My new collection, A Tree or a Person or a Wall, collects ten years of my short stories, including work I wrote before, during, and after the years I wrote my two novels, In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods and Scrapper. I started arranging the collection in the months immediately after delivering Scrapper to my editor, and one of the thrilling elements of that work was reading my own stories again and seeing all the odd or strange or weird thoughts and urges I'd allowed into the work. Scrapper was a much more realist work than either my first novel or most of these stories, and I found out then that I'd truly missed the wilder abandon of creating fictional worlds in which anything might be possible, as it sometimes does in my stories: for instance, the title story of the new book features a screeching albino ape guarding a kidnapped boy, while another concerns a company of undead horsemen riding across an apocalyptic desert, swapping stolen plasticized organs in and out of their bodies in order to experience different emotions. There are fractured retellings of fairy tales, there are instructions for building mechanical messiahs, as well as untold numbers of strange children and perhaps stranger parents, amnesiac military commanders and ill-suited detectives, and so on. It's a deeply weird book of stories, and finishing it reminded me of how I've always thrilled at the weirdness of others, at the strangely beautiful or strangely terrifying things they've allowed themselves to write down upon the page and then to expose to their readers. Here are some of my favorite recent strange reads—all published by independent presses, with one still forthcoming next year—all of which constantly surprised me, offering up unfamiliar voices and forms and worlds, marvels I wished I'd written, that I was stunned anyone at all had possessed the audacity to write.
The Desert Places
By Amber Sparks & Robert Kloss
A pocket-sized volume co-written by Sparks and Kloss and illustrated by Matt Kish (who has also illustrated and provided cover art for Kloss’s novels), this book summons up a nameless but evil presence, speaking to it in the second person—and thereby implicating the reader—depicting both evil’s evolution and growth as well as its passage through the world of men. The book begins with a glossary-as-prologue, starting with a definition of “flesh” listing the many ways it might be prepared as food, and where “life” is described as “the good years and days, when you ate your fill of souls… the knowledge that soon this appetite, like all others, will twist back upon itself, will undo the wishes it has made and ask instead for only death, for only cool and quiet oblivion.”
By Karen Tidbeck
Karin Tidbeck is a fantastic new Swedish writer, and Jagannath is her first book to appear in English, by her own translation. The stories are curiously ordered: they begin with what seems to be contemporary magic realism or fabulism in the vein of Aimee Bender and Karen Russell—but then story by story they proceed to get weirder and weirder. The last three stories are a masterclass in how clever worldbuilding can allow for exploring difficult concepts: the first of these is organized around manipulations of time, which one story describes as “an abhorrent thing, a human thing… that power which made flesh rot and dreams wither.” The title story comes last, the weirdest of them all, beginning with a bizarre birth inside a creature housing an entire society of workers: “Another child was born in the great Mother, excreted from the tube protruding from the Nursery ceiling. It landed with a wet thud on the organic bedding underneath. Papa shuffled over to the birthing tube and picked the baby up in his wizened hands. He stuck two fingers in the baby’s mouth to clear the cavity of oil and mucus, and then slapped its bottom. The baby gave a faint cry.” Each of these stories contains just such an unforgettable and seemingly impossible world, one which a lesser writer might need two hundred pages to introduce and set into motion, but which Tidbeck is able to bring to extraordinary life in just a few short pages.2 .
By Julia Elliott
Julia Elliott’s fiction is the living proof of one possible future of the Southern gothic, adding to it her own brand of science fiction and apocalypse, religion and fairy tale, mixing these genres with a keen understanding of where their absurdities might overlap. Here characters undergo memory restoration procedures, watch their grandmothers levitate, live in houses beset by roving packs of wild dogs and wilder packs of neighborhood children. Religion abounds, but it’s an odd sort recognizable mostly in its embrace of the cosmologically absurd. As one character says, “In hell you don’t have a family… but sometimes, when the devil’s bored, he’ll make a fake family with the skins of dead animals and old hair he’s pulled out of hairbrushes, just to trick you. You’ll think you have your family back, but then you’ll notice that the puppets are hollow and filled with dust, and when the devil laughs at you he sounds like TV static and screaming rabbits.” Elliott’s devils are our delights, and her book is full of such ecstatically strange pleasures.
By Gregory Howard
The story of Gregory Howard’s Hospice is set in motion by the disappearance of protagonist Lucy’s brother, who in childhood vanished for months only to return as someone else, someone not quite Lucy’s brother—or so Lucy believed. Whatever happened, this event seems to undo some crucial bit of Lucy’s reality, creating a crack through which all kinds of other oddities might enter her life, bits of horror and fairy tale and slippery places and even slipperier identities. Late in the novel, Lucy’s mother leaves her a message, implicating her in all that has gone wrong—and also implicating story, which here has the power to change the shape of a life: “You should be more careful, one message said. I had thought we raised you to be careful. I was talking to your father today, another said. And we both agreed that, if we were to do it over again, we would have read you entirely different bedtime stories. There is something perverse about all that magic and going places.”4 .
Dreamlives of Debris
By Lance Olsen
Dreamlives of Debris won’t be published until next April, but I was lucky enough to read an early copy of the novel this fall. Olsen’s work has always stretched the formal boundaries of fiction, rarely repeating itself. In this novel, his quest for new forms manifests as a collage-style retelling of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, where the part of “Theseus” is played by a mysterious young girl named Debris, trapped and hidden in a labyrinth where, among other things, she is able to hear voices speaking to her from throughout history, from Herodotus to Borges to Edward Snowden. “Down here,” Debris tells us, “time is a storm-swarmed ship always shivering itself into pieces… everything is everything and then I am shuffling forward, hands outstretched in the grainy charcoal air, inhaling mold, must, fungus, sulfur, red angels, damp dirt, wet rock, waiting for the gritty chafe ushering me onto the far shore.” Put this one on your 2017 reading list: I’ll be waiting alongside you, eager to read it again.