Sunday, January 25, 2015

Review: The Wanderer by Timothy J. Jarvis

Since starting this blog and becoming part of the weird fiction community, I've been put in contact with many wonderful people, many of whom love to share their love of fiction. While I often have authors and publishers sending me books to review (I should also note, it's clear which ones actually read the blog based on what they propose to send me) I often review books I come across on my own, or books that ping my radar based on recommendations. The Wanderer by Timothy J. Jarvis falls into the latter category.

Much like the mysterious manuscript that makes up the majority of the book's narrative, The Wanderer was something I stumbled upon. A mention of it on the TLO message boards, an inclusion on a year's best list on a fellow review blog. The cover isn't too busy, and besides title and author it includes a creepy drawing of a Punch & Judy puppet stage. Puppets have long been a macabre fascination of mine, as well as several weird fiction writers and fans that I know, and since I've started reading weird fiction Punch has shown up a couple times and always gives me a chill. There's something inherently dark and twisted about the odd-voiced little demon of a puppet.

Jarvis, whose name struck me as familiar, is someone who knows weird fiction. He truly GETS it. His nonfiction articles published on the Weird Fiction Review website offer further proof of this,

The Wanderer is one of the best books of 2014, hands down. Weird fiction is dominated by short stories and novellas, and it's rare that a novel length piece of work comes along that is as engaging throughout as this book.

The official blurb reads:

After obscure author of strange stories, Simon Peterkin, vanishes in bizarre circumstances, a typescript, of a text entitled, The Wanderer, is found in his flat.

The Wanderer is a weird document. On a dying Earth, in the far-flung future, a man, an immortal, types the tale of his aeon-long life as prey, as a hunted man; he tells of his quitting the Himalayas, his sanctuary for thousands of years, to return to his birthplace, London, to write the memoirs; and writes, also, of the night he learned he was cursed with life without cease, an evening in a pub in that city, early in the twenty-first century, a gathering to tell of eldritch experiences undergone.

Is The Wanderer a fiction, perhaps Peterkin's last novel, or something far stranger? Perhaps more account than story?

The book opens with a Foreword and a Note On The Text to set the stage for the bulk of the book, which is the found typescript. Jarvis tells a sprawling, epic story and deftly weaves together a plot taking place over several millennia. The script is written in the far future, near the Earth's end, and tell's the narrator's story in a non-linear fashion. Parts of his story take place in our modern day, parts during his years of wandering the Earth, and others telling of the moments he is writing the manuscript. 

The narrator's prose is often rambling, and includes some interesting syntax (consciously, as the Notes on the Text mention this) which lends a sort of authenticity to the entire book, allowing the frame narrative and book to work together towards becoming more than just a piece of fiction, but an excellent piece of meta-fiction.

Jarvis explores many ideas over the course of his novel: what happens when man crosses borders into strange places he is not meant to be, what is it like to be hunted and live in fear, how does immortality over the ages affect a person? The novel is filled with scenes of terror, scenes of awe, and a glimpse into an ordinary man's millenia-spanning world.

I say this is my favorite novel of 2014, and it's a statement I stand by. Jarvis has chops, and The Wanderer is an epic sized tale of weirdness and horror that no one should miss. It's terrifying, mind-bending, beautiful and unforgettable.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Review: Skillute Cycle by S.P Miskowski

Enter Skillute, WA: a small, blue collar town that is pretty much ignored by outsiders. A rural black hole, a town that grabs ahold of you and doesn't let go. Men grow old and pass the time by drinking beer, and the women grow up and pass the time playing bingo and gossiping among one another. The town has some dark moments in its history, and the books themselves give a look at Skillute over 50+ years.

The main narrative doesn't focus as much on the town itself, as it does a select few people populating the town, and how they're affected by living in such a place. At the heart of the narrative are three women: Ethel, Beverly and Marietta. Knock Knock, the first novel, follows these women over a 50+  year period, starting when they are young girls.

Knock Knock is a powerful debut, opening strong and ending with a punch. The three girls at the heart of the story are revolted by a health class video and from a fellow student's story about how her mother's pregnancy is enacting gross changes on the woman. The three set out into the woods, where they conduct a small ritual and make a pact. Unbeknownst to them at the time, there is something of a cruel and dark nature that they awake, setting in motion events that take several decades to come to an end. 

Miskowski's novel follows the girls as they grow old, all while something dark is stirring under the surface. Beverly has an edge to her, a sarcasm that seems a self defense mechanism. She's strong, and learns some of life's hard lessons early on when she has a teen pregnancy, which her parents hide until the baby is born and can be given away for adoption. Over the years she marries, and becomes a widow, yet she remains strong and independent.

Ethel grows up in a broken household. Her parents are drunks, and her mother has a cruel streak, bringing other men home and spending much of her time out at bars. Tragedy strikes early, leaving Ethel to be raised by an aunt. Ethel is the meek one of the bunch. She's quiet, polite. She goes along with things. It isn't until middle age that Ethel finds love and marries, and even gets pregnant. It's clear from the start that something is wrong with her daughter.

Marietta is the mysterious one. The girl raised by her aunt, a midwife that many refer to as being a witch. Strange things happen around Marietta, and she sees things no one else sees. 

The narrative's strength lies in restraint. Much of it is ambiguous. One of my favorite parts of the book is when Ethel is home alone with her baby, Connie Sara. The baby reminds her of her mother, and just silently stares at her, following her from room to room. Ethel becomes frightened, and is then torn. Is something wrong with her or is something wrong with the baby? Is it only in her head? Maybe she's not fit to be a mother? Maybe everyone is right and she was too old to have a baby? Why does her husband not seem to have a difficult time like she does? The paranoia and fear is so well handled that the reader doesn't know what to believe. 

Miskowski does a fine job of giving the reader a glimpse into the horrors of womanhood: Beverly's teen pregnancy and forced adoption, Marietta's abusive brute of a husband and sacrifices she has to make, Ethel and the horrors of parenting. These are trials that many women have had to face, and are all too real.

Knock Knock can be read alone, and is one of the better weird horror novels of the past few years, but the full story unfolds over three more novellas, all of which are published by Omnium Gatherum.

The first novella in the cycle, Delphine Dodd, is a prequel and is a first person account as told by Marietta's aunt Delphine. One of the more interesting characters in Knock Knock, Delphine Dodd only appeared briefly as a wise old woman. This novella gives readers her backstory. The majority of the novella follows Delphine as a child, when she, along with her sister, are dropped off at their grandmothers house. Her grandmother is a healer, midwife, "witch of the woods" type, and it is from her that Delphine learns her trade. The other part of the novel follows Delphine a few decades later, when she moves to Skillute, and shows the history of the malevolent force in Knock Knock.

The second novella, Astoria, takes place during the time frame of Knock Knock, and follows Ethel after we last saw her. This gives more closure to her character, and although it mostly takes place outside of Skillute's borders, it may be my favorite of the bunch. The narrative is surreal, with small oddities bringing a strong sense of doom throughout, leading to a wonderful conclusion. Miskowski is at her best here.

The cycle ends with In the Light, which takes place several years after the events of Knock Knock. The first half of the novella focuses on Ruth, a young new girl who recently moved to Skillute, and the second half follows Henry Colquitt, a former pastor and son of Marietta. Everything comes full circle in this volume, providing readers with a solid conclusion. 

S.P. Miskowski has become one of my favorite writers with these books. Fans of weird fiction, and dark small town stories should pick these up without hesitation. While I'm sad my time in Skillute has come to an end, I look forward to seeing what Miskowski does next.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Interview: Helen Marshall

Helen Marshall is one of the finest practitioners of strange fiction working today. I recently read and reviewed her latest collection, Gifts For The One Who Comes After and found it to be one of the best fiction collections of 2015.

Gifts For The One Who Comes After is one of the finest fiction collections of the year. The themes of legacy and of family are a common thread throughout. What is important to you about these themes and what made you want to explore them?

Let me first say, thanks very much for saying that! It’s tremendously kind! I suppose, in some ways, the themes in Gifts followed on naturally from my first collection, Hair Side, Flesh Side. In that collection, I was exploring issues of history in a broad sense, which no doubt came from the fact that I was in the final stages of a PhD in book history and medieval studies. I was interested in the physical traces of history, and in books particularly. But when I started writing Gifts, my brother had just had his second child; the question of family, what binds them together, what is passed on from generation to generation, seemed very important to me. And when you think about it, it’s just another way of thinking about history—not textbook history, but personal histories, the stories you hear from your grandparents, the fables you make up for your children. And in some ways it seemed like a warmer sort of history, closer to the oral tradition.

Have you always had a love for the fantastic? What brought this about?

I started reading fantasy at a very early age: E Nesbit and Susan Cooper, Patricia C Wrede, Scott O’Dell, Lloyd Alexander. When I got older then I moved onto Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, Charles de Lint and Guy Gavriel Kay. My mom would read to my sister and me every night until we were old enough to read ourselves. With me it never really stopped. I was a reader—that peculiar type of child who never stops reading, no matter what. If my family was going to drive from my hometown in Sarnia to Toronto, about three hours away, then I’d get to choose a new book from the bookstore and that would be the best part of the trip. I remember very vividly that my grade one teacher brought over a girl for me to play with at recess because I was always stuck in a book. The whole situation confused me. I didn’t know what to do with her. And I hadn’t been lonely at all.          

What were some of the authors and books that you've read throughout your life that have stuck with you the most?

I mentioned some of them above but, oddly, although those writers made up much of my childhood, they don’t have such a strong connection with what I write now. There’s a part of me that wishes I felt more comfortable with high fantasy. I have a PhD in medieval studies and that seems the perfect background to go write a big, fat, epic trilogy. But I can’t—or I can’t yet. I don’t understand, narratively, how those books work. Or I don’t feel it intuitively the way I can with other kinds of stories. But picking at random amongst the works that have stuck with me, Guy Kay’s Fionavar Tapestries would rank highly. It seemed to me that there was tremendous humanity written into his mythic reworkings, particular the Arthur and Guinevere strand. Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia is another. I came to it much later in life, as a graduate student on one of my first research trips to London, and it still strikes me as one of the finest pieces of literature ever produced. Just watching it makes me tear up—not even at the sad bits, just because it’s so damn good. The whopper of a novel It was my first introduction to Stephen King and it has a profound effect on my writing. King is a master of the yarn. I read recently that there are stories you fall into effortlessly and stories that give pleasure in the work you do: King is one of the most engrossing storytellers I’ve ever encountered and the way he writes about children and growing up always moves me and charms me at the same time. And then Robert Shearman’s collection Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical made me fall in love with the form of the short story. Like King, Shearman has an easy, offhand style but there’s such deadly precision in what he does. And I had never encountered absurdist fiction before that—there was something about it that instantly chimed with my own sense of humour, which is both very whimsical and quite dark.

Of your own fiction, what are your favorites and why? 

It’s strange because when I think back on my stories, what I remember most about them is the process rather than the final product. And so I do have favourites—of course I do!—but they’re my favourites because of the way I wrote them. In that respect, “Lessons in the Raising of Household Objects” is probably at the top for me. I wrote that story for Kelly Link and Gavin Grant at Clarion West, an intensive six-week workshop I did in 2012. And I was coming up on my deadline to submit but the story I had been trying to get to work—a complex beast of a thing I never managed to crack—completely dissolved. I was trying to force it but I never had the right sense of what I was doing. So in a panic I went to the only part of the story I had written that seemed like it had any life, and that turned out to be the beginning of “Household Objects”, a story about a little girl who adopts two cans of tomato soup. What followed was a mad rush of gleeful typing where I said to myself, “no rules except at the beginning of every section something must happen.”
But some of my other favourites in Gifts for the One Who Comes After are “Supply Limited, Act Now”, about a group of kids who get a working shrink ray, because it’s much lighter. Also—miniature dogs! And from Hair Side, Flesh Side my favourite story is “Sanditon”, about a woman who finds a lost manuscript of Jane Austen written on the inside of her skin. That was the first story I wrote where I really felt as if I tapped into something that was my own, something that felt new and distinctly me rather than an experiment in someone else’s style.

If an unfamiliar reader asks you about your fiction, how would you best describe it to them?

Clumsily, for the most part. I still don’t have a good answer to this question and in part that’s because my fiction is quite changeable. Sometimes it’s surrealistic, sometimes more openly fantastic or horrific, sometimes poetic. I don’t know. Many people call me a horror writer but I have a sort of push-pull relationship with horror. I quite enjoy certain kinds of horror fiction: ghost stories, the strange and the weird. But there are aspects of the horror genre that I find myself resisting: namely, brutality and open violence, excessive gore, the sometimes shoddy characterizations of women. But I suppose that’s the best reason to be part of a genre—because you feel invested but you still have something to push against.

In another recent interview you said you were a lover of single malt scotch. I'm also quite a fan, and have been considering writing up whiskey (or booze in general) pairings to go with books. What are your favorite whiskeys? If you  had to choose a whiskey to pair with each of your ChiZine collections, which would you choose?

I’d choose Glen Morangie to go with Gifts for the One Who Comes After: it’s sweet on top but it’s still got a bit of smoke and fire to it underneath. Hair Side, Flesh Side would probably be a dirty martini. There’s a touch more bitterness there, but also it’s a bit naughty. (When I was writing Hair Side, I eventually ran out of gin and vermouth and came up with a pretty poor substitute—olive juice and tequila. I’m not sure I recommend it.)

What are you currently reading? Do you have any recommendations for fans of the weird and fantastic?

I’ve been working my way through all of David Mitchell’s books. What a find! He’s brilliant! I started off with The Bone Clocks but in all honesty my favourite of his is probably Black Swan Green, a completely realistic novel about a kid growing up in Worcestershire in the eighties. The writing is extraordinary. As for recommendations for fans of the weird and fantastic, well, I discovered Robert Aickman’s short stories this year and he’s wonderful: dry, witty and very, very odd. Julio Cort├ízar was an Argentinian short story writer who I like very, very much. He wrote a short story called “Letter to a Lady in Paris” in the collection Blow-up about a tenant who starts vomiting up rabbits. His work is so wonderfully surreal and often hilarious. More people should be reading him, I think. I also came across a fantastic collection of graphic short stories called Through the Woods by the Canadian web cartoonist Emily Carroll. She’s a wonderful inventor of grisly little ghost stories and her use of space is amazing. You can also find her work online at

What's the weirdest thing that's ever happened to you, and/or the weirdest place you've ever been?

I visited the island of Delos last year. It is hard to explain how amazingly cool it is: it’s one of the most geologically stable places in the Mediterranean and so, as a result, it became a holy sanctuary and was the reputed birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. The site, which is huge, is filled with numerous temples belonging to the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, my favourite of which was the temple of Dionysus, which featured relief carvings of chickens with entirely phallic heads. I ended up wandering around with my notepad for most of the day, writing roughly a series of passages which eventually became “All My Love, a Fishhook”. But near the museum there was a large forested area that used to be the sacred lake of Zeus, which apparently held the spermatozoa until it was drained on account of the mosquitoes which were breeding there. There were benches set up so I sat down to write. About twenty minutes in, I heard chanting. There were men and women in bright orange robes all around who were getting on with a ritual of some sort—apparently, so the guard at the museum told me, they were cultists and they regularly performed their rites there.

What can readers expect from you in the future?

I have a couple of stories coming out in collections in 2015 including “The Vault of Heaven” in Aickman’s Heirs, edited by Simon Strantzas; “Stud” in Twenty-First Century Bestiary edited by Heather Wood; and a story in Cassilda’s Song, edited by Joe Pulver. I’m also hard at work on a novel called Icarus Kids about children who come back from the dead with wings. I hope to have that finished off in a month or so!