June was, for me, a seemingly endless, festering dumpster fire of a month. I know I’m not alone in this for myriad reasons and I’m sorry for every one of you who can somehow relate. Due to this fraught state of affairs, my stacks mostly sat gathering dust as I instead turned to numerous rewatchings of the Good Omens miniseries, the first season of What We Do in the Shadows, and Schitts Creek for comfort. But I did manage to read one collection of short stories and a few comic books:
Rag: Stories by Maryse Meijer – After reading Rag, Meijer’s second collection of short fiction, I’ve decided that she’s created her own genre of horror fiction. It’s an insidiously sneaky sort of horror. It’s SO incredibly unsettling and in so many different ways, all while people are just…being human. I think it’s the way these stories are dressed in abject mundaneness (to say nothing of the quality with which they’re written) that makes them so disturbing. Perhaps it’s like the difference between reading or watching horror and actually experiencing it as one of the characters therein. While there are, of course, exceptions, those characters generally don’t realize they’re walking into a haunted house or that there is a monstrous killer on the loose in their neighborhood or summer camp. You pick up a Stephen King novel and you know that, one way or another, something freaky is headed your way. With Meijer’s stories you are absolutely in for it, but there’s also absolutely no telling what is going to be amiss. It’s all just so dark, jagged, and raw, which is exactly how I described the contents of Heartbreaker, Meijer’s first short story collection. It disturbs me to my core and I love it.
CW: There is a story in this book, “Good Girls,” that involves violence toward an animal (a dog) and I will confess that, once I realized what was happening, I decided to skip the rest of it for the sake of my already nightmare-infested brain. This is not a criticism on my part, as Meijer is in no way celebrating or encouraging violence toward animals, but even so, as an ongoing act of self-care, I try to avoid such content in the media I consume.
Cemetery Beach Vol. 1 by by Warren Ellis (writer) and Jason Howard (artist) – I was surprised by the number of critical reviews of this comic. Lots of people put it down for lacking substance or emotional depth. In an edition of Orbital Operations, Ellis’s fantastic weekly newsletter, Ellis said of Cemetery Beach, “…this one all started with Jason and I finishing up volume 2 of Trees and my saying, “You want to go into volume 3, or do you want to do a palate-cleanser kind of thing?” And Jason sobbing “oh god yes please.” We decided to do an action piece. Jason likes to moodboard, in a way, and sends me art and photography he likes that sort of surround a space he’d like to play in. In the meantime, I was working out how to do an action piece that would also be an appalling punishment for Jason.”
I think Cemetery Beach is exactly what it set out to be, a delightfully relentless, Fury Road-ish chase across a 1980s-ish dystopian sci-fi off-world colony where everyone is at least as mad as the Mad Hatter. The art is fantastic and, so help me, whenever Warren Ellis puts words to paper or screen, I’m there to read them and I’m never disappointed. No matter where he takes me, I always feel I’m in good, unrelentingly creative hands. And no matter where his stories are set or who is doing the talking, there’s something about his dialogue that feels like home sweet-snarky home.
Die Vol. 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker by Kieron Gillen (writer) and Stephanie Hans (Artist) – Every time I remember that The Wicked + The Divine is nearly over, I start to get upset. Thank goodness I’ve started reading Die. Unlike Wic + Div, which I read in single issues, I decided to be patient and wait for the first volume. I will always be torn between the quick gratification of having single issues of a comic to read on the (sometimes semi) regular and the satisfaction of getting to read an entire collection of issues at once. I suppose that’s why I continue to do both. Die is about a group of 1990s teenage D&D players who vanish for 2 years into their game. 30 years later, now all grown up, they get sucked right back in again. Depending on your perspective, this is either the worst nightmare or a dream come true for tabletop role-playing gamers. Either way, it’s wonderfully dark and jaw-droppingly stylish fantasy. I thoroughly enjoyed the first volume and can’t wait to see where the story goes from here.
Stumptown, Vol. 1: The Case of the Girl Who Took Her Shampoo by by Greg Rucka (writer) and Matthew Southworth (artist) – I’ve been a fan of Greg Rucka since his early Whiteout and Queen & Country days. I love his penchant and skill for creating uncompromisingly strong women characters. Based on the first volume, Stumptown is a sort of queer Jessica Jones, minus the superpowers, and set in Portland, OR. Dex Parios is a private detective, who is openly bisexual, has a tenuous relationship with local police (possibly is ex-police herself?), is roommate and caretaker of Ansel, her special needs younger brother (whom everyone loves, unlike Dex herself), and struggles with a gambling problem. Those pesky gambling debts and resulting perpetual cash-flow problem are how Dex often seems to land her cases. Hooray for smart, complex women characters and bisexual visibility that’s NOT created for male titillation. It’s also a special treat to read a comic book set where I currently reside (and where Greg Rucka lives too). I’m looking forward to reading more of this series, which is also premiering later this summer as a TV series.
