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.
Ilaria Tuti’s Flowers Over the Inferno is an action-packed thriller with a unique serial killer and a multilayered, deep, and incredibly entertaining main character battling at its core. Set in a quiet village surrounded by ancient woods under the shadow of the Italian Alps, this novel also possesses a superb sense of place and an atmosphere that places it head and shoulders above most of its contemporaries.
The other day at the coffee shop, a young woman asked me what I was reading. When I told her it was a new biography of Nelson Algren, she drew a blank. It wasn’t until I mentioned Algren’s long affair with Simone de Beauvoir that her face lit up with recognition. This woman is well-read and has lived in Chicago a few years, but she’d never heard of arguably the city’s greatest chronicler. And she’s not alone. Though Algren won the very first National Book Award in 1950, and was considered a top tier writer for a decade or so thereafter, he’s rarely mentioned in the same breath as Hemingway or Faulkner anymore. I’m hoping that Colin Asher’s definitive portrait of the man might change that.
How does language speak truth to power? More specifically, how can language be used to rebel against power? The protagonists of Katherine Dunn’s three novels — 1969’s Attic, 1971’s Truck, and 1989’s Geek Love — are all positioned on the outskirts of society, sometimes by choice and sometimes not. (Dunn also wrote extensively about boxing: her 2009 book One Ring Circus collected her nonfiction about the sport, and her unfinished novel The Cut Man bears a title that alludes to the sport.) At the time of her death in 2016, Geek Love had been a cult classic for decades. In a lengthy article exploring its influence for Wired, Caitlin Roper called it “a dazzling oddball masterpiece.” She’s not wrong. It’s a novel that was nominated for both the National Book Award and the Bram Stoker Award, and that juxtaposition speaks volumes about Dunn’s aesthetic even if you haven’t read a word she’s written.
Moroccan novelist Laila Lalami tackles the big stuff with her novels and characters—justice, race, class, familial identity, and religious sectarianism, among other weighty matters. Don’t even get her started on historical erasure. In her most impressive take on the topic, 2014’s The Moor’s Account (which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a Man Booker Prize nominee) she narrated the story of Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori, a Moroccan slave who traveled with Cabeza de Vaca and is considered the first black explorer of the New World, but who was reduced to a footnote in de Vaca’s writings. Lalami created a narrative and an interior life for al-Zamori in that book, animating him into what can only be his rightful place in history.
This review concerns two different texts: Carmilla, a novella by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, serialized in 1871-2, and the edited, introduced text of Carmilla, published in paperback by Lanternfish Press this month. The second text encloses the first, but the two remain distinct. Carmilla’s editor for its new release is Carmen Maria Machado, whose blazing reputation illuminates the 150-year-old text, and whose canny notes on Carmilla make the reading experience at once more playful and more mysterious than it would otherwise be. Both texts are intriguing and resonant, even if they never do entirely mesh into one.
I first met Lisa Carver in 2013 when she came through town to do a reading. Perhaps no single event had more of an influence on me as an artist than seeing her indescribably wild performance art “band” Suckdog in the late 1990’s, so I asked her to meet me at a bar for a drink before her reading. She agreed, even though she made it clear that she didn’t drink. Carver arrived at the bar, and despite her claims of being dry, she immediately ordered a round of drinks. By the end of the day (yes, day. It was only about 3pm) she put $65 worth of fireball whiskey shots on my tab. This was an important lesson in reading Lisa Carver: Nothing is what it seems, so just take a deep breath and dive into life’s experiences that words are merely subjugated to decorate and communicate to the best of their rascally ability.