’s vision and her place in the world. At the end she called us to action. It takes as voice as strong as Octavia’s own to sing her story, and Toshi Reagon has it.

Back in the Saddle

I quit updating the ole blog more than four years ago. There was some real world shit that was more important, so I was, as they say in corporate, in a contraction phase. I’d wobbled for about a year after my Grandma’s death and then subsequent deletion of my Goodreads account. Her death kicked me deeper into depression, and then the withdrawal from my main outlet on social media laid me down deep in the hole. (Also, the loss of a few friends due to my being insensate to other people’s needs and feelings didn’t help anything, especially when I realized what an ass I’d been.) So I quit writing, pretty much full stop.

I’m not going to get into four years of the ins and outs of my mental health, but suffice it to say, I feel like it’s time to get back out there and start saying stuff out loud again. Partially because I’m this godsdamned close to finishing the first draft of the zombie housewife novel, and it would be good to keep myself accountable in some semi-public way. I haven’t figured out what that will look like — I’m not the hugest fan of daily word counts or other objective metrics — but I also know how bad I am at sticktoitiveness. Partially because I just miss rattling on about what I read and what I’m thinking about. A little-trafficked blog with absolute shite design seems the perfect place for that! Also maybe I can get Mr. Ceridwen to help with the design.

I spent some time last week going through the several thousand comments this blog had accrued in my absence. Out of the thousands, there was exactly one comment from a real person: the rest were for v1agra, pr0n, other mixes of letters and numbers, and stuff written in Cyrillic. I also looked through the several hundred photos I had in various posts and took down anything that might ding me for copyright violations. I thought I knew what fair use was until I saw this infringement case in the news, and realized it was way more restrictive than I thought. Total drag.

So, anyway. I guess I’m back! I’ll probably post some back-catalog stuff in addition to new posts, at least for the first couple months before I get back in the swing of regular posting.

In Retrospect, Like Meaning

I was on the back porch smoking when it occurred to me to check the date of my account deletion. It has to have been a year, I thought, because it wasn’t so long ago that my sister texted me on the anniversary of my grandmother’s death. I read it out to my kids, because my son heard my weird exhalation and wondered why. They like to shoulder-surf me. They like to know why I respond like I do to screen ephemera.

Several weeks ago, I was weeping, loud, curled like a corpse. Or no, that’s not right: corpses arch, which is why fossils of dinosaurs always have their long necks stretched back. I was weeping like a woman has been suffering from “minor major depression” for as long as she can remember, which is about two years, maybe more, maybe it’s all roots and memories that stretch back as long as I can remember. That’s the thing about depression: it’s virulent and metastasizes, and all your cells bend to it eventually. All of me was bent.

When I rolled over, I saw her there, a shadow, my daughter, watching me from the doorway. The worst thing in all of this has been figuring how to talk to these beautiful, difficult children I’ve created about how sick I am, and how that is not their fault or responsibility. I remember being this age, and how, even at eight, I would bottle and stopper my emotions because, even then, I was afraid of being stupid or embarrassing. I still feel like I’m stupid or embarrassing most of the time. I wish there was a time when I could feel like a grown up, not this gangly impostor who cannot fit in the children’s chairs at parent-teacher conferences.

She came and laid herself across my body, hip to hip, her head on my chest. I figured how to quiet myself, but I could feel the tears roll down the sides of my skull and into my hair. I talked to her about myself, about my depression. She wants to know if this is something she can catch, which made me pause for a long while. I can see me in them both, my children, good things and bad, all the genetic comeuppance we joke about. No, I said, but this isn’t strictly true.

Later that week, she’ll ask me to go to a website with some silly signs — the kind that are mostly photoshopped — that we’d looked at some time in the last month. When I ask her why, she says it’s because she wants to see me happy, and she thought I was happy the last time we looked at these together. This kills me. Happiness is such an ephemeral quality, seen out of the side of the eye, like stars, or in retrospect, like meaning.

So, a year and a day ago I deleted my Goodreads account, two weeks after my grandmother’s death, in the long fallow darkness of a depression that only got worse. I have doubted that decision — I’m not going to lie — but not much. I know it was a misstep in some ways, but, as I said at the time, my reasons were mostly personal, and had very little to do with whatever the fuck bullshit was going on on this site. But there were missteps, unkindnesses that I was responsible for, maybe even cruelty. This kills me too.

Early in my therapy, I was ordered to stop apologizing, to stop assuming I was the one always at fault because I am the one who is always the worst. A part of me still thinks this is true, but I’ve mostly pinned her down, hip to hip, my head on her chest, my tears rolling down her face. I am not clear-eyed; I know this. But I still want to offer, at the very least, an explanation of my abrupt ending out here in the ‘verse. I was suffering from grief and depression, and I needed to cut myself off. I needed to stop. I did.

I said to my husband, in all the rictus of my coming to understand my illness, that my life felt like a limb that had fallen asleep, and was now coming to life. It hurts. It’s pins and needles all the time, and then bubbles, and then I can slowly put weight on it. I’m putting weight on it here, but it’s a dangerous, broken act.

I broke my foot this year too, like an asshole, kicking the edge of storm window leaned up in the back hall. Jesus, what a numbly stupid metaphorics. I could see the break, in the ghostly x-ray, and it was all frustration to clump around in an orthopedic boot. At night, in the dark, I would walk with a roll on the edge of my foot to protect my brokenness. Numb, dumb metaphors, they are everywhere.

One of my reawakening limbs has been writing again, because I cut that off a year ago with so much else. It’s taken me a long while to decide that writing wasn’t a problem — that it helped me more than it hurt — but it’s been hard to disentangle shit that’s bad for me from shit that’s good. I’m still iffy on whether this is good for me to write in this specific place, but I do want to perfectly and exactly apologize, in the capacity I can, for any I hurt I may have caused, and this is the place for it.

The really fucked thing about this declension of my brokenness is that I still haven’t come clean to many of my friends and family about the…about all of this. God, it’s so hard trying to be a person again, and even this may be wrong-footing my long process of recovering. Whatever, I guess. Every confession is a lightening. All words are stones on the ground. We’ll see if these words remain past a morning’s reconsideration.