Queer Fantastika: Love & Transformation in Indra Das’ epic werewolf novel THE DEVOURERS.

The Devourers by Indra Das is that rarest of creatures: the literary horror novel. The graphic imagery, full of viscera and body horror, aims to reveal deeper truths about love and identity, and, ultimately, what it means to be human.

The novel starts in contemporary Kolkata, when Alok, a history professor estranged from his family, meets an intriguing stranger at a street festival. This alluring stranger gives Alok a task: to type up a series of notebooks the stranger has transcribed from scrolls from the late 1500s. The scrolls describe the travels of a pack of shapeshifters as they make their way across the Mughal Empire. Fenrir, the author of the first scroll is an ancient shifter from Scandinavia. The other members of his tribe include a young French loup garou named Gévaudan and an even older one named Makedon, presumably from the Mediterranean. Fenrir’s scroll is written as a love letter to Cyrah, the human woman with whom he has fallen in love. Since humans are considered prey, romantic or sexual attachments to them is strictly taboo in shifter culture. The second scroll is Cyrah’s letter to her shifter son, whom she likens to the indigenous rakshasas mythology of her land. Cyrah and Fenrir’s epic story, which reminds me of the brutal love-and-hate saga at the center of Octavia Butler’s Patternist series, is interwoven with the erotic chemistry of Alok and the stranger’s contemporary story.

The Devourers is a matryoshka novel, full of dense and lyrical prose. Images of violent transformation, transference and flesh eating abound in the novel, which is also a queer love story and a historical novel. There’s an undercurrent dark of eroticism that shimmers through the novel, evident in the eruptive, transgressive werewolf/rakshasas culture. The Devourers is a werewolf novel that has more in common with works by George Bataille or Samuel Delany than it does with Hammer Horror.

BOOK RADAR: “Cry Your Way Home” by Damien Angelica Walters

Colleague and semi-local-to-me author Damien Angelica Walters has a new collection out. Some of the pieces I have read before they were collected in CRY YOUR WAY HOME  (Apex Book Company). Walters’ delicate prose style belies the disturbing darkness at the center of her fiction.

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From the back cover copy:

Sometimes things are not what they appear to be. DNA doesn’t define us, gravity doesn’t hold us, a home doesn’t mean we belong. From circus tents to space stations, Damien Angelica Walters creates stories that are both achingly familiar and chillingly surreal. Within her second short story collection, she questions who the real monsters are, rips families apart and stiches them back together, and turns a cell phone into the sharpest of weapons.

Cry Your Way Home brings together seventeen stories that delve deep into human sorrow and loss, weaving pain, fear, and ultimately resilience into beautiful tales that are sure to haunt you long after you finish the collection.

Includes the Bram Stoker Award-nominated story “The Floating Girls: A Documentary”

Cthulhu vs. Bigger Thomas: “The Ballad of Black Tom” by Victor LaValle

The Ballad of Black TomThe Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Last week I went to a panel hosted by the National Academies of Sciences called “Identity, Race, and Genetics.”*  It featured an author/editor, a PhD Candiate who wrote on the History of Science, a NIH geneticist and a law professor. The law professor–who was also an artist. The lawyer-scholar-artist mentioned the virulent racism of H.P. Lovecraft and suggested that black people lived in Cthulhuscene Period, due to the past and ongoing history of (pseudo)science and the black body. Lovecraftian mythos shows mankind as the inevitable victim of a hostile universe; existing while black (in a hostile/racialized universe) is part and parcel of the Black Experience.

I immediately thought about LaValle’s novella. The book is dedicated to Lovecraft (and H.P. even has a cameo). The Ballad of Black Tom is kind of an answer/re-positioning of the notorious Horror at Red Hook. It’s written from the perspective of a black first generation immigrant grifter and concerns his unfortunate dabbling in the occult. Imagine a collaboration between Richard Wright’s social realist fiction with Lovecraft at his lurid best, and you would have this novel. In place of Lovecraft’s rampant eugenical musing, LaValle shows what it was like to be of African descent in 1920s New York, complete with run ins with the police and racists. The novel compares and contrasts the horror of White Supremacy with the horror of Elder Gods. The reader is left to decide which is worse.

*DC Art Science Evening Rendezvous (DASER) Participants:

Sheree Renee Thomas, World Fantasy Award-winning editor and author

J. Cecilia  Cardenas-Navia, Ph.D., History of Science and Medicine, Yale University

Bill Pavan, Senior Investigator, National Genome Research Institute

Michael Bennett, Associate Research Professor, School for the Future of Innovation in Society + Center for Science and the Imagination, Arizona State University

Listen to me speak about writing on The Outer Dark podcast! And “The Nectar of Nightmares” is up for preorder!

Scott Nicolay interviewed me for The Outer Dark, a podcast about weird, dark and horror fiction. Thanks to Scott for having me on–the conversation was wide ranging and touched on the Negritude movement, surrealism and Rihanna!

Craig Laurance Gidney: Writing the Beautiful Mess

Also, The Nectar of Nightmares is up for preorder!

 

BOOK REVIEW: Lyrical Phantasmorgia in “Dreams of Shreds & Tatters” by Amanda Downum

Dreams of Shreds and TattersDreams of Shreds and Tatters by Amanda Downum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An ambitious, if uneven update of the King in Yellow set in modern Vancouver. The plot has echoes of Orpheus and Eurydice, with the ‘underworld’ being the surreal, doomed dreamscape kingdom ruled by an eldritch abomination. Graduate student and lucid dreamer Liz and her boyfriend Alex search for her missing friend, the artist Blake in Vancouver. They find themselves enmeshed in a sinister drug and magic fueled underworld.

