Essay: Selected Short Fiction of Kathe Koja
Another summer and fall and winter taken up with charting an author featured at the local Arcana “dark fantastic” convention.
In 2014, it was the dead Ambrose Bierce. In 2016, it was Kathe Koja who is still very much alive and a novelist and a playwright and theatre producer.
I’ve already covered four of her early novels, but Koja has written numerous stories since her 1987 debut. The “selected” of the title means my diligence did not extend to moving boxes of magazines in the home archive to access every Koja story I had, so I looked at her stuff easily at hand in the house and online.
This post will cover stories appearing in various anthologies and magazines.
I didn’t revisit “Skin Deep” (Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction, July 1989) after reading it in 1994. According to my less than completely helpful notes, it seems to be another tale of sexual obsession and, perhaps like Koja’s Skin, The Cipher, and Kink, a fatal quest for transcendence. A man takes an alien lump of flesh as a lover. This commentary on the power of sexual desire – strange and unexplained, a force of nature – is the story’s main strength, relayed through vivid, creepy imagery. Ultimately, the alien absorbs him and kills him. It’s the death of his body. However, his consciousness is melded with hers. Body dead but desire achieved.
That’s one version of real world love – sexual obsession leading to physical destruction. But it’s also a metaphor for the old “man and woman cleaving together” idea, two minds and two bodies becoming one. So, you might also consider this another example of Christian imagery showing up in Koja’s fiction.
Many of these stories came from theme anthologies so Koja, weird fiction author, isn’t the only thing on display here. Koja, in a 1998 interview, said she wrote for such anthologies if the theme was “interesting and sufficiently broad to allow room to maneuver and play”.
I’ve already talked about “Angel’s Moon” (The Ultimate Werewolf, 1991) which combines alienation and monster as metaphor in a story not that memorable.
“The Energies of Love” (FutureCrime, 1992) is a cyberpunkish tale, not a weird one. Cyberpunk is succinctly summed up by Gardner Dozois as “low-life, high-tech”.
The high tech is a computer simulation/recording of a famous and dead cult author, Christopher Lisst, Lisst offed himself and left a novel unfinished. Protagonist Bobby is obsessed with Lisst and interacting with Lisst’s simulacra. A writer of pornography, a self-described hack, Bobby wants to know how Lisst planned to end his novel, the titular The Energies of Love. Bobby wants to write that end. (Think of this as a variation of the old slushpile favorite of a time traveler passing off the work of a past literary genius as their own.)
A friend of Bobby’s helps him get past network security and avoid the high access fees so he can spend more time with Lisst.
Computerized simulacrum of dead people, we should remember, was hardly a novel bit of science fiction speculation in 1992. Robert Silverberg’s two volume Time Gate anthology series started in 1989. However, Koja does adequately rationalize the brain-computer interfaces and simulations.
At last able to talk at leisure, Bobby gets what he wants. Lisst will tell him the planned ending of the novel for a price: Bobby must annihilate Lisst, destroy his simulacra.
We also find out that Lisst had no idea how his novel would end.
The story is typical Koja in some respects: artistic obsession with Bobby, self-destructive artist with Lisst, and a concluding quote, here from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. It provides the title and brings in another typical Koja element, Catholic allusions.
I think the story is marred by a somewhat vague ending. A correspondence is set up between characters in the novel and the story. Bobby equals protagonist Antonio, who trades a unique holocard for another character’s, Vincent’s, many kites. Listt seems to equal Vincent. It is implied that Listt has plenty of endings just like Vincent has lots of kites but Bobby can offer something unique too: death for Lisst. Or so I interpreted it.
Koja has repeatedly said that she is concerned with writers with strong voices and tries to have her own distinctive voice. Her sinuous prose of long sentences that glide from internal dialogue to moving bodies and roil with occasional violence is distinctive.
But writers of strong voice sometimes try to get by on just voice. And, to push the metaphor, no, not every story is worth listening to no matter the timbre, tone, diction, and rhythms of the story teller. Very occasionally, in these stories, Koja’s sometimes enigmatic endings seem like stories incompletely thought out. Mystery and ambiguity have their place, especially in weird fiction, but I expect storytellers to tell stories with beginnings and ends.
“I Shall Do Thee Mischief in the Woods” (Snow White, Blood Red, 1993) is Koja retelling Little Red Riding Hood. As befits a retelling of a fairy tale, she tamps down her characteristic weaving and long sentences but still conveys full sensual detail.
The plot is a bored merchant held over in a town on a business trip who catches sight of a girl. He find her “dark dirty hair”, “gingery smell”, and the well-muscled, and voluptuous body beneath her filthy red attractive.
