Last week, my thoughts were with literary works of the South; this week, I’ve got an eye on three books that channel particularly northern spaces. Matthew Simmons’s collection Happy Rock takes as its setting the Upper Peninsula of Michigan; John Gardner’s Mickelsson’s Ghosts is set in western New York; and, while the stories in Nick Antosca’s The Girlfriend Game take place in a variety of settings, he does have a knack for chronicling bad behavior of New York residents — whether up-and-coming artists or scions of wealthy families.
I’d first read Simmons’s work in two short editions: A Jello Horse and the black-metal-inspired The Moon Tonight Takes My Revenge. Both abounded with surrealism, whether an offbeat approach to naming characters or an endeavor to channel archetypal black metal imagery into fiction. Happy Rock, though, is something else entirely. Though the opening story, “We Never Ever Went to the Moon,” which features a low-tech take on superpowers, suggests we’re in magic realist territory (comparisons to bits of Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude would not be off the mark), Simmons’s canvas is broader here. There’s an structure to this story that comes at you sideways, with very moving results, and it sets up the idea that anything could be next. And so here we have more realistic stories; we have tales of religious fanaticism; we have stories that examine tight-knit communities. It’s a fantastic collection, warm and surreal and deftly arranged; based on his chapbooks, I’d already been excited about Simmons’s work; this takes that excitement and ups it considerably.
I spent a large chunk of my time in Chicago reading John Gardner’s Mickelsson’s Ghosts; it had been a while since I’d read anything from Gardner, and I thought it wise to correct that. This dense novel is the story of a professor, specializing in ethics, living in a small town in New York, teaching, and dealing with the fallout of the end of his marriage. After buying an isolated house many miles away, Mickelsson finds himself embroiled in numerous surreal encounters: from his neighbors to a pair of passive-aggressive Mormon missionaries to a series of ghosts inhabiting the house. Comparisons to The Green Man might not be far off — though Gardner’s range here is, perhaps, overly broad. It’s a bleak academic story and a ghost story and an account of an ethicist driven to violate his own principles and a conspiracy thriller — and it’s probably not a shock to hear that some of these elements work better than others. Mickelsson himself is a fantastic character, sometimes oblique and sometimes sympathetic; still, reading this, I found myself wishing that the novel in which he resided was more focused.
The stories in Nick Antosca’s The Girlfriend Game abound with horror and desperation, some of it supernatural, some of it rooted in very human causes. I’m reluctant to write too much about how these stories unfold — much of their power comes from the way that Antosca taps into the unexpected; he understands well the ways that irrationality can work brilliantly in the context of horror. The man also has a way with a title (“The Thickness of Clown Blood,” “Soon You Will Be Gone and Possibly Eaten”), and closing the collection with two stories of dysfunctional families — one with mounting horror, one where the anxiety is played more for comedy — is a nice touch.