Vincent is just a guy, who has “just an office job” working for “the State” in the fictional town of A-ville. He used to be a painter, until “the shame of not selling paintings [made him] give up.” Unlike his namesake, he doesn’t sever his ear in the depths of despair; he enrolls in the experimental “PER” program offered by the bureaucratic Leader Dorian Blood, designed to increase worker happiness and productivity. The program requires a total devotion to data-entry, and dictates Vincent’s routine even outside of his 9-5 work, but it simultaneously walks him through his “ideal gate.” Once through his ideal gate, he carries out the same perfected routine, but feels in every way as though he is living his deepest subconscious fantasy. For most workers, this fantasy expresses itself as the material gain that we conflate with corporate success: a nicer car, a house with a pool, time to do and be nothing. For Vincent, this fantasy turns out to be exactly the same as his reality, except it includes his ex-wife Alice, an activist who left Vincent once the grayness of his work seeped out into the rest of his life.
When you look into a funhouse mirror, and your body appears stretched out or warped, you believe that reality is being distorted. You are confident that what you’re seeing in front of you is not how things really are. But what happens when you’re no longer looking into a mirror? What if you’re looking into a computer screen, or a book, or someone else’s face? Suddenly, it’s much more difficult to delineate what’s true from what’s not.
“What will survive of us is love,” Philip Larkin wrote in his poem “An Arundel Tomb.” It’s a phrase that comes to mind when thinking of mortality, a humanistic sentiment that’s both unnerving and reassuring. Lindsey Drager’s new novel, The Archive of Alternate Endings, also poses the question of what might be left behind after a life ends: legacies of the cultural, emotional, and familial sort are all part of the mix here. But Drager is also after something larger here, examining what might be left behind after the entirety of humanity has gone extinct.
Josh Malerman’s novel Inspection works on two levels. On the surface, it tells the story of two groups: one made up of boys and one made up of girls, who are both part of an experiment. With elements of science fiction, a subtext of mental games, and heavy doses of tension, the narrative partly behaves like a psychological thriller. However, there is much more at work under the surface. Inspection engages with complex themes: characters’ struggles to deny their instincts, the possibility of altering life’s regular progression in order to maximize intellectual development, and the effect of storytelling on human thoughts. When those elements take over, the novel fluctuates between a creepy science fiction adventure, a bloody coming-of-age story, and a horror novel. Malerman, a literary chameleon whose previous novels include the post-apocalyptic-novel-turned-cultural-phenomenon Birdbox, the bizarre and dreamlike Western Unbury Carol, and the strange and haunting Black Mad Wheel, offers here his best effort yet and cements himself as one of the most versatile voices in contemporary dark literature.
Cadwell Turnbull’s novel The Lesson is a solid entry in the reliable genre of novels telling the story of humanity’s first contact with extraterrestrials. What helps to make it stand out even more is its intense humanism: Turnbull’s characters fervently debate religion and philosophy even before the aliens show up, and there’s a generosity that he extends to nearly all of his characters that help accentuate his themes of community. Turnbull also benefits from the specificity of this narrative: there aren’t a whole lot of science fiction novels set in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but Turnbull uses the setting to his advantage, furthering his chosen themes as this novel’s plot deepens.
Sara Ahmed argues that fear behaves like a metonymy. It is a sticky, parasitic attachment to objects that slides easily from sign to sign and, in the process, remakes how matter are named, and hence how they exist in the world. This is how “terrorist” sticks to “Islam, Arab,” or “criminal” to “Mexican,” even in the face of arguments (with facts!) that should otherwise unmake them. Whereas anxiety is static, it becomes fear when the object recognizes the fearful (or the other way round), and approaches. Ahmed, citing Freud, explains that these affects are responses to a love that can disappear, that connection which “secures the subject’s relation to the world.” Because fear expects pain, the fearing subject is split psychically between a present and a future, and is felt intensely in the former at the same time they are dissociated from it. Fear may unveil how absent we are in the present. In the moment of fear, the body wants to flee in the face of the feared object. To whom does it turn? Ahmed writes that fear also turns us towards love, towards protection and care for an other. “In this way,” Ahmed argues, “fear is that which keeps alive the fantasy of love as the preservation of life, but paradoxically only by announcing the possibility of death.” At the instance when the body erects a wall between it and the threat, fear also intimates the possibility of a love as intense as fear.
Anyone can be a provocateur for a day. All it takes is a single inflammatory word to ignite the frenzy of distractible dopamine junkies, who quickly move on. Maybe you can spin another day or two out of the pushback. Maybe you live on in the digital stockades after you burp up a few mea culpas that no one believes. But real sustained provocation, the kind that sears and twists and deepens over years, is another matter altogether.
John Langan’s fiction brings together two seemingly disparate strengths: his way of structuring narratives is often revelatory, and his stories and novels themselves are frequently unnerving. Langan writes horror fiction, but his isn’t so much about jump-scares as it is about being in the presence of the inexplicable. There are uncanny hauntings and bizarre fatalities in it, to be sure, but Langan’s horror takes a very different form from many writers in the genre, past or present.