My first encounter with Kathe Koja came via the novels published by the surreal horror imprint Dell Abyss in the 1990s. The Cipher and Bad Brains were profoundly unsettling works on their own, as well as memorably serving as proof of concept for a more unsettling strain of horror that opted less for scares than for dread. Since then, Koja’s milieu has only expanded; with books like Under the Poppy, she’s displayed a penchant for forays into history, and her body of work also involves an extended commitment to theater.
And then there’s her short fiction. Velocities is Koja’s second story collection, and while it’s relatively brief (13 stories, 145 pages), its impact is tremendous. The collection is divided into five sections with thematically-linked titles like “At Home” and “Over There.” In doing so, Koja creates a larger spatial structure around these works, which already abound with a sense of place.
“Clubs,” for instance, unfolds via a series of lengthy sentences, many of which double back on one another or take sharp turns into fraught emotional territory:
Long nails: a wrapped and lacquered caucasian beige, half were real and half were not; I could always tell the fakes, they broke off in bed, stuck brittle in the pillowcase, in my hair for spoor and souvenir although we didn’t spend much time in bed anymore, Lisi and me; I was her chew toy, club buddy, confidant; I was not there to replace Martin or even act as if I could.
There’s a lifespan of a relationship built in to that sentence, one that gives you both the sense of the arc of that relationship and adds countless small details to make it believable. In this story, the tension is embedded in the words and the way they flow. In others, suspense emerges from a more traditional sense of approaching danger.
“At Eventide,” the story which opens the collection, sets two characters on intersecting paths. One is Alison, a woman who creates boxes from the raw material of other people’s lives. En route to meet her is a man, a killer, who was responsible years before for the loss of Alison’s eye. He has a request of her; she would like nothing more than to never see him again. The story has elements of horror and suspense in its DNA, but it ultimately arrives at a stranger and more powerful place; one where power dynamics shift and creation can outstrip destruction.
Koja’s fiction can sometimes be overwhelmingly atmospheric; her skill in this area can sometimes result in passages you can easily lose yourself in. But that’s not meant as a criticism; instead, it’s to note a hallmark of Koja’s style that is in full flourish here. Whether harrowing or mysterious, these are works that get under your skin and stay there.
by Kathe Koja
Meerkat Press; 145 p.