This week, let’s follow a character around as she goes about her day. Let’s assume the below moments are in sequential order… what happens between each moment?
Hope Gangloff, Kristin Schiele, 2015. Acrylic on panel. www.inglettgallery.com
Ana Teresa Fernández, Untitled (Performance documentation). Oil on canvas. www.anateresafernandez.com
Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #58, from 1980.
The Vanishing Kind, Lavie Tidhar’s noir novella recently featured in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, is the story of Gunther Sloam, a third-rate filmmaker from Berlin, who is searching post-WW2 London for a past love named Ulla Blau. The frame character through whose voice we get the story is Tom Everly of the Gestapo (at least, that’s who he says he is), and Tom (and/or his men) follow Sloam on the filmmakers London investigations. In this world, the Germans won the war (though there are small mentions of continued but futile resistance happening in America) and London is a city in need of rebuilding. It’s streets are filled with refuse, it’s buildings are in shambles from the war, and it’s people lead lives in the dark—trading illicit goods, working as prostitutes, hiding their identities. This is the London Sloam walks through, and no one here is as they seem: a rare book dealer is both a Jewish man living another identity and a drug circulator using the rare books as a front. A dwarf, wealthier than seemingly anyone else in London, meets Sloam in an abandoned church and reveals that he’s been paying for the German occupation, because “even Nazis need money.”
And yet the strangeness of “The Vanishing Kind” is not in the double lives and secret machinations of its characters—it is in semi-surreal movie logic that runs through this piece like a set of train tracks, guiding the narrative and reader alike. We are introduced to Sloam as a filmmaker, and many of his thoughts are through the lens of film (London is shows as a “city projected like the flickering images of a black and white film”), but the story itself—the characters, the odd coincidences, the villain’s speech and the hero’s resilience, the tidiness of the narrative, the sense that everyone here knows everyone else and the hero is slowly and inevitably nearing the final reveal—all of this is done with a tongue-in-cheek, meta-recognition of its own tropiness (Tidhar has never been shy about Phillip K. Dick’s influence on his work). Sloam should never survive even a few pages of this story, and yet he does, and his response each time is to wonder without purchase or understanding why in the world no one has shot him yet. He’s a man who has been forced to make pulpy films currently living in one of his own, and the illogical logic of these stories pushes him along from inevitable realization to inescapable meeting with little care for his awareness or comprehension. Here, for instance, is Tom Everly, the narrator, describing Sloam:
Of course the obstinate German did not take my advice. I had accused him of being a romantic and I wasn’t wrong. Gunther, for all his battle experience in the Wehrmacht, still insisted, deep down, to think of himself as a character in one of his own cowboy pictures. All he could think about was Ulla Blau’s ruined, once-beautiful face staring back at him from the mortuary slab. I think he believed himself untouchable. Most Germans did, after the war.
In this way, the novella leans on its author’s ethos to pull a reader along—knowing that Tidhar does these types of pastiche, send-up, derivation-with-a-meta-twist stories so, so well is enough to convince a reader during the early stages of the story that what seem to be heavy-handed, overly melodramatic moments in the text (or moments of serious and seriously questionable plot convenience) are in fact intentional—they are Tidhar’s attempts to build the pulp framework in which he is trying to find a story with unironic and genuine heart. And in this he succeeds. The plot ends with Sloam finding Ulla Blau, secret identities uncovered, and, of course, more death. The one who was behind the whole thing all along (spoiler: it was Ulla, obviously) is revealed, and while this seems to be the end of the story, it really isn’t. Anyone who has read a pulp mystery (or even seen a police procedural) will see the reveal that Ulla must be behind the deaths that plague the story, but Tidhar is careful to not stop the story there. Instead, what follows after this reveal is a surprisingly profound connection made between the “how these stories usually start,” “how they usually end,” and the power in understanding your story, understanding your role, and finding agency within those constructions/constrictions. To be honest, I wasn’t ever truly sold on the story until the last page or so, but those few pages managed to give me a new way to understand and appreciate everything else in the novella. It’s a surprising story, one that, like the London Sloam finds himself in, brings you in under false pretenses and only reveals the truth when it’s too late.
What surprising stories have you been reading recently?
This past weekend, the Hazel & Wren staff retreated around a campfire (and coffee) to discuss things big and small. On this Monday morning, the firelight is still dancing in my eyes. Let’s use those sparks for our weekly inspiration.
James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, 1875. Oil on panel. The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan.
Thom Chapman, Untitled, 2016. Photograph. www.chapmanphotography.tumblr.com
Andrew Wyeth, Campfire, 1982, from Helga series. Watercolor. Private collection.
My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix (Quirk Books, April 2016)
If you’ve ever watched Pretty in Pink and thought to yourself, “this could use a little more blood and guts,” then oh, boy do I have a book for you.
My Best Friend’s Exorcism opens, as many teen movies do, on a friendship between two girls, our protagonist (Abby) and her BFF (Gretchen). The year is 1987. About to start their senior year of high school, the girls spend a night at a cabin on the lake, planning to drink, gossip, and take their first acid trip. At first, the girls are disappointed when the drug doesn’t work… but days later, when Gretchen starts acting strangely, it becomes clear that a bad trip could be the least of their worries. Gretchen starts seeing things, acting moody, and disappearing for days on end. Abby is convinced that Gretchen is being possessed by the devil, but who will believe her? Can she save their friendship—and Gretchen’s life?
This book fits into so many genres it’s almost impossible to categorize it, and yet it does every category justice. In some parts, it’s campy and overdramatic. In others, it’s grotesque and terrifying. It’s full of feel-good friendship moments that will make you say, “awww!” and nauseating horror sequences that will make you say, “nope!” The best part? The prose is smooth enough to entice any lit. fic. lover. Sometimes, with horror, it can feel like you’re sacrificing good writing for thrills and chills, but not with Hendrix. In the words of Liz Lemon, “I can have it all!”
Don’t believe me? Read this passage without getting goosebumps. (For context, Abby is visiting the sickbed of her friend Margaret, who she believes has been poisoned by Demon!Gretchen. The reality, she soon learns, is much, much worse.)
“. . . Abby saw something pale and white squirming in the blackness of Margaret’s gullet, curling around her tonsils.
Abby leaned forward for a better look, and the thing inside moved. She jerked back, smacking into Riley, who’d crept closer to investigate. The thing kept coming, oozing up out of Margaret’s throat, rising to the surface. Tears were spilling down Margaret’s sallow cheeks and her throat and chest kept spasming; her bony hands scratched and clawed uselessly at the tight skin on her neck. But the thing kept slithering out.
It slid over the root of Margaret’s tongue, ad then Margaret gave three explosive, throat-clearing coughs, each one pushing it out farther. It was sticky, gelatinous, and alive—a blind white worm, thick as a garden hose, and it was hauling itself out of Margaret’s stomach with single-minded intent.”
SPOILER ALERT: Gretchen hadn’t just been poisoning Margaret. She’d been feeding her TAPEWORM LARVAE until there were TWENTY-THREE POUNDS OF SQUIRMING WORMS in Margaret’s stomach. That’s some next-level demon sh**.
What’s miraculous, however, is how Hendrix manages to switch between the macabre and the hilarious without it seeming jarring or poorly-paced. After realizing that Gretchen isn’t just suffering from run-of-the-mill teenage depression, Abby searches out an exorcist. His name is Chris Lemon, and he’s part of a traveling Christian theatre troupe called the “Lemon Brothers Faith and Fitness Show.” They’re a hunky, bronzed, jock-brained, 6-pack-having group of bros spreading the good word of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It’s exactly as campy as you would expect from a guy whose first book was about a haunted Ikea.
All horror and giggles aside, what I loved most about this book was that, in the end, what saved the day wasn’t religion or romance but the power of friendship between two teenage girls. There is no swoon-worthy love interest in this book (something that’s almost never seen in young adult fiction). It passes the Bechdel Test on page 4. Despite what the bright colors and cheesy ’80s song lyrics at the top of every chapter may suggest, the book doesn’t sugar-coat friendship by portraying it as something infallible or chaste. It frequently draws attention to the ways in which friendship can be flawed or skewed by power dynamics, especially during high school. At the same time, portraying the lowest lows of female friendship also allows Hendrix to showcase their highest highs without it seeming contrived or preachy. This book is a reminder that love stories don’t always have to be romantic. It’s beautiful, and heartbreaking, and an ode to anyone who has ever had a Best Friend Forever.
Basically, go read My Best Friend’s Exorcism. You’ll have the time of your life.
What books have you found lately that cross some surprising genres?