Underground Fiction

The Universal Baseball Association. Robert Coover.

Sometimes I wonder about the sweetly maudlin characters from older novels compared to the overtly disenchanted characters in more contemporary works of fiction.  This excerpt from ‘The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.” seems to typify the older approach to handling broken characters who seek something beyond the everyday structure of the norm. (and btw, Robert Coover’s novel is unlike any baseball novel you’ll ever read…as if Flann O’Brien wrote a novel about America’s pastime.)

“I’ll think I’ll go to church,” Hettie announced.

“Which one do you go to??” he asked, hardly caring.

“Don’t matter. First one I come to.” She sighed, spraying crumbs.

“Absolve your sins?” he asked, feeling a little contentious, but meaning no sarcasm.

“Sins? No, I ain’t got any feelings about that,” she said. “I just want a place where I can go and mope in company without bothering nobody.” She started glumly into her coffee at the brown reflection of herself. “Let’s face it, I’m getting old and ugly, Henry.”

“Listen, Hettie,” he said. He dug into the billfold, found another twenty. “Here. Go buy a new hat or something. Flowers on it.”

“Flowers are for Spring,” she argued.

“Well, old dry leaves then. Anything. A new girdle or some fancy drawers, I don’t care. I just want to see you happy.

She smiled, patted his hand gently. “Ain’t that easy,” she said. “But thanks, Henry. That’s nice.”


Gravesend: Some Kind of Sad

‘Gravesend’ is a sad, downtrodden ballad to Brooklyn. No tongue-in-cheek subversive commentary about the new trendified and gentrified borough – that self-mocking shit can take a hike. This is hard life in earnest: stories of losers, chumps, and failures. The tales within come from a place where Hubert Selby and David Goodis inhabit – the no-exit school of storytelling – but Boyle makes the tragic template his own. ‘Gravesend’ is a deceptively simple novel that spits in your face, layers in a heartfelt desire of becoming somebody you’re not, whether abandoning your neighborhood in hopes of bigger and better things, or trying to make an old high school crush fall in love with you. But second chances don’t reach that far into the grid of Boyle’s Brooklyn, where certain corners, blocks and storefronts slightly change, but the characters stay the same – lives of stasis and carrying the same hand-me-down funk from one generation to the next.

And that in itself is what makes ‘Gravesend’ modern noir – the absence of full light, hope, chances of success. It’s noir wearing an oversized Yankees jersey, eating a $1 slice of corner-store pizza, one stop away from oblivion under the rusted rails of the El. And in the end, all it takes is one bad decision to lead to a lifetime of hurt.

A heartbreaking, top-shelf novel.

Fun With Your New Head

FNWTHRNWHD1971Within the rebellious, free-wheeling canon of the SF New Wave (Spinrad, Aldiss, Ellison), I find that Thomas M. Disch’s work had a more sinisterly absurdist, yet humanistic slant than most of his peers. And while some of his stories are playful, many of them contain a dark core, a nebulous yolk, if you will. He exposes the frailties of the dirt-poor and the delusional, the maligned and the forgotten. His interest doesn’t focus on the successes of technology, nor the constructions of the operatic hard-sci-fi opus. His work is about failures in the grid, in and out of the body, and most importantly, the failures of America and its delusional inhabitants. The work in this 1970s collection touches on such disastrous themes, while not so much rooted in SF as it is in the horror genre. Saying it simple, this is damned good shit, humorous and dark.

The most memorable stories in the collection:

‘The Roaches’ – living in New York City can be quite awful for those struggling with the low payroll. Amidst tenement living, loud neighbors and a series of dead-end jobs, the main character here is befriended by a cockroach. No longer suicidal, and no longer feeling alone, she creates a telepathic bond with more and more roaches each day. And  soon they become her own horde of assassins. (David Hartwell selected this one in his fine collection, ‘The Dark Descent’ – well deserved).

‘Come to Venus Melancholy’ – a first person account of an off-world computer losing its mind to jealousy and loneliness.

‘Linda and Daniel and Spike’ – a revolting tale about an imaginary lover who impregnates a schizophrenic woman in Manhattan. Up there in the high regions of literary ‘nasties’.

