Noirish horror veteran Ed Kurtz‘s The Rib From Which I Remake the World rolls into town with one of the best titles of the year, and with all the barnstorming sawdust vigour of the travelling circus that provides its prologue. And the town it rolls into is Litchfield, Alabama, one hot wartime summer, when a “hygiene picture” as salubrious as any travelling medicine show sets up shop in the local fleapit cinema to entertain and instruct the handful of undrafted citizens, and, as it turns out, to do far more for, and to, them. House detective of the town’s only (halfway) decent hotel, George “Jojo” Walker, soon finds himself dealing with inexplicable happenings and dark secrets, which disinter his own dark secrets, and things get murkier and more unhinged from there on.
At this point, you might definitely be thinking Stephen King, or Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, but that’s an illusion that in due course is due to be snatched away like a magician’s cheap trick – and that’s as much of a spoiler as you’re going to get. Nothing is as it seems. What makes the story is the steady, relentless build that takes the narrative into new and completely unexpected territory, and the excellent, polished prose, segueing from Alabama drawl to Jacobean dialogue without missing a beat. As well as a terrifically ingenious and disorienting rationale for the whole awful situation, which makes for a hell of a reveal towards the end. And Kurtz has a great gift for characters, from the sympathetic and wounded to the sheerly evil.
The Rib From Which I Remake the World is the kind of book you can imagine entertaining the hell out of any supermarket-checkout King fan, while still managing to impress connoisseurs of horror and the modern weird renaissance. That’s quite a balancing act to pull off, and Kurtz does it without too much concession or condescension to either audience. ChiZine has also done a fine job on the production values and the artwork. Sadly it’s debuting too late for the summer reading list, but I can see this one on many bookshelves and favourites lists in the years to come. Recommended.
The third volume of Undertow Publications’ Year’s Best Weird Fiction series comes lavishly garnished with expectations – and it doesn’t disappoint. For one thing, there’s plenty of meat: 19 stories, with, as Michael Kelly notes in his foreword, “almost no overlap with the other ‘Year’s Best’ anthologies.” For another, it’s edited by Simon Strantzas, “a dear friend, a great writer, and a sharp and inquisitive critic,” as Kelly says, and “an important voice in the horror and weird fiction communities.” With a new guest editor and “differing perspectives and ideas on what constitutes weird fiction” each time, each new YBWF has its work cut out to justify Kelly’s claim that “I believe this to be a vital and important annual volume.” As it turns out, though, no problem.
One of the distinguishing marks of Strantzas’s editorial policy for YBWF3 appears to be propulsive, front-loaded stories that roar off the starting grid. Example: “Abigail Gardner née Cuzak was sitting on the bathroom floor, thinking about the relationship that mice in mazes have with death, when a many-splendored light shot down from the stars like a touch of divine Providence,” the opening line from “Violet is the Color of Your Energy,” by Nadia Bulkin. It’s also a policy that has a lot to do with straight horror – poor Abigail, for instance, ends up having a far more personal taste of the relationship of mice in mazes with death than she or the reader would have wished, and Lynda E. Rucker’s poignant, chilling “The Seventh Wave” is probably best not read by parents of young children. In his introduction, Strantzas defends the position “that Horror and Weird are really the same,” even though weird tales “don’t need to have vampires, or werewolves, or psycho killers or possessed children or any of the familiar trappings,” and in fact next to none of the stories in this volume do.
Missing monsters and myths notwithstanding, Strantzas’s horrid weird is evidently in deep ongoing dialogue with its entire tradition. Robert Aickman, for instance, may be long dead, but his hitherto unpublished “The Strangers” gets into this collection because it surfaced recently in Tartarus Press’s collection with the same title of Aickman’s uncollected stories. “Seaside Town” by Brian Evenson featured previously in Undertow’s Aickman tribute anthology Aickman’s Heirs, and Aickman’s shade also looms in Robert Shearman’s subtly disturbing tale of pedophilia (or is it?), “Blood,” and “The Rooms Are High” by Reggie Oliver. Ramsey Campbell, meanwhile, appears as one of “those most affected by the boom” in horror fiction in the 1970s” with “Fetched,” a suitably ghastly tale of cold snobbish English disdain shading over into something much worse. That strong British leaning is confirmed by D.P. Watt’s “Honey Moon,” and Marian Womack’s tale of a post-ecpocalypse Cambridge, “Orange Dogs,” and you couldn’t imagine a more British title than “Visit Lovely Cornwall on the Western Railway Line” by Genevieve Valentine. I don’t think that’s bias, though – rather, I’m proud to say, it probably stems from the quality of the stories themselves. Fears of too much Brit in the mix, though, are dispelled with authority by tales like “The Devil Under the Maison Blue” by Michael Wehunt or Matthew M. Bartlett’s “Rangel.” And still the weird goes deeper…
All I’ve written might suggest a certain sameness in these stories: there isn’t. They’re strongly individualized, very distinct in tone, and they pass the Linger Test, staying in the mind when other tales have been forgotten. There’s one or two stories which will probably tweak my sensibility as touchstones for the entire genre, and it’s hard to imagine how critics or readers could properly evaluate the current renaissance in weird fiction without reading them, and this volume. Indispensable.[Top]
Last item first. It wasn’t about kneejerk political correctness. If I was that concerned about dogmatic PC, I wouldn’t have been writing about hardcore dominance and submission, human trafficking, and human sacrifice in the first place. I first came up with the title around 2014, in Budapest, when I started putting my dark and weird short and (nominally) erotic fiction together on a plan dating back to 2012. I went with it till early 2016, when I worked out the cover design and jacket image with my (Danish) publisher. I liked the cover so much that I put it out on Facebook for the horror/dark/weird fiction community. I had plenty of positive feedback, and no cautions or criticisms. I liked it so much that I made a t-shirt out of it. Then I looked at the design, and thought again. I asked some members of the same community whether they thought anyone would object to the title or cover design in the context of Black Lives Matter. They said no one in the horror/dark/weird community would notice or mind. I asked: what if I wore it as a t-shirt? Pause. Then: Better not do that. I tried the same test with a bunch of US media/journalism academics at the Central European University in Budapest. Same reaction.
I wouldn’t presume to speak for Black Lives Matter. There are others far better positioned to do that than me, from a far more informed and involved point of view. This time at least, I have to talk about me. And inadvertently, I had ended up with something that could, at a glance, or through a casual misreading, be seen as endorsing the Fox News/Bill O’Reilly/All Lives Matter bleating and barracking of the movement. A casual misreading as in, passing on the street, on a t-shirt. And if you can’t wear your slogan, on the street on a t-shirt, there is a problem with your slogan, no?
I couldn’t claim to be unaware of the issue, from the moment I first realized this. Way back when I was first mulling over titles, in Hungary, perhaps. But certainly not now. So I had to take a position on it. Practically, if I just wasn’t able to change the title, I would have to live with it. But the space between print book and e-book edition gave me some room for reflection. And the original print edition with its original title is still there, lest anyone suspect me of trying to (ahem…) whitewash myself, and airbrush out my past choices. But if I didn’t at least try to make a change, to my mind, I would be either indifferent to the Black Lives Matter movement … or worse. In any case, not acknowledging it. And even within the dark/weird/SF/horror fiction community, after recent debates on inclusion, H.P Lovecraft’s bust in the World Fantasy Awards, the Rabid Puppies assault on the Hugo Awards, etc. such choices do have resonance.
This is not a neutral context, if it ever was, and it is a space where I could make a public choice. A relatively small, insignificant space, fine, free from harm or consequences beyond a few sales gained or lost – but my own space, the one involving and implicating me, where I got to exercise personal responsibility. My space to make authentic choices, as author, not bandwagon-jumper or well-wisher; choices that directly impacted me, with implications for my own writing career; choices that put my skin in the game, however trivially, and allowed me to take a stand and do the right thing.
I also anticipated that some critics, on all sides, might accuse me of selfish opportunism, currying favour with a fashionable group for self-promotion and audience share, parlaying the suffering of others into a bigger readership with zero personal pain. Yes, I did think about market, and audience. But that kind of priority surely also acknowledges that Black Lives Matter. Black readers matter. Their opinion, their spend, their sensitivities, their economic as well as their political and moral power, matter. If you literally cannot afford to be indifferent to them, then that is exactly how things should be.
So why did I choose “Black Propaganda” as the title in the first place? First off, because partners and other members of the BDSM community were regularly referring to my sexuality as “dark” – and the stories in the book all ultimately stemmed from my own sexuality, as an exponent of the BDSM lifestyle. And of course, to evoke Fifty Shades of Youknowwhat. And because the collection is dark fiction. But I took the term itself from psychological warfare terminology, because it suggested exactly the kind of self-questioning, self-subverting, backbiting, reciprocal, ironic, self-interrogation that I wanted for the book’s focus on BDSM-style dominance and submission – a title that questions its own premises and implies that it may be the direct opposite of what it appears to be on the surface. Because of the mutual dependency, the interdependence, the sharing, that lies at the root of consensual power exchange and BDSM. Also because of “propaganda” in the original Roman Catholic sense – propagation of a dogma, in this case the dogma of dominance and submission. With again, the implication that this is a creed whose practice absolutely contradicts its explicit premises.
And why “Blowback”? Because it has a similar pedigree in psywarops terminology, and also describes something that rebounds on and undercuts its explicit purpose. And an obvious sexual implication. And also because it describes pretty much what happened to my first choice of title – unintended or unforeseen consequences. In fact, the new title fits the book so well that I don’t even need to change a single line of the original foreword to accommodate it. And that also reflects how any book is in a state of evolving, even reactive dialogue with its audience.
Except that part of that audience is literally in the firing line. Facing military grade firepower, or insanely empowered itchy-finger vigilantism. Facing plenty more besides, and elsewhere, certainly, but let’s focus on that one, uniquely American, thing that started this whole movement off in the first place. Dickens may have protested (quietly) against slavery in America in the 1840s; Einstein may have protested far more vociferously against segregation in the 1920s and 30s: neither was directly protesting against summary, serial, judicially sanctioned, public execution on suspicion, on the streets, without trial. Post Civil Rights. In a notionally free, fair and democratic country. To riff off Joss Whedon’s remarks when asked why he writes strong female characters: Black Lives Matter. Because what’s the alternative?