Two reviews that originally appeared as part of a feature on the work of American writer Nicole Cushing back in Black Static #49:-
THE WORLD’S HAPPIEST NIHILIST: NICOLE CUSHING
Up until now I’ve primarily been familiar with the work of American writer Nicole Cushing from the two novellas published by DarkFuse, Children of No One and I Am the New God, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed for the intelligence and insight of the writer, and her willingness to take on potentially controversial subject matter. Those same qualities are seen in two recent releases, Cushing’s first novel and her first collection of short stories.
THE MIRRORS (Cycatrix Press pb/eBook, 220pp, $19.95/$7.95) contains twenty stories, two of them original to the collection, and opens with a foreword by distinguished critic and editor S. T. Joshi, followed by a preface from the author herself in which she talks intriguingly about the concept of dual possession, a symbiotic relationship between the writer and her creations.
The body of the book is divided into themed sections, the first and longest of which is titled ‘Broken Mirrors’ and opens with the story ‘The Truth As Told by a Bottle of Liquid Morphine’. It’s related from the perspective of the titular bottle, who initially expects to be used heroically to relieve pain, but is in fact sold off to a dealer so that bills can be paid, the matter of fact tone bringing the character to vivid life and showing him immersed in a greater story of suffering, one in which betrayal is a leit motif and there are no easy solutions. Underlying this is a strong subtext regarding economic conditions and their role in giving rise to or intensifying human suffering. The protagonist of ‘The Cat in the Cage’ finally acts on her long held urge to suicide, but Cushing ends the story with a twist, a tragic codicil that makes the waste of a life even harsher. Feelings of despair are concretised on the page, with the woman surveying the wreckage of her life and realising that she is unable to get even this last thing right. It is a story of consequences, one that asks us to stop and think before we act, to consider the implications for others.
‘The Orchard of Hanging Trees’ offers us a surreal variation on the story of Adam and Eve, with the Serpent in Hell feeding on the living fruit that sprouts from strange trees and one of the damned, who is charged to protect them, completely misunderstanding the situation and the chance at redemption he has been offered. While the surface of the text bristles with vibrant and compelling imagery, underneath that is a subtext about how we are condemned by the rigid mind sets bequeathed to us by ancestors and a collective mythology. We are creatures who carry our histories with us, codified in our very DNA, both personal and racial, and that is true even when we are in Hell, one that is in part of our own making. In ‘The Fourteenth’ Shostakovich’s symphony helps a woman come to terms with the death of her husband, opening the gateway to a new reality, one in which greater concerns come into play, but ultimately it proves to be a way of avoiding the grief she feels and leads to a form of suicide, a life in death.
With a quotation from his oeuvre rounding out the story, the influence of Thomas Ligotti on ‘A Catechism for Aspiring Amnesiacs’ is obvious. It’s told from the viewpoint of a man who offers himself on Time’s Altar in the hope of being consumed by Oblivion, but finds that he is not worthy, that his traumas are not sufficiently meaty, that there is no hope at all, not even the consolation of an expunged existence. The quiet, matter of fact tone undercuts the despair that seems to be batting away at the edges of the narrative, with the sense that even death is not interested in this failure of a human being. ‘White Flag’ is the story of Gene who, while standing in line at a homeless shelter, encounters a man who claims to be a time traveller, but the only thing he learns from the experience is that the homeless, like the poor, will always be with you, only the ways of dealing with them will change. It’s a piece with nullity at its heart, a sense that while we might conquer time and space the human condition will change only superficially. Technology is not an answer for Cushing, only another way to compound the problems we face as individuals and a species.
Barbed satire laced with irony takes centre stage for ‘The Company Town’, in which a father and his son travel to a place where euthanasia is available at a price, but they don’t have enough money and so must work to earn the right to have their lives ended. The story touches on the idea that for many a life of pointless endeavour is just another form of suicide, that some people are simply killing time until time kills them. Alternately, if you’re constitutