The Early Novels of Kathe Koja, Part Five: Strange Angels

strange-angels

The Cipher, Kathe Koja, 1991, 2012.

Bad Brains, Kathe Koja, 1992.

Skin, Kathe Koja, 1993.

Strange Angels, Kathe Koja,

Kink, Kathe Koja, 1996.

The Early Novels of Kathe Koja: Strange Angels.

Strange Angels, Koja’s fourth novel, is something of a transitional novel, and the last of her early novels where characters go on a journey of transformation and do not emerge from the fire unscathed. Madness or death is the price paid for their obsessive quests. Continue reading “The Early Novels of Kathe Koja, Part Five: Strange Angels”

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Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Vol.2

This one got read as something of a fool’s errand to see if I could learn anything about Kathe Koja’s ideas about what constituted “weird fiction”.

Well, “the weird” means different things to different people. That’s the whole idea behind getting a guest editor for each volume of this series, now in its third installment.

Is it the best weird fiction of the year? How would I know? And if I did, there really wouldn’t be much point in me reading this.

Series editor Michael Kelly read about 2,800 stories and passed the best to Koja for the final decision on whether or not to include them.

Koja’s ideas of weird fiction and mine don’t match much. On the other hand, I have no idea what she had to work with for 2014.

Still, the book had enough good stories in it for me to recommend, and I will read other volumes in the series.

However, I read it almost four months ago, and I’m only covering the stories that stuck in my mind, weird or not. That’s why this is a . . .

Low Res Scan: Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Volume 2, eds. Kathe Koja and Michael Kelly, 2015.years-best-weird-2

For me, the only weird story in the book was its oldest: Jean Muno’s “The Ghoul”. First published in 1979, it got its first English translation, from Edward Gauvin, in 2014. Beautiful in imagery, it has a man walking a foggy beach. He encounters a woman in a submerged wheelchair. The mixing of time, a jump back to 20 years earlier in the man’s life, and language that may be realistic, may be metaphorical, was beautiful and memorable.

Nathan Ballingrud’s “The Atlas of Hell” is an occult take on a hard-bitten crime story. Narrator Jack runs a bookstore in New Orleans (with the really good and profitable stuff in back). Jack’s old employer, crime boss Eugene, coerces him into another job. Jack’s to take a thug with him and find Tobias who has not only ripped off some gambling proceeds but somehow gotten, from Hell no less, the thighbone of Eugene’s dead son. It’s off to the bayou and some weird stuff, and that atlas turns out to be something unexpected.

Siobhan Caroll’s “Wendigo Nights” has a setup similar to John Carpenter’s The Thing: a canister (from the doomed Franklin Expedition, no less – Caroll has done academic work on polar exploration) is retrieved from the thawing tundra. Mayhem ensues involving the wendigo – monster or really bad cabin fever that turns men into cannibal killers depending on whether you go with folklore or psychology. Continue reading “Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Vol.2”

Some Parallax Views on Kathe Koja

No, I’m not quite done with Kathe Koja. I just ordered a Kindle copy of her Strange Angels, so I’ll be reviewing that at some point. (Another parallel to my Ambrose Bierce series in that I found just one more title I wanted to look at after I thought I wrapped it up.)

So I did some research on other perspectives — meaning things I either didn’t think of or expressed less well — on Koja’s early works.

However, before returning to Koja again, I will first be reviewing — and it won’t be a happy review — of an early novel by a certain famous Irish science fiction writer.

Websites

Will Erickson’s Summer of Sleaze: The Alternative Horrors of Kathe Koja is a stylish look at Koja’s The Cipher and Bad Brains.

A look at the rise and fall of Dell’s Abyss line of horror in the 1990s discusses Koja in that context. It cites the emphasis on body horror and interior life in Koja’s fiction as well as her reliance on characters involved in various triangles.

In an April 2002 interview, Barry Malzberg said this in passing about his collaborations with Koja:

I had what I call a ‘great autumnal run’ between 1990 and 1993, publishing about a hundred short stories (alone and in collaboration with Kathe Koja), which I think are the best work I ever did.