Harley Quinn & the Gotham City Sirens Omnibus by Paul Dini (writer) and various artists – What happens when Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and Harley Quinn decide to take a break from being baddies and shack up together? A tome’s worth of over-the-top hijinks, that’s what. In trying to be friends and keep each other out of trouble they find no end of ways to get into it. I enjoyed the insight into their respective characters: who they are are, a bit of how they’ve become who they are in the first place, and, to a point, what their individual goals are, all while being an action-packed spectacle. There’s also a wee bit of sweet foreshadowing for Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy’s romantic relationship.
I’ve been wrapped up in a bit of a research project recently, so I’m afraid I have but two books for you this time around– but I unreservedly recommend them both, especially if you are in need of some engrossing vacation or beach reading.
Childgrave by Ken Greenhall I recall seeing this book in Valancourt’s catalog and though their offerings are consistently outstanding, I don’t think I was moved to read it until I tuned in to Kate and Jack discussing it in a recent episode of Bad Books For Bad People. Hm… you know…upon reflection, that’s not quite how it happened. I think I initially became intrigued with adding Childgrave to my stack when Jack tweeted this funny little snippet of dialogue from the book, before the BBFBP episode aired:
“You don’t take good enough care of your daughter, Jonathan. I think there’s some parental neglect here.”
“What the hell do you mean, Harry? What the hell do you know about parenthood?”
“All I mean is that well-bred children don’t attract ghosts.”
– Ken Greenhall, Childgrave
— Jack Guignol (@ScholarOfDecay) May 14, 2019
Haunted children? Bad parenting? Judgy, erudite characters who take pleasure in the art of verbal evisceration? SOLD. Childgrave was a solid read, for all of these reasons. If I had to classify it, I’d put it somewhat in the “haunted kids” subgenre but I think it fits more appropriately in a sort of “small, isolated town guarding weird secrets” category. Jonathan Brewster is a successful photographer (who doesn’t quite understand his craft? I find this detail delightful) and a single dad living in Manhattan with his daughter Joanne. Jonathan is a really strange character and not…a great parent. He’s just an oddball human all around, really. I found him part endearing/part despicable, and the disturbing thing is that I’m afraid I really, REALLY related to him in some instances. Just the way he seems to navigate his way through the world and doesn’t quite seem to get how it all works and fits together and connects.
He falls madly in love with Sara, an elusive harpist who put hims off at every turn, but Jonathan is smitten and not having it. Right around the time Sara comes into their lives, his daughter seems to have acquired some unsettling imaginary friends, who may or may not be appearing as ghostly images in a series of portraits that Jonathan takes of Joanne and Sara. Through a series of stalkery moves, Jonathan eventually learns that Sara is from a town called Childgrave– and that this did not scare him away right off the bat is part of why Jonathan is such a damned weird character. We soon learn that this place is exactly what we think it is, and still, Jonathan is intrigued and wants to pack up his kid and move there.
Despite the fact that I was shaking my head and thinking “DUDE YOU ARE THE WORST,” I can’t say that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy being in this guy’s head. The book wrapped up a trifle too quickly for my liking, but the journey there was loads of weird, fun.
Foe by Ian Reid I can’t even believe that I read another book by this author. I was SO MAD when I finished I’m Thinking Of Ending Things, which I reviewed last June; I wanted to “throw it into the sea.” But I am a fool and also a bit of a masochist, and when I saw that Reid had published a new title, I thought “why not?” This time, though, I went into it prepared, knowing that nothing is quite what it seems and that things may get twisty…
Junior and his wife Hen live a sedate, solitary life on their farm, far from others. Just the two of them, and their chickens. We learn that keeping livestock has been banned; through this and a few other subtle details, we realize that some things have happened and that the world Junior and Hen are living in is a little bit different than the one we inhabit.
