“I know all this,” claims the narrator of Peter Stenson’s scarring and hard-to-shake second novel, “because humans are all fundamentally the same. We are a desk of control switches in a recording studio. Our only differences are the… levels and mixing.” This bleak notion proves a navigational star for the narrative, one that draws us on even as it makes our skin crawl.
Some novels have a sense of place. Jenny Hval’s Paradise Rot drips with it. This is the story of a young woman named Jo, who’s come to study in a country other than her own. Where she’s from and where she is are never crucial to the plot — there’s a brief mention of Jo as Norwegian, and of certain locations in the south of England, but specifics, at least these specifics, aren’t the point here. Our protagonist is far from home, speaking a language that isn’t her first, and living among people with whom she’s out of sync. This is a novel about dislocation, about being out of step with a place. It’s also a ghost story — perhaps several varieties of ghost story.
Steve Anwyll’s debut novel Welfare—dropped on Christmas Day by Tyrant Books—is a book that—much like its teenage narrator—takes an antagonistic stance against a lot of things. It is anti-purple prose. It is also an anti-coming-of-age novel, following a young character in that awkward adjustment stage between boy and man as he runs away from home to… find himself, maybe learn a couple life lessons? No. To live on welfare and avoid work and get high as much as possible. I said he was a seventeen-year-old boy, where else would this be going?
It’s been several weeks since I first read Maryse Meijer’s Northwood, and I’m still sorting out how best to classify it. For the record, I mean that in the “this is a feature, not a bug” kind of way. This is the sort of book for which the term “hybrid works” was invented: Meijer blends the quotidian with the folkloric, tells much of the story in verse, and utilizes a host of formally inventive page layouts along the way. If the most striking figure of the book’s design — white text on black pages — isn’t indicator enough, I’ll say it clearly: this is not a conventional read.
There are books that get so close to being sublime that plot becomes almost irrelevant. Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Taiga Sydrome has a plot, but it’s exploration of memory, the way it uses language to communicate the ethereal, and the dreamy atmosphere punctuated by scenes of longing, investigation of a mystery, and brutality eventually overpower everything else and push the narrative into a realm where plot isn’t always the most crucial element.
With his debut novel Zero Saints, Gabino Iglesias had created a genre that blended horror, crime, and surrealism and gave an authentic voice to those hustling and scrapping to survive along the Texas/Mexico border. Barrio noir is back with Coyote Songs, and hot damn, is it back with a vengeance.
The Governesses by Anne Serre teases its readers with elements of allegory and fairy story. Three young women stroll through the gates of an enormous manor house which is the kingdom of Monsieur and Madame Austier, and home to a cluster of little maids and boys. Eléonore, Laura and Inès are the titular governesses and extraordinarily lacking in those roles. It is immediately clear to even the densest of readers that no one would hire this trio to watch over guinea pigs, let alone children. As the narrator tells us – “You would even wager there was something fishy going on.”
Plenty of horror stories have something monstrous at their center. For some, the monster comes from somewhere else: another world, an isolated space, somewhere mysterious. With others, the monstrous emerges from within: think about nearly every vampire or werewolf story, and how the familiar is slowly corrupted into the terrifying. There are certainly works that bridge the gap between the two: Sarah Langan’s The Keeper, in which a troubled young woman becomes the haunted vessel for a town’s unease and corruption, is a prime example. The four works collected in Mame Bougouma Diene’s Dark Moons Rising on a Starless Night venture into a similar space. Here, the creatures that bedevil communities are not far removed from the needs of the community themselves, leading to an unsettling duality.