Velocities

Yes, I  do sometimes review books before they’re released.

Review: Velocities: Stories, Kathe Koja, 2020.

velocities
Cover by Rick Lieder

The stories in Kathe Koja’s second collection move from “At Home” to “Downtown” to “On the Way” to “Over There”, and, finally, “Inside”. Where many of them don’t end up at is in the land of complete and satisfying endings. Instead, they get stranded in the “Is that it?” place.

By no means are all the stories fantastic, but “Velocity” is, or, at least, it’s origin in Ellen Datlow’s The Dark: New Ghost Stories would hint it is. But it’s unclear if the “artist” is really haunted by the ghost of his dead father, a famous architect, or just memories of his father. Likewise, it’s not clear if the father’s Red House, where the artist lives, is really haunted. Koja’s stories are full of artists and would-be artists, sometimes producing “art” of very questionable value. Here the art is all the bicycles crashed into trees by the artist, a recreation of the fatal accident (or suicide) of his father. There is frequently an ambiguity, intended or not, about artists in Koja’s work. Is the obsessive, even self-destructive, pursuit of artistic creation (here the stupidity of riding bikes into trees) to be applauded, mitigated by moderation, or foolish – especially when it involves crashing into trees?

The collection’s sole foray into science fiction is “Urb Civ”, a rather standard issue future dystopia of rich and isolated elites and artistic dissidents. Here the latter work on disabling government surveillance drones. The only thing of interest here is how a government agent’s attempt to infiltrate such a group works out. It has, at least, a conclusive ending. Continue reading “Velocities”

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”

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 — 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.

The Early Novels of Kathe Koja, Part Three: Skin

 

skinkink

Book cover illustrationbad-brains

 

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: Skin

I won’t spend too much time on this novel since I’ve covered its theme of artistic obsession and destructive transcendence elsewhere.

Of these four novels, it is the purest example of that theme.

Surprisingly, for a writer and theatrical producer married to an artist, you wouldn’t expect Koja to deal so extensively with the downsides of artistic endeavor. Or, perhaps, you would. Who better to know that the muse can become a hag riding your back than an artist?

The Cipher has a bad and lazy poet as its narrator. The hero of Bad Brains regains his artistic passion as his fitful visions and violent madness increase. The ex-lovers in both end up dead or on the verge of death, the weirdness that has infected their heroes bodies nudging them to their evitable doom.

Koja eschews the fantastic for this novel. The weirdness here comes entirely out of the human mind.

But the body count is even higher in this novel, dead at the witting and unwitting hands of Bibi. Lovers Bibi and Tess survive the novel, but they’re not going to be together.

As with The Cipher, this is another novel with the characters detached from family.

This novel features another version of the Malcolm character from The Cipher. Michael is an instigator and agitator, lover of both Tess and Bibi, manipulating them to achieve his artistic visions:

His motto is “If you don’t grow, you die.”

His scorn for Tess’ good sense at not walking Bibi’s path of body mutilation:

“Afraid to go as far as you can go, as far as you have to go, to make your art? Bibi knows. Bibi’s the one who isn’t afraid.”

Of Bibi’s final transformation, Michael says:

“She’s a crazy saint. She can’t leave herself alone, she’s cutting on places that haven’t even healed yet, she keeps talking about the skin being the gate, like she has to keep cutting to get somewhere — she is so close, Tess, I mean she is really on to something here, and the last thing she needs is you stirring her up.”

Michael is a very toxic mixture of instigator, art theoretician, and manipulator. And he pays for his sins in the end.

Bibi clubs him to death.

But Bibi’s final words to Tess, “We were supposed to go together. He was supposed to take me, too.” imply Michael is a sort of cult leader for Bibi, whispering the promise of final change and transcendence in her ear.

The Early Novels of Kathe Koja, Part Two: Bad Brains

Book cover illustrationbad-brainsskinkink

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: Bad Brains.

The claustrophobic air of Koja’s first novel, The Cipher, is gone  with her next. It’s something of a road trip novel — though those long hours protagonist Austen (another one of Koja’s androgynous names) spends in the car have a similar affect.

The weirdness in this novel just shows up like the Funhole in The Cipher. And there’s bodily transformation here as in that novel. But Austen himself is the main weirdness. Nicholas, in The Cipher, accidentally shoves his hand in the Funhole. Austen’s capering about after leaving a convenience store leads him to take a fall in the parking lot, a blow to the head, and the bad brains of the title results.

Austen, like Nicholas, is one of Koja’s passive males. But, whereas Nicholas, by his own admission, produces crap, Austen is a talented artist who had some measure of success. But his morbid taste in portraiture won no great favor. He gave up art, and Emily, his wife, gave up on him and moved away.