‘Descending’ – a loser maxes out his credit card in a department store, only to find himself stuck on a never-ending descent on an escalator. To some consumer Hell skipping on a sad time loop? Or just a bad dream? Sam Beckett in the shopping mall; Kafka goes to Woolworths.

‘Now is Forever’ – a regeneration machine gives you anything you want, but when there’s no more desire and you can have what you want by the press of a button, events take a turn for the worst. This one reads like an apocalyptic version of ‘Groundhog Day’, the snake eating its own tail, again and again and again….

‘The City of Penetrating Light’ – the last man of Earth, an astronaut who was in space when the bombs were dropped on earth, now contemplates suicide, but he keeps getting interrupted by some stranger calling him on the phone.

‘Casablanca’ – Disch here is channeling Paul Bowles in fine fashion. While the nuclear bombs are dropped on America, an elderly American couple on holiday try to figure out what to do. As the anti-American hatred takes hold, the couple go through a series of mundane horrors that eventually turn nasty as they try to find safety. Written in 1967, this story is far from dated, and probably stings much more to the reader today than in the year it was written.

I hope some reputable publisher puts this one out in a brand new edition. Searching the web, it feels as though this collection is one step away from being completely forgotten. Disch wasn’t for everybody. But damn, to me he was something special, a glorious madman who not only had imagination, but lots of heart too.

New Visions of Old Horrors: North American Lake Monsters


Literary and Genre. For years and years, these two schools (or better yet, identities) of fiction have barked and cursed at one another across the great divide; argued on what the merits of literature should be, the quality of prose, and the elasticity of category and definition. They’ve bitched aplenty, trying to suppress the other with claims of pretentiousness, barbarism, putting up gated communities on hallowed grounds, and whoring prose for a paycheck. But in today’s culture of remixes and remakes, perhaps the great divide is shrinking, and as a result, this abrasive discourse between literary and genre is gradually becoming tempered, perhaps even unnecessary. In a publishing industry that doesn’t have the marathon legs it once had, maybe more readers and writers are recognizing that a story is just a story. Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps this battle will never end, and potentially flare up to Romulus vs. Remus proportions. Either way, right at this very moment, there’s some great work masterfully blurring the lines. After reading a book like Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters, it’s evident that genre and literary can co-mingle, co-habitate, or even get drunk together, exchange passions and wake up in the morning with no regrets whatsoever. In the end, Ballingrud is doing what great writers should. And that’s not giving a damn about boundaries or rules, sculpting something that resonates, but at other times, stings. Now….

This is a collection of horror. Yes, there are monsters, but they are grotesque catalysts, symbolic terrors, to illuminate the human condition where heartbreak, bad decisions and guilt propel each bruised narrative. Ballingrud is not putting a new wig on an old trope and calling it new. Werewolves, zombies, vampires and aliens are all present (even a decomposing fresh-water beast rotting along a lake’s shoreline) – and while they are used to create unease, and more importantly, dread, they are not here to solely shock the reader. No cheap thrills in this collection. Ballingrud resonates the horror elements, and occasionally takes a rusty blade and severs a nerve – however nothing comes across as gratuitous. ‘North American Lake Monsters’ is so damn well realized. It is up on par with the great collections of Lucius Shepard (‘The Jaguar Hunter’), Dennis Etchison (‘The Dark Country’), John Cheever and Paul Bowles.

‘You Go Where it Takes You’ leads off the collection, reading like some strange hybrid of Raymond Carver and Clive Barker. About the desire to shed your skin and re-create your identity, it is a quiet nightmare of a tale, where the invisible chains of a working-class ‘pinch you pennies and hope for the best’ life suddenly snap in a boldly haunting way. One is left to wonder of the open road ahead, and what revelations, or horrors, will be encountered. It is a tale that is both heartbreaking and surreal. ‘Wild Acre’ uses the werewolf symbol, but delicately obscures that element in favor of telling the story of a dissolving marriage (a common theme here) in a small town losing hope amidst another economic downturn. ‘The Crevasse’ (co-authored with Dale Bailey) brings the action to the Arctic, and it is the most widescreen of all the works here; a well-paced tale of cosmic horror that not only reminds one of H.P. Lovecraft, but also of Jack London dipping his pen into the stirring, unknown cosmos. The pinnacle of the collection is ‘The Monsters of Heaven’. A couple suffer the death of their only child, and desperately trying to regain hold of their lives, fall into a scenario like no other. Alien beings are being discovered all over the country. They are being called angels because of their wide-eyed, luminous appearance. The main character takes one of these crippled beings into his home, and what happens next is truly bizarre — high on the charts of ‘What the fuck?’ brilliance. Rounding out the collection is a zombie tale, ‘The Good Husband’. At points strangely heartfelt, other times grotesque, this tale feels like an EC Horror comic being penned by Denis Johnson; or a revision of the old ‘Don’t Go in the Basement’ theme, where an odd pulp sentimentality flavors this narrative and makes it one of the more depressing entries in the collection.

I really look forward to what Ballingrud offers us next. In the end, call the book what you want. ‘Literary’ ‘New Weird’ ‘Horror’. But you’ll close the book feeling as though there’s not quite anything like ‘North American Lake Monsters’. Weird tales for the haunted, desolate heart, these stories won’t soon be forgotten.



Not Your Average Apocalypse: ‘Your Cities, Your Tombs’

ycytThis is a kaleidoscopic and dystopic novel about collective madness and paranoia. It is the antithesis of those novels which hoped to heal the wounds post-9/11. Instead these 225 pages allow the wound to get reinfected. The only band-aids here are dirty, blood-encrusted and peeling at the edges. Yes, this is not an ‘easy’ read. Your Cities, Your Tombs removes the heart of conventional narrative and shoves it in a blender, and in the end, reminds us not how far we’ve come, but how fucked up we really are.

The America in Jordan Krall’s book is a world lit by flickering florescent ceiling lights; where wall-to-wall-carpeted rooms are cluttered with cheap office furniture, plastic bags full of empty prescription bottles, and cardboard boxes stacked with instructional ‘how-to’ VHS tapes (in which the tracking is always out of whack). In this world, we have ten hour work days, which are followed by stretches of nail-biting insomnia. If there are any dreams to be had, we simply exist in them only as spectators, watching skyscrapers implode and explode in slow motion on a continual static-filled loop. This is a place where everybody has their own pill, their own fantasy on how the world will end.

A-Bangladeshi-rescue-worker-walks-on-the-rubble-of-the-building-that-collapsed-Wednesday-in-Savar-on-April-27-2013.-AP-PhotoKevin-Frayer-960x639Rapid and brief, yet hypnotically layered, Jordan Krall’s ‘novel of effect’ plays with the kaleidoscope narratives of post 9/11 literature; not as a meditation (as Colm McCann did with his Let the Great World Spin) but more as a mind-fuck. J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition is a comparable tome — brief glimpses of a world locked in the throes of a dystopic madness. But instead of playing with Ballard’s pyrotechnics of metaphor and mutilation, Krall subdues the language and plays it more straight. He offers quick chapters from a wide cast of characters – and their memories, dreams and fantasies merge into one narrative which is not only about the last whimper of the world, but about the perspectives comprising the flame to light that last, fatal wick.

The one line to typify this book: ‘We will be cremated against our wishes.’

Again, this is not cheery shit.

Not only big cheers to author, Jordan Krall, but also to the people behind Copeland Valley Press, a small publisher that puts out works beyond the ‘bizarro’ moniker, and does so with professionalism and gleeful abandon. Keep an eye on these guys — their madness is contagious. And a second round of cheers to designer, Matthew Revert, for his wonderfully mad cover to this edition.

One last note: I read most of this short novel during the miserable winter commute to and from work. I found that stacked inside a sardine can chugging through the city, shoulder to shoulder with strangers, was the best way to read this book. Don’t read on a cozy chair by the fireplace. Read it in the thick of the city during rush hour, sweaty palms and all. Trust me, it sets the tone just right.