No, this is not a rape story. Finding her more attractive than the town whores, he offers her money for sex. She refuses and goes into the woods and back to her “granddam”. A few days later, the merchant is still in town and sees the girl again. She takes up his offer to escort her back home because there is a beast in the woods. The beast turns out to be the grandmother though. The merchant is devoured and doesn’t get any sex. You can’t see this an example of Koja’s theme of the destructive quest for transcendence. Instead, it is a lethal quest for sex, the dangers of lust and judging by appearances.
“Remnants” (The Green Man: Tales from the Mythic Forest, 2002, seemingly an anthology for the young adult market) is sort of another artist story from Koja though the artist isn’t in pursuit of dangerous transcendence and doesn’t come to a bad end. Koja does the voice of her young narrator well, and the sentences are usually not as long as they typically are.
That narrator is a young boy and sort of a hoarder – at least that’s what the women from the Department of Public Works and the Board of Health think. But he actually makes artistic creations of the garbage he finds including 100 different types of plastic bags.
There is some intimation that he was an abused child, “dirty garbage babies belong in the SINK” is one thought he frequently has, but not much is made of that or the absence of his parents. Presumably they’ve died of natural causes, and he’s inherited the property.
The story ends with his junk being carted off, but he’s allowed to stay, and he plans to rebuild the Sure-Would Forest, his creation of fake trees adorned with plastic bags whose rustle pleases him. There’s an air of young adventure, artistic adventure, in the story. Koja’s afternote sums up the theme:
The forest – its mystery, its safety, its embrace – is sometimes where we make it. And sometimes what we throw away is what we need the most.
Koja first met Barry Malzberg in 1992 and the two begin collaborating. To date, 19 of Koja’s 72 published short stories have been with him.
In his introductory notes to “Literary Lives”, a Koja-Malzberg collaboration written for his 1994 anthology Alternate Outlaws, Mike Resnick says of Malzberg
. . . never has he found a collaborator more attuned to his style than the brilliant Kathe Koja … During the past year, they have produced more than a dozen works of fiction together . . .
That similarity of style is well-displayed here. Koja has said their collaborative method varied,
We had no hard-and-fast method of working — sometimes he would begin the story and I would finish, or vice versa …
To that, I would add that Koja seems to be there to add the colons and Malzberg to knock out most of the quotation marks. Oh, and to add some of his patented bitterness and rampant metaphor filling in for specificity.
I also suspect, given Malzberg’s 1989 story “Another Goddamned Showboat”, Ernest Hemingway as a character was his conceptual contribution.
The story is basically an interior monologue of alternate versions of Dorothy Parker.
The first scenario, “Writing Caliban”, has Parker 60 years old. It’s 1953. She has become a writer of acclaimed novels set in the Edwardian era. A television interview causes her to ponder her life. There’s an unhappy marriage to an unnamed poet and failed writer with children resulting. She may have killed him by sabotaging his car brakes.
She contemplated suicide but says she didn’t love him enough to do it. She regards herself as something of a whore to him in their relationship. At section’s end, she sees some hookers and ponders them and that she is that most invisible of creatures – a 60 year old woman.
The second section, “O Tempora! O Whores!”, is a more explicit look at Parker and her literary circle including the Algonquin Round table. In this scenario, she is truly a prostitute, aged 56 in 1949.
She seems to have thought she was always something of a plaything and whore for the men she knew.
As an inside, I have no idea if this is true to the real Parker’s character and life. (My knowledge of English language literature correlates with its age; the newer it is, the less I know about it. And my knowledge of Parker, before reading this and doing a bit of research, began and ended with Al Stewart’s song “The Age of Rhythm”.) Resnick’s Alternate anthologies shouldn’t be considered very concerned with true alternate history speculation. In short, I’m not sure when Parker’s life diverges from our timeline and the internal clues and internet research weren’t too helpful.
Parker has been “seventeen years on the stroll” meaning she started being a prostitute in 1937. After divorcing an Alan (presumably Alan Campbell who she married in 1934), she takes up prostitution:
. . . trying it once as a metaphor, as a gesture, she did it twice to punish herself for having done it once and then again – well, she because she liked it
The story is, like the first section, the internal ruminations of Parker as she services a client – who turns out to be Ernest Hemingway bitter and resentful at being sexually humiliated when he slept with Parker in 1922 – humiliated enough that he kills her, shouting, as he holds a knife against her throat, “Hard enough? … how hard is it now?”.