Locus Material

But metaphor can be thin stuff, while Koja’s book is rich with the minutiae of life, precisely down to earth as she depicts the horrible futility of entanglement with the medical system, the sad detritus and odd little triumphs of life on society’s margins, the weird, isolated world of long highway journeys.

Faren Miller’s review of Bad Brains in the January 1992 issue of Locus

Edward Bryant is my all time favorite book reviewer, and the only one I’ve seen that could be funny and accurately summarize a work.

In his review of Bad Brains in the February 1992 issue of Locus, he is explicit about a theme less acknowledged in Koja’s work: the failure to communicate:

Austen’s failure as a portrait artist seems to be linked to his inability to depict his clients in any way they consider realistic. Communication has failed; Austen simply hangs up his brushes.

Miller, in a December 1992 review of Skin, said:

The sexuality may be ‘modern’ (butch, hip, punk, whatever), but the tragedy dates back to Shakespeare, complete with a disguised Iago type driving the plot toward the bitter end.

Yes, I called Malcom in that novel an instigator, manipulator, and agitator. It would have been simpler to call him an “evil counselor”. It’s not like I haven’t read enough Elizabethan and Jacobean drama not to know the type or term.

In his review of Skin in the April 1993 issue, Ed Bryant even mentions David Skal’s Antibodies in passing. Perhaps I subconsciously remembered that coupling when I wrote “Breaking the Skin”.

Extremities

Essay: Extremities, Kathe Koja, 1998.extremities

Extremities reprints 14 Koja stories and includes two original ones. The original publication dates of those reprints range from 1990 to 1996. There are no collaborations.

The stories range from high weirdness to non-fantastic ruminations on famous poets.

Arrangement for Invisible Voices” (Dark Voices, 1993) literalizes that anthology’s concept with Olson, a man who hears “not only the cries of the dying but the screams of the murdered” though here’s it’s not other humans. (An early indicator of Koja’s animal rights activism?) Olson first hears the voices at a pig roast:

… it soared through the talk like a scream through mutters, actually piercing, his ears felt bruised from the pressure, his auditory canal seemed to swell, what in God’s name is going on and on and then, rising an order of magnitude so there was no longer even the possibility of concealing its effect, he fell to his knees, buckling like punched, the singing scream no longer an expression of pain but pain itself and possessed at the same time of a beauty so eerie and fierce that while he pounded at his ears to stop the sound he was obscurely glad he could not …

The erotic and the weird are often linked in Koja’s fiction, especially The Cipher (though the appeal of the Funhole to Nakota isn’t necessarily an erotic one) and “Angels in Love” which is also in this collection. In this story, the link is definitely of a negative sort. Continue reading “Extremities”

Selected Short Fiction of Kathe Koja

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.

skin-deepI 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”. Continue reading “Selected Short Fiction of Kathe Koja”

Stealing Other People’s Homework: Interview with Kathe Koja

kathe-koja

By pure coincidence, I see on ISFD.org that today is Kathe Koja’s birthday.

Best wishes to her.

It would have been nice to put up my two planned installments on some of her short fiction  … but I’m still working on it.

In this old Omni Online interview from 1998, which I also coincidentally found today, she talks about the themes of obsession, transcendence, and transformation in her novels.

And I know at least one follower of this blog will be interested in her collaborations with Barry Malzberg.

And, yes, I will be reviewing her sole collection, Extremities.

The Early Novels of Kathe Koja, Part Four: Kink

The Cipher, Kathe Koja, 1991, 2012.

Bad Brains, Kathe Koja, 1992.

Skin, Kathe Koja, 1993.

Kink, Kathe Koja, 1996.

Essay: The Early Novels of Kathe Koja: Kink

Yes, Kink is about a menage a trois, a sexual threesome. But don’t expect something out of Penthouse Letters. While there is some sex, it’s not particularly graphic or that prevalent. This isn’t as erotic as some of Koja’s short fiction. And it’s a psychologically plausible explication about the dangers of such a setup because, as hairdresser Po, one of Koja’s dark-skinned dispensers of wisdom, says, “three’s an unstable number”.