A stranger unexpectedly shows up at their doorstep one evening to inform them that Junior has been selected to travel far away; in fact, he may be going into space to begin the installation of a new settlement. Hen does not seem especially unsettled or surprised by this shocking news. But this is not all. We later learn that to reduce the trauma of having an absent spouse, Hen will be provided with a replacement–someone who, while not exactly Junior, will be nearly indistinguishable from him–to keep her company, while he is away.
I went into this story knowing that I need to pay attention to what’s NOT being said, but also, to take exactly what is being said very, very literally. I don’t know if these tactics spoiled my feelings about the ending or not because I figured out exactly where the story was going long before it got there. Regardless, this is a riveting, immersive read and a tense, intrusive, and not entirely comfortable exploration of the intricacies of relationships and human nature/human consciousness. Again, I can’t believe I am even saying this… but I am insisting that you absolutely must read Foe.
Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet
The most beautiful love letter to sodomy ever composed. Genet transforms Paris into a dimension of perfection within perversion, not contaminated by virtue, it’s purer than that, an idolization of its anti-heroes of murderers, pimps, and prostitutes, the holy saints of sinners.
My introduction to Genet was through Patti Smith, she enters her memoir M Train with her pilgrimage to his ideal prison, and then later to his grave to deliver rocks and debris from his beloved confinement. She is moved by his words deeply, and I entered this fantasy version of an autobiography with high expectations coming from a low place – what could I really expect from a pathological masturbator, a derelict of society, a purposeful outcast? Ask, and you shall receive, and in abundance. Its conception is as profound (profane?) as its content: written on scraps of paper within his cell, destroyed by prison guards and written again from memory, constructed by the stories of other criminals and Genet’s own longing for skin against his skin, his alter ego, his perfected avatar, beautiful, sacred Divine.
Rimbaud by Graham Robb
Oh, the voice of my trouble teens, you whispered to me the sweetest perversions and isolationist anger, my Rimbaud. I met you at such an impressionable age when my [sexual] fantasies were still taped to my walls, it is now no wonder to me Wojnarowicz chose you to tape to his face. Although, in all honesty, I now imagine you to be a selfish lover, and a petulant disaster – I am still infatuated with your prose, but have long abandoned the ideals of freedom via drunken outbursts, but you will forever be suspended in that romantic nostalgia to me.
My biographical accuracy of Rimbaud was, until now, wearing DiCaprio’s face, a barely post-pubescent cracking voice shooting and screaming for Verlaine, then disappearing into the mysterious of Africa for the rest of his life. Graham Robb has filled in these blanks in this very in depth biography, speaking of a child genius, a hurricane (yet still a child) poet, and then a fussy, albeit adventurous, man. Detailed and remarkably interesting, save for some pages in later chapters that were a bit too in depth re trade relations of the era for my attention span.
In actuality, Rimbaud is not a likable person, but he has contributed in shaping me into what I am, which may not always be likable, either.
I have a monthly subscription to Kindle Unlimited, a service that for $9.99 allows you to read as many books as you want, provided the books you want to read are either literary classics or terrible spookers and thrillers — and, dear reader, I’m not subscribed for the classics. My favorites are of the Gone Girl variety: twisty, turny, devourable within a day, and ideally populated by people with more money and less spousal fidelity than me. It’s not the classiest genre, but we can’t always be reading Rimbaud biographies! Instead, these books are often like movie marathon picks, more about the popcorn and sitting on the couch till your legs fall asleep and that racing-towards-the-end whodunnit feeling. Most recently, I’ve nibbled:
Lying Next to Me by Gregg Olsen — I give this 8 unfaithful rich people out of 10.
Winter Cottage by Mary Ellen Taylor — The least spooky murder well in history.
The Woman in Our House by Andrew Hart — 9 murderous live-in nannies out of 10.
The Last Thing She Ever Did by Gregg Olsen — It’s fine.
Lies That Bind Us by Andrew Hart — Better.
I Want You Gone by Miranda Rijks — Worse.
You’re All Mine by Ruth Harrow — 7 Pinterest boss babes out of 10.
Poison Orchids by Sarah A. Denzil and Anni Taylor — Finally, a villainous chemist.
The Haunting of Abram Mansion by Alexandria Clarke — You can’t get divorced until you live in my spoooooooky house.
Captive Hearts by Matt Shaw — This is very, very bad.
Stranger in the Woods by Anni Taylor — Anni Taylor is likewise reliable.
A Place In France: An Extreme Horror Novella by Sam West — So fucking terrible they apparently took it off Amazon. 0 bitten-off nipples (extreme!) out of 10.