Cemeteries of the Heart and Other Stories

A retro review from March 31, 2013.

This is another review copy that came from author via LibraryThing.

Review: Cemeteries of the Heart and Other Stories, Grant Palmquist, 2014.Cemeteries of the Heart

It’s not just cemeteries of the heart. It’s hostels of the heart, rehab centers of the heart, hospitals of the heart. These are fantastical tales on the snares of love and sex – and the need and, in one tale, the well-nigh commandment to connect with fellow humans in intimate ways. They are also often tales on how circumstances and our innate natures frustrate that connection.

Palmquist knows how to keep your interest even if he doesn’t always know how to adequately end his stories. He almost never diagrams an ending out for you. They’re usually ambiguous, elliptical, and require some thought. And, in a couple of instances, I don’t think the endings work even after contemplation.

He’s also given to some stylistic tics. Windows are often “yellow squares”. Guns are usually 9 mms. Texas, usually Houston, is the frequent setting.

The title story is set in one of those horrific extrapolations of our present day, ludicrous and implausible, and there to make an emotional point via metaphor and not provide realism. In a future Houston of such rampant street violence that the hero routinely sees rapes and killings every day on his work commute, Palmquist’s work hell has the hero literally shackled to his desk where, if he looks out the window or flags from his duties (randomly creating tax code, a satirical bit I found very amusing), his masked boss flogs him. Deserted by his wife and son, he, in the tradition of dystopian stories, becomes the lover of a co-worker.

Lullaby” was one of my favorite stories. Its hero must cope with being newly widowed – by the deformed son his wife died giving birth to. He begins to think the child has defects of the soul as severe as those of his body. Constant appearances by his dead wife suggesting he just kill the kid don’t help. Or, maybe, stress has rendered him paranoid and crazy.

I think I understand what’s really going on in “Parting Sorrows“. The story certainly conveyed the loneliness and desperation of its 60 year-old narrator who goes to meet the 22 year-old woman he has been conducting an online affair with. The ending is horrific in images and action, if not entirely clear in motives and cause and effect. Still, I liked this one too.

Aphelion” has a narrator who is having fugue moments after he sees a popup on his computer screen, a popup a complete stranger in a bar says shows him pleasuring himself while being strangled by a man. The plot hinges on, for me, an effective conceit, but I think the ending is marred by an unnecessary coda, making it the most unsatisfying story here.

Burn Victims” is another story of desperately seeking love and companionship, here a man and a woman each in their own ways mutilated. It has its own fantastical elements but a resolution much different than the other stories.

Flaming Butterfly” seems, perhaps, a tale of existential terror or, more precisely, existential judgment by unknown forces. The protagonist is dragged out of his bed one day, told his life makes no contribution to life on Earth, and then dragged through a portal where he works as a shackled field hand. I’m not sure I quite understood the ending, but the image, themes, and idea behind the story will definitely stick with me and make this another high point of the collection.

The narrator of “Stanley” claims that a childhood with his beautiful sister sucking away all attention has left him unable to relate to women. (Or so he sees it. He may not be the most reliable narrator regarding his sister. This book features several narrators with questionable powers of reporting and explanation.) To compensate, he takes pictures of women in public – but only from their kneecaps to neck – and constructs fantasy faces and personalities for them. He starts seeing one of these fantasy constructs in person.

In a book of mostly horror stories, “Taenia Solium” is the most straightforward. As you would expect from the title (which refers to a type of tapeworm that infects humans), it’s about parasitism and also effective.

There a higher than average number of memorable stories in this collection despite some problematic endings. If I was going to quickly convey a sense of Palmquist’s work, it would be a Thomas Ligotti style writer cut with a modern sensibility of specific settings and realism which concentrates on the need, recognized or not, to have others in our lives.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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