The book I just picked up from a stack is fucking with my head and I haven’t even read it yet. It seems like just yesterday I read and reviewed the last Chris Kelso collection Interrogating the Abyss here, and what I thought to be a vintage sci-fi novella happens to Kelso’s new collection Vistas, released just… uhm… wait a second…
“Excuse me, how long have I been here?"
For some reason The Librarian checks her wristwatch. “Is that all you ever have to say to me? You’ve been here for about six months and you still haven’t even done anything. How do you even stand yourself and your inactivity?”
… released six months later by Demain Books. My internal misfire of isolated déjà vu is only a vague example of how prolific Chris Kelso is — this was actually the fourth Kelso book I’ve read this year (the others being The Dregs Trilogy and Burroughs and Scotland), so he is more than just a mile-marker for what I can only pray is my last six months incarcerated. Along with efforts from Amphetamine Sulfate, Kelso is a conduit between modern science fiction and contemporary transgressive literature, and Vistas is a great place to start in this angle, even if you’ve missed out on his twenty + efforts to date.
The ten stories Kelso’s collected here represent a rare integration of spec-fic pulp and experimentation, like a modern take on the 60s sci-fi New Wave; only this collection boasts an even rarer accessibility that also makes this a lightning quick read. Pieces like The Retreat and T/R/OLL are formatted in a diary/oral history and message board respectfully, the latter which presents the silent terror of modern anonymity. Other stories capture an exotic, almost folky intergalactic flair (Poem for Fa and Jed Who Sailed the Ocean Red). Others tackle true Earth-shackled evil that one can only wish was otherworldly, like the looming shadows of Boko Harem in Bordering, which had an enormous sense of geography, much like JG Ballard’s Day of Creation where sometimes all one has to do is cross an ocean or even a river to become a stranger in a strange land.
Kelso’s long proved himself in epic more proportions; Vistas shows he is also a master of shrewd economy with his otherwise adventurous language.
In retrospect, I’m shocked I nearly skipped over Hollow Nacelle by Curtis Eggleston, as its cover art struck me in the same humble, minimalist aesthetic one might associate with a Dischord album from the nineties, and here’s the deal: I barely recognize music anymore, since I haven’t heard anything pleasing to the ear in months — no sounds, in fact, beyond my own heavy breath when I’m reading and that fucking bitch in the other room with the clipboard telling me everything I’m doing is wrong (don’t you actually have to do something for it to be wrong?). It’s always a better day when I find an Expat book here — I never know what I’m gonna get from one of their authors until I realize its exactly what I needed. Hollow Nacelle is the press’s most shimmering, mercurial release to date — again, totally unexpected. If I were to reduce it to a tagline, I’d refer to HN as the indie-rock Mulholland Drive; the story of a band whose members overlap actions and personas, there’s a murder (maybe?), there’s various simmering, projected panic and resigned, matter-of-fact madness, innocence throughout; not to mention plenty of jarring humor in its spot-on dialogue.
But what Eggleston accomplishes here is also comparably magical to Lynch’s best: the more abstract the book gets, the more visually cinematic it becomes. It’s a novel to surrender to, to backstroke through, in full trust Eggleston he won’t let you drown when it gets a little choppy out there. But all the evaporating language of the shorelines won’t decipher the hidden meaning of Eggleston’s narrative arc — you just have to learn what the fuck a “nacelle” is and maybe you’re on the right track.
The deceptive title of The Sex Shops of Sherman Oaks by SJXSJC (Amphetamine Sulfate) might lead one to assume it’s a region-specific trash memoir, but what we have here is light worlds from that or any other presumption. I even assumed it was written by cut-up technique until I learned this fragmented incongruent nightmare came out of Shane’s decisive mind. His sentences are short, sharp shocks of grotesque cultural debris, recited in submissive panic by an unknown narrator sifting through rubble of a present-apocalypse ever-unfolding. An entity called Madhab tortures and seduces this narrator, repellent as much as intrinsic to the voice’s existence or recollection. The tone here is last-gasp deadpan, never an exclamation when this drowning immersion has been normalized. Sometimes it’s not the words we use; it’s the sequence we choose for them that cast the spell, that makes others squirm without knowing why they feel uncomfortable. Every sentence here is non-sensical yet absolutely evocative; he could have picked any line in here as a more fitting title, but I appreciate the decoy element of the one he chose.