His passivity and fearful pride comes into play when he won’t tell the many doctors he sees in uncountable months of treatment and therapy that he’s started to see things:

. . . in the near comer of the room, closest to the door, came a movement, a dustdevil of fluid, liquid, mucus; silver, almost scalelike, delicate as fish skin and stretching out, elongating.

At him.

Watching as it was watched.

Not a human figure.

And he staring back as coldly, as mutely inhuman, as incapable of fear as of flight as, capriciously, it compacted, slipped back into the confines of shadowless square, the empty corner of the empty room.

Returning to work at a T-shirt shop to pay his medical bills and with a Tegretol prescription for his seizures, he reads obsessively about brain disorders and has a spectacularly unsuccessful meeting with a potential patron and hook-up partner.

So, about a third of the way through the novel, Austen goes to visit his mother Cyndee in Fort Worth. As with any encounter with living family members in these Koja novels, the results are awkward and unsatisfactory — though we learn Austen is Austen because “Bront” is “not really a name”.

But Austen does meet, in a bar, Russell. He’s a low-intensity, less malicious version of Nakota in The Cipher. When Nicholas has one of his visions in a bar, Russell recognizes what’s happening since his late father was also given to seizures and visions. As Nakota sees Nicholas as a gatekeeper to “transcursion” in that novel, Russell sees Austen as gatekeeper to Russell’s dead father and the visions he had .

The two go on a road trip of long hours, Austen taking up art again, drawing in the back seat or blacking out and undergoing visions — he almost kills Russell during one. Russell claims he’s taking him to the one doctor who helped his father.

But, like Nakota and Malcolm in The Cipher, Russell is an instigator and agitator. Or, as one of Koja’s dark-skinned dispensers of wisdom, Mrs. Olivia, says

You’re just a little shitkicker, that’s what you are.

And what’s he’s engineered, using information Austen babbled during one of his fits, is a reunion of Emily and Austen.

Though furious at being manipulated, Emily still has a remnant of sympathy for Austen. But it doesn’t include Austen going to Russell’s doctor, actually a bruja. Dr. Quiet turns out to be a Haitian neurologist turned witch doctor. Of all these Koja novels, Quiet’s office is her single largest incident of Catholic imagery:

Another long table, this one dressed in bright red cloth like a matador’s cape, covered, Scheherazade: Good Luck Dream Books, Magic Numbers cubes, green and purple spirit candles, some burning, some not, endless tiny bottles—” Vete de Aqui,” “Money Drawing Oil”— and square packets of powder. Hologram cards of saints, Saint Sebastian, Saint Dymphna, captured in their moment of sheerest Technicolor agony, turn the card just so and see the soul’s ascension, iridescent vapor ephemeral as holy steam.

Quiet, who also thinks Russell is worthless and just wants to be Austen “without the mess”, tests Austen. After Austen gets an unprecedented reaction from a vegetative patient of Quiet’s, a man Quiet said encountered a duende, the doctor says, “Duende is like God.”

Here, in the conclusion of the novel, explanations for the weirdness get a little sketchy even in terms of mystical metaphors.

Austen embraces Quiet’s suggestion he become a healer. “Duenda” is defined as “a quality of passion and inspiration” deriving from a Spanish phrase meaning “owner of the house”. Passion and inspiration have certainly moved back into Austen’s soul. He describes it to Emily as “a force that rides you”.

But, whether it’s healing or art, she sees it as the same old excuse, the newest manifestation of his passivity, his latest obsession:

Oh God, Austen, no wonder you’re swallowing this shit. It’s your same old rap, remember?” Narrowed eyes into the wind; cruel eyes. He felt tears in his own, it was colder by the minute now, her stare was flat as the edge of a cliff. “We had this conversation ten years ago: your art’s simultaneously at fault for everything and in the driver’s seat. You’re a driven man. It’s the same old Art 101 bullshit that I thought you grew out of. Can’t you take responsibility for anything? Ever?

But Austen doesn’t listen, perhaps can’t listen at this point in the story. The novel is told solely from Austen’s point of view, so the final tenth is a flickering set of manic scenes, outbursts of violence or painting.

The novel concludes with a epigram possibly pointing more to Koja’s inspiration for the novel than its theme. It’s from Federico Garcia Lorca (a Spanish poet we’ll hear more about in the context of a Koja short story I’ll be looking at):

The duende does not come at all unless he sees that death is possible.

The dangers of pursuing transcendence or art at all costs are here like in The Cipher. Austen isn’t just a case of obsession. The silver in Austen’s vision is

revealed at last to be far more than monster or delight, to be work itself, art’s goad, despoiler of waste, dispenser of sorrow to sorrow for a greater good.

… Silver, the color of the knife that heals.

But there’s no healing here, just the knife. Austen kills Emily in one of those blackouts before dying himself.

And it’s not Lorca who supplies the novel’s most memorable line.

It’s Koja: “Each man kills the thing he loves, for the thing he loves more.”

Yes, like The Cipher, this is love ending the worst way possible.