Pros: The characters are for the most part, skillfully drawn. Kudos to the portrayal of the sexuality spectrum. Liz is an asexual in a loving, if complicated relationship with her boyfriend. Blake was involved with a male lover. All of these facts are presented in an organic manner. The writing is lovely and full of atmosphere. The nightmarish imagery of the liminal world of Carcosa, with its strange constellations and ruined, sky-piercing towers, is worth the price of admission.

Cons: The plot was a bit muddled, and a couple of characters—particularly the gun toting badass monster killer Lailah—was a bit of a false note. It felt like she belonged to a different story. The novel is short; I would have liked to linger in the author’s world a bit more. The loose ends the author leaves dangling would make an excellent sequel.

Recommended for fans of weird fiction, Caitlin R Kiernan, Shirley Jackson and the music of CocoRosie.

BOOK BIRTHDAY: “The End of the End of Everything” by Dale Bailey

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Happy Book Birthday to my colleague (we did a workshop together) Dale Bailey’s new collection of speculative fiction, The End of the End of Everything. His work is filled with poetic, Bradburyesque prose, keenly observed characters and inventive plots that range from time travel stories to alternate history to apocalyptic horror.

My author interview with Bailey will appear sometime soon.

Afro-fantastic Horror Fiction in “Skin Deep Magic”

There are two outright horror stories in Skin Deep Magic.

“Death and Two Maidens” is set in Victorian London, and is about the life—and afterlife of a young charwoman, Prothenia Jenkins. The tonality of the piece borrows heavily from penny-dreadful fiction (example: The Phantom of the Opera, Bram Stoker’s Lair of the White Worm). I won’t say more about it, because, as River Song from Doctor Who says, “Spoilers!”

An Afro-Victorian Lady

“Sugardaddy” was inspired by a couple of things. The narrative convention, which is in the form of a young girl’s journal, is a homage to everything from Stoker’s Dracula to Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. I love the interiority of the technique, and the slow build rhythm. It is a tale that is partially about body horror. I have a couple of (well managed) chronic conditions. Before I was diagnosed, there was a sense of horror as my body began to behave in ways that were unpredictable and unpleasant. “Sugardaddy” was kind of cathartic to write, as I got used to the transformation.

H.P. Hatecraft: On Nepenthe and N*ggers

 

by Emily Balivet
by Emily Balivet

The first H.P. Lovecraft story I read was “The Outsider.” It was, and still is, a fine piece of work. It’s a poetic tale about an introvert who touches a dark “eidolon,” drinks the elixir of “nepenthe” and then joins the ghastly beings who live in the nooks and crannies of time and space. “The Outsiders” is, in addition to a horror story, a mediation on isolation and loneliness. As a closeted student in a mostly white high school, I felt like an outsider myself, and wanted to ride with the ghouls in the chilly, beautiful vistas of other dimensions.

Then I read the next story in the collection, “The Rats in the Walls.” I never finished it, because the narrator had a cat, called “Niggerman.” I have never read any other Lovecraft afterwards. I later found out that Lovecraft was a racist and anti-semite of the highest order, who subscribed to the pseudoscience of eugenics. Lovecraft wrote a poem that is practically talismanic for the White Supremacist crowd, called “On the Creation of Niggers.” Black people, like myself, are described in other stories as being bestial and like gorillas. Apologists will say that Lovecraft was a product of his time. To which I say, no. There were white progressives back then, and white people who even married black people.

I came back to “The Outsiders,” years later, and realized that there is an allegory there. Lovecraft, like the narrator of the story, lived alone in a castle of fear and hatred. He only found kinship with the ghouls and shades in an alternate universe. And what are racists, except ghouls and shades that hide out in some alternate universe where non-whites are subhuman? White Supremacy is the ultimate nepenthe.

*There is a character in the New Scooby Doo Adventures named H.P. Hatecraft.

REVIEW: The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle

Pepper is a working class furniture mover who, through an act of misguided gallantry, and the laziness of the a trio police officers, gets thrown into a psychiatric unit in Queens. What is initially supposed to be a 72-hour hold turns into a months long stay, due to bureaucratic incompetence and Pepper’s foolish decisions (a failed escape attempt among other mistakes). After being drugged and reprimanded, Pepper finally acclimates himself to the ward, he meets his fellow patients/prisoners and learns their back stories. Loochie (or Lucretia), the nineteen-year bipolar young woman who’s been in and out of hospitals for most of her adolescence and has a wild temper and can kick ass if need be. Dorry, an old white woman who’s been in the ward for decades and is full of wisdom. And Coffee, a Ugandan refugee who is obsessed with contacting the president and letting the world know about the miserable conditions at the New Hyde psychiatric unit.

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And miserable the conditions are. The building is in need of repair, there’s a rodent problem, the administrators are overworked,  and code violations are routinely broken. Finally, there is a violent patient, whom the patients call the Devil, who picks them off one by one. The staff seems to be in some conspiracy with the Devil, and steadfastly refuses to do anything significant to stop the murders.

If all of this sounds grim and depressing, it’s not. Humor—sometimes gallows and sometime Keystone Cops like—suffuses the text. There’s suspense, yes, but it’s also backed up by mordant social commentary about the state of public mental health and touching back stories for all of the characters—including various staff members. LaValle has created a horror story, a Swiftian satire, and a black comedy of errors in one story. Imagine Colson Whitehead writing One Who Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and you have some idea of The Devil In Silver. It’s a powerful novel, and I want to read more LaValle!