Shane describes bad vibes as a fragmenting comet trail, ever-stinking stench of a traveling black cloud that is either preceding these two or attracting them forward to more decay. It is fluid, yet plotless like the most elusive dream; these conjured words describing something never meant to get to the bottom of, the floor ever falling from beneath the reader. Again, anyone can cut-up — but it takes a certain intuitive reigning of the Third Mind to consciously write in this style and construct something substantial, downright alive out of objectives this deceitfully inanimate. Sex Shops of Sherman Oaks is not a story — it’s an indoctrination; an initiation into a brown acid hued world, a stone-faced scream from obliterated institutions, a path of war-torn perception, littered with misleading clues as we circle back to the end.
The new novella WAIF by Samantha Kolesnik (Grindhouse) is a daring departure from last year’s bleak coming of age bloodbath True Crime. This time Kolesnik achieves intricate underworld building, adhering to a slippery slope of high camp, fetishism, and melodrama to intensify an abusive relationship which she quickly turns on its own desperate ear. The actions here are more interpretive than realist, requiring an occasional dissociation of logic to stir the slow building terror; which lends a higher artistic value to her signature brand of horror.
Angie and Matt are disgustingly wealthy, yet Angie is a doormat to her husband; disrespected daily, and when they make excuses for love, Matt treats her more like something he is selfishly relieving himself into, rather than someone he is creating a profound rhythm with. Suffocated and looking for a way out, Angie’s desperation turns obsession when she sees the androgynous Ben Landry at the market. Though they barely interact, she decides he is her romantic savior, projecting onto him everything Matt is not. She is delusional, yet sexually re-awakened by someone this unattainable. When Matt coerces her crush out of her, he suddenly makes a sharp left-turn, going to self-effacing lengths to remain her de-fault object of affection. It leads them to an unlicensed plastic surgeon who moonlights as a pornographic filmmaker. Both are swept in his undertow, unveiling his stable of actors: a leather-jacket clad lesbian gang called The Waifs, who Angie is first intimidated by, then of course attracted to — attainably, finally. Yet many trials of mindfuck and testing of faith and mortality must occur before she can join the gang and ride into the sunset.
It’s perfect that WAIF uses underground cinema kingpin as a character — even in her previous True Crime, Kolesnik’s words somehow texture her work with a grainy quality, like decayed celluloid of 60s exploitation film. It’s immediately visual, yet the clarity of where she is taking you is always just out of reach, which makes for an accelerated, nearly insatiable read. It resonated with me so tangibly that I could hear the narrator speaking like the breakdown of a Shangri-Las song; a wounded, histrionic confessional leading me to the shadow sides of her obsessive mind.
“Are you even listening to me?"
I twitched. It was the Librarian, speaking to be unnervingly soft from the other side of my table fort. It was her I had been hearing in my head that whole time — just like she had read my mind last August, she had now managed to segue my imagination into her speech; and she had been, in fact, giving a sort of speech.
“I… what? I’m sorry,” I said, peeking my head out from my makeshift veil. She was on her knees, so now we both were.
“It’s fine. I wish you would stop apologizing to me all the time. It shows a weakness, a repellant pecking order with you on the bottom. I mean, look at you, living on the floor? And all you ever ask me is how long you’ve been here. Not only does it paralyze the movement of my own confinement here every time you ask me, but… well, I wish you would ask me something… about me, maybe?”
I was taken aback by her reaching out, by her sitting down to connect. And in my own insular bloviating, all this reading and pontificating, I had assumed she was a makeshift warden rather than my cell mate. I hadn’t considered small-town incarceration politics.
“Can I ask you what your name is? I’ve just been calling you the Librarian…”
“Jane, my name is Jane. And I’m not even a Librarian, truth be told.”
“You’re not.” I said, slightly self-satisfied, confirming my suspicions.
“No, no I’m not.”
“Then what’s on your clipboard?”
Jane flinched, grasping her clipboard to her bust. “No. I mean, nothing. I can’t show you.”
“Which is it — nothing, or something you can’t show me?”
“I’ll show you eventually, maybe… Can I just… Can I come in? Into your little fort there?”
I opened up the blanket flap. “Sure.” I was no longer afraid.
She crawled into my world, into the poor yet forgiving lighting under the table. Darker shadows bled into softer hues, demanding I reconsider her features — where once I saw a frigid, closed-off, authoritarian woman I know saw a face of bravery, of dignity, as she slow-dripped a vulnerability I never saw coming.
“Will you… read me a story?” she said, tilting herself to her right until she was lying on her side, two hands clasped under her temple.
“Oh, uh… Yes. Yes, I will.” I knew the perfect book for this moment, where I knew our hearts needed to break a little further in order to establish mutual trust. To remind us that we were now in this together, and that maybe our circumstances weren’t as bad as they appeared. It’s a large reason why I read noir – to create a bridge of relativity that things can always be worse.
“Jane, I’m going to read us Undone Valley, the long-awaited debut novel by William R. Soldan.”
“Long-awaited?” she asked in the form of a yawn.
“Absolutely. This guy from Youngsville, Ohio has been writing for years, and is considered a master of the short story by me and many others. But beyond his impeccable chops, his perfectly constructed sentences are delicate yet somehow blunt — he leave’s so much to haunt your mind in between the lines. It’s really the perfect book for us to read right now. Because it’s about actual prison, Jane — not so much what happens inside, but what happens to people when they get out. The illusion of freedom. Have you ever been to prison, Jane?”
She got up, disturbed from her comfort. She shook her head “no.”
“It’s okay, you can lay back down. My point is that you’re safe – it’s only me here. If we were truly incarcerated, you might have woken up because someone was holding a shiv to your neck, or worse.”
She nodded her head, understood. She laid back down, a rare sigh of relief.
“I feel like only William Soldan could tell this story, him being the Dark Prince of Rust Belt Grit Lit and all. Undone Valley is a frayed noose of humanity, each fiber essential to leave us have-nots hanging off the rafters of a freshly condemned church. If noir is damned if you do, damned if you don’t, Undone Valley locks the door of either opportunity on us, the ghosts riding shotgun with these dead-end characters of well-meaning intent, observing it all unfold like the worst American nightmare we can’t look away from, nor scream expired advice to these intertwined characters who are just trying to do what’s right in each passing moment, a fluid morality you can never catch up with. A post-prison descent into a paralyzed normality where unchecked emotion and cursed blessings are the shot-callers in this new confinement, in plain-view of those leering eyes on the outside who are just as dangerous as those in the joint, the setters of a various traps that might lead you right back to the cell. Soldan writes vividly of broken homes and food deserts, eating all two meals at the 7-11 and its candy bars and hot dogs, because you can’t stop moving, looking for more elusive nourishment, whether illicit or just desperately just trying to fill that hole in your heart, your forever unfinished business.”
I paused. “Here, try this on for size, Jane. Page 238. See if it fits: “But going from steady work like he had in the mill and a double-digit wage to scrambling for any odd labor — it’s like clinging to a rotten plank in the middle of a cold dark ocean, watching the remains of a ship go down while everyone else on board either drifts or drowns.” Let me ask – is that what you feel like in here?
“No, I guess not.”
“Exactly. Maybe things aren’t so bad in here…”
“I feel like you’re trying to gaslight me.”
“Jane! We have four, six, I don’t know, maybe like eight walls in here, a roof over our heads, all the books we can read, all the freeze-dried nuclear fallout emergency ration food to eat, no one to bother us…”
“But I don’t really care about any of that. All I want is… warmth, I guess. Do I have warmth?” she said, as she curled up next to me.
“You have warmth, Jane,” I said, rubbing her eyes to sleep. At first, I thought it was cute, the way she was giving herself a hug; until I noticed her crossed arms were around her clipboard, squeezing it like a Teddy Bear, only to veil it from a potentially stolen nocturnal view. I closed my own eyes, respectfully.