This second scenario has several bits of poetry. I don’t know if any are Parker’s. The story concludes (a Koja trait) with a quote, a bit of verse which I haven’t been able to link to the real Parker:
Some give you life, and some give you breath
Some settle for candy and flowers
But the one you want most is the one you don’t meet
But just once: and does he pass the hours!
All in all, I liked this story, way more than I thought I would, though I know too little to render any judgements on it as literary alternate history.
Another collaboration with Malzberg, “Rex Tremandae Majestatis” (Dinosaur Fantastic from 1993, also edited by Resnick), strikes me as inspired by Pamela Zoline’s famous “The Heat Death of the Universe”.
Both stories have no fantastical content but are meant to be read in the context of science fiction and use scientific concepts as extended metaphor. Both stories detail the psychological disintegration of female protagonists. Both stories have titled sections. Both even have prominent scenes of feeding children breakfast cereal.
Leona is divorced and lives with her son Darry. Her ex-husband – never named – writes for a Hollywood cartoon show starring Davy Dinosaur, Billy Brontosaur, Tyrone Tyrannosaur, Sammy the Steg, and Tony Triceratops. The usual effluvia of commercial tie-ins – plastic toys and breakfast cereals – fill her house. Darry, of course, loves dinosaurs as most children do especially since his father is connected with the show.
The mental decline of Leona is already under way with the first two sentences:
LEONA AND THE STEGOSAUR: Pinned beneath the beast and staring at the ceiling, pale mauve. Leona had painted it herself, hung the curtains, even trimmed the carpet on her hands and knees with a little retractable razor, cutting and cutting in a rhythm not unlike the motion of the bed, his brutish back, the hump and stutter of the sounds he made: like being hammered by a stegosaur, his prehistoric crouch and groan and she pushed at him, really pushed, shoved the beast and his befuddlement (did he take it as passion?), his dry gasp – what? what is it?, oh and coming already half-slack and half-straining.
The sex is, of course, typical of Koja’s fiction as is the long sentences. (And, from I’ve read on other blogs, Malzberg puts sex in his stories even more than Koja.) The discipline of adhering to the central metaphor of dinosaur extinction is rigorous enough to be another Malzberg influence I suspect. And all the talk of death.
Leona’s sees her extinct marriage in terms of that dinosaur extinction:
Had to be her fault: divorce is never that of the child, dissolution and decay begun before he was, death before life, the wide plains of Montana stripped by the comet of all life, fungus in the outback stinking to the dawn in the empty time after the dinosaur. Death before and after life and there was no sense in starting it all up again, was there?
When the ultimate comet in on them, they would last embalmed for the smart creatures who would rise from the ash. This passed for sociological or futuristic in thought in what had become – she was terrifically aware of this – a severely depressed and somewhat obsessive perspective.
And, in the end, Leona, “Leona Living” as she dubs herself, is successor to the world of the stupid and dead dinosaurs which include her husband and, very likely Darry who, it is implied, Leona has done something awful with.
There are some other typically Koja touches. Catholic imagery shows up in Leona’s closing reverie:
But we leave this, we leave that, we leave our perfect, replicated spoor through all those spaces and when we, dead at last in the basilica, awaken we leave true and final testimony of our troubled, our grief-stricken but our not-inconsequential history.
There is also one of Koja’s asides against artistic pretension. Leona’s husband, sensing her disapproval of his job scripting dinosaur cartoons for kids, says,
“It pays damned good. … So it isn’t King Lear, so what? … You always were a litterateur, Leona.”
And there also is a nod to Zoline’s central entropy metaphor in Leona’s thoughts:
If I were Entropy, she thought, if there was a god named Entropy with a capital E I would have exterminated them all.
Koja’s work often features weirdness intruding into the contemporary world and another collaboration with Malzberg, “What We Did That Summer” (Redshift, 2001), fits that description. And it’s all about sex.
We have another prostitute, and the story is framed as an old customer, whose marriage proposal she turned down once, showing up to visit her in her poverty.
He tells her a strange story from when he was 16. One night, while drinking beer out in the country with his friend, they encounter three “alien” naked and lumpy women. They perform all sorts of sexual acts with them and then the women retreat.
The women show up a second time another night. Two of them refuse sexual congress but the third couples with the boys. The third time a seeming space alien shows up: a naked male wearing a metal badge perhaps of symbolic significance given what happens later. He tells the boys you must pay double for what you take, it’s a universal law. If you didn’t know what you were doing, you pay triple.
He then sets the field on fire and disappears with the alien women. The storyteller made a pact with his friend to confess the story to someone 25 or 30 years later. It’s not clear why they felt this pact was necessary, but they plan on confessing to each other when the time comes.
However, the other man dies a few years later. So the man confesses to the prostitute. He strips naked, and it is briefly hinted his genitals are withering to smoothness.