Like all these novels, there’s a pair of lovers or ex-lovers at the heart. Here it’s Sophie and Jess, another androgynously named character and our narrator. They’re not artists, per se. But, like all the major characters in these four Koja novels, they are involved in the local art scene.

And they have an artistic sensibility. Sophie went to art school to be a photographer. Jess studied writing. Neither are really pursuing their art. Both exhibit the usual disdain of Koja’s central characters for formal training and theory. Sophie scorns “art history shit”, and Jess claims advanced writing classes killed creation and had “a party line to toe”.

Yet, they have a conceit, a way, a pretentious way, about looking at the world. It’s a secret shared and created only by them:

From then on it was something we knew we were doing, no more than what had gone before yet understood now, felt as conscious play; like a cipher decoded, vision once changed is changed forever, you could see nothing else, make magic of anything and in a way we did: our crummy jobs— both temps at that time, pre-AmBiAnce— and the hideous flat and the neighbors too loud, fighting or fucking above and through the jumble of their TVs and music, strange blend of sounds to us in our bed as we made stories around them, about them, made fun of the stories we made because everything was fair game, everything there to be mocked or scrambled, turned around on itself and inside out: nothing sacred but the jest because the joke was a joke on itself, on us too even as we made it: we knew about irony

It’s a compensation for lack of creation in their first artistic avocations, a sophistic elevation of the mundane and quotidian to a creative act.

When they first encounter Lena, the woman that many men and women desire, the woman that will become their lover and engineer the dissolution of their relationship and leave them both alone, she flatters them succinctly with her description of their relationship:

“Like you’re not just living, just like everyone else, you’re making your life, shaping it like, like art, by the way you see things, the way you are. See?”

This novel actually refers much more to the family and pasts of its central characters than Koja’s earlier novels. (Again, I didn’t read Koja’s Strange Angels, the novel before this.)

Plotwise, the novel is much different than the other three. After their devastating dalliance with Lena, Jess begins investigating her relationships with others in the local art world. It’s rather reminiscent of a film noir plot where the hero delves into the past of the woman who did him wrong.

But, if the plot is different, the novel in the ends swings around in the end to be sort of a realistic takeoff on Koja’s first novel, The Cipher. Lena is a sort of Funhole (insert sexual joke of choice). Like the Funhole, she is a negative force.

The penultimate scene has Jess confronting Lena. She offers an explanation of her actions:

“But you two, you and Sophie— you know I envied you, I don’t believe in envy but I envied you, because you had everything. All those stories you told me, and Sophie sniveling about her family, she always had a family, she had you. And you had her.” Mockery, the faintest sneer. “You don’t even know what it means to be alone, you were never alone, either of you, so close but it wasn’t enough: you wanted more, you wanted to be Siamese twins and when you couldn’t be twins you decided to be triplets but that wasn’t enough either. So now you’re split in half and you’re miserable and I’m glad you’re miserable; I’m glad.

“Because you deserve it, both of you. You’re so greedy you make me sick.”

So, with Sophie and Jess, we have another example of the greedy, destructive quest for transcendence, here personal and sexual transcendence, present in Koja’s other earlier novels.

All the lovers Lena sought out, the lovers she left ruined or wiser, were greedy and egotistical:

“They look different and they dress different and they fuck different, but in the end they’re all the same person and they all want the same thing.” . . .

“What,” I said, “what do they want?”

She made me wait for it: then: “Just more. More of what they already have.”

(That repudiation of individuality, that we are not as unique as we think, is, incidentally a feature of many Alfred Bester stories.)

But Jess has a parting shot for Lena that shows she is a Funhole of sort, truly unconnected to normal human life at a fundamental level:

“No,” I said, “I’ll leave you alone. All alone, that’s what you want, right? More of what you already have?”

This novel departs from Koja’s other early novels in another way too.

Sophie and Jess get back together in the end. They are one of those few left wiser for knowing Lena. They have learned when enough is enough.

 

 

In future postings, I’ll be looking at Koja’s short fiction.