What happens with the quotidian and the uncanny collide? There was a point in my early 20s, when I’d started writing fiction but was still highly impressionable, when I began considering what it might be like if one combined a Raymond Carver-esque realism with Lovecraftian forays into cosmic horror. Behold, suburban repression with eldritch horrors glimpsed in the background, never quite making their way forward to devour souls and drive people to madness.
For obvious reasons, this idea never quite got off the ground. But I did find myself thinking back to it when reading two recent collections: Jordan A. Rothacker’s Gristle and Simon Jacobs’s Masterworks. Each, in its own way, finds a fascinating way to balance weird fiction with a sense of the familiar — the kind of fictional environment that lulls you in right up until the point where you realize you’re off the map entirely.
Rothacker’s previous book, My Shadow Book by Mawaam, told a story of a secret conspiracy via the device of a found manuscript, and felt like a lost cult novel from somewhere out of time. Gristle is subtitled “Weird Tales,” though that’s more “weird” in the sense of Borges and Millhauser than, say, the pulp magazine Weird Tales. The book takes its title from “Gristle, or What Is Worth Remembering,” a story narrated by a young writer who develops a habit — as many young writers can do — of misunderstanding the work they’ve studied. Here, potential works and imagined works and actual works all overlap with the actual story we’re reading, creating a dizzying effect out of which a sense of menace emerges.
That’s not to say that Rothacker can’t get genuinely disquieting when he wants to. The collection’s final story (and its longest) is “Lessons From the Good Book,” blends a kind of religious bibliomania with hints that something bleaker is taking place below the surface. That sense of books as sources of menace crops up earlier in the collection in “The Worm,” about a young man whose fear of the title creature drives him towards obsession in a highly gothic vein. But whether Rothacker is going for the visceral or the intellectual, there’s an unnerving dose of metafiction running throughout.
My last exposure to Jacobs’s work came via the novel Palaces, which balanced a knowing depiction of DIY music scenes with a dystopian setting that grows progressively more surreal over time. With Masterworks, Jacobs continues in that vein: finding unexpected juxtapositions that lead to bold narrative payoffs. “Let Me Take You to Olive Garden,” the story that opens the collection, begins with a magnificently awkward date at the restaurant that gives the story its title. Things turn rapidly apocalyptic, and the blend of familiarity and horror creates a sense that anything could happen in both this story and those that follow.
And honestly, that’s not a bad thing to take in mind venturing into this collection. The second half of the book consists of a novella called “Land,” which does an absolutely stunning job of blending the quotidian with the nightmarishly bizarre. When it begins, the story’s narrator is living in a remote cabin, house- and dog-sitting for his tech-bro landlord. The narrator has an idyll while swimming, but is saved by the arrival of a group of bizarre fish. He sets out to explore the nearby waters, setting in motion one of the most unexpected quest narratives I’ve ever read.
Jacobs alternates these scenes with flashbacks to the narrator’s time in New York City: his awkward chats with his landlord, trips to see punk shows, and the awkward interactions that led him to his living situation in the first place. It’s not a juxtaposition so much as a contrast, making the case that these familiar moments are just as important as the narrator’s surreal adventures. And in their collections, Rothacker and Jacobs both arrive at an ominous notion: what if the fantastical was no more transcendent than any other experience one might have? That carries with it plenty of horror, too.