But then the woman has a horrifying vision of that burning field and then suddenly becomes, seemingly, possessed of the memories of one of those alien women.
It’s a very oblique ending. Are we to think the prostitute, like those alien women, has been taking and taking the emotional attention and intimacy of the man and maybe his physical manhood? However, that’s contradicted by her complaints that he never listened to her and thought of her as alien. Are we to assume that she has, in some sense, taken his soul as the souls of the alien women were taken? Is this a simply a modern fairy tale where contracts, however unreasonable, can’t be broken without consequences?
I don’t think the story works.
Yeah, yeah, I hear you say. Aliens and hookers. Big deal.
How about bear rape?
Yes, bear rape.
Yes “Ursus Triad, Later”, another sex-drenched Koja-Malzberg collaboration (American Gothic Tales, 1996) is the bear rape sequel to Goldilocks and the Three Bears or, as editor Joyce Carol Oates accurately dubs it, a “lyrically sadomasochistic” story. Given the other stories I’ve read in that collection, Oates seems to have a peculiar definition of “gothic”. But that description unlocked the story after reading it the first time and thinking “Well, that was unusual. And not in a good way.”
The heroine, like Goldilocks, enters the bears’ house out of “curiosity and hunger”, is repeatedly raped by bears she dubs Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms for their demeanor during those rapes.
In a sense, sadomasochism, even unsought for as in this case, is one pathway to the destructive transcendence that is a Koja theme.
Phrased eloquently it is
kind of way out, perhaps: it was the method of escape that sinks one more fully into the pit, and as the bear commenced its familiar, groaning adumbration of expenditure she shouted something, hoarse and guttural, caw like the bark of an animal, something before language which was itself language and gripping that fur tried to come up with Brahms even in the bear’s descent: and the long, pivoting drop which in its suspension and calamitous nature seemed in some way to mimic her confused ideas of escape, to be escape: go farther in: become; belong.
In a sense, her rape fills her unknown emptiness:
You wanted to be filled? Their postures asked her as they came upon her. Then be filled. To bursting.
There is some typically Koja Catholic imagery:
. . . wood pressed to her lips, splinters like the wafer of God himself between her teeth, but here there was if not godlessness then the orbit of no salvation . . .
The final sentence has another:
. . . one lumbering and dreadful mass as all three [the Trinity], as one advanced upon her: to receive her benediction: to pour and fill and to become.
Barry Malzberg is not Koja’s only collaborator. Carter Scholz has long been one of the readers of her first drafts. They started collaborating in 2000.
“KIT: Some Assembly Required” (Asimov’s Science Fiction, August 2016) is a recent collaboration and takes us back to the territory of “The Energies of Love”: computer simulations of dead authors.
Here the author is Christopher Marlowe, a figure who has long fascinated Koja and the subject of her forthcoming novel Christopher Wild.
Since the Marlowe simulation is to be used for spying, this story strongly reminded me of Poul Anderson’s “Statesmen” in Robert Silverberg’s Time Gate series. In Anderson’s story, the recreated personalities were Machiavelli and Frederick the Great advising warring economic blocs in propaganda and intrigue.
Our political advisor here is Marlowe, spy, “brawler … blasphemer … play-maker and sodomist and atheist”. Marlowe’s simulation is created by an intelligence analyst. It unexpectedly becomes self-aware and can modify its code.
There’s a great deal of flashbacks to Marlowe’s earlier life and working for Elizabethan spymaster Walsingham and, of course, Marlowe’s death. There are some quotes from Marlowe.
But it’s not very a novel story apart from the Marlowe material and rests on the same improbable idea as “The Energies of Love”. But the scientific plausibility is not the problem. After all, a few stories in the Time Gate books worked well.
The problem is that the bits with Marlowe’s life are too long, not really central to the plot, and recycled research material imperfectly integrated into the story.
There are some cultural anachronisms in Marlowe’s portrayal. When Marlowe learns of recent Islamic terror, the author of Tammerlane is unimpressed. That’s understandable given that conqueror’s carnage. But would Elizabethan Marlowe really be appalled by the torture and extreme interrogations he finds evidence of in the modern world?
Like the dead author in “The Energies of Love”, Marlowe wants annihilation – either his or the world’s when he gets ahold of nuclear weapon launch codes.
Like many a Koja protagonist, he has a destructive drive towards annihilation or transcendence. Indeed, the story concludes Marlowe wondering why he went to that inn where he met his death when he suspected he was about to be assassinated.
Tomorrow I’ll look at Koja’s sole short story collection Extremities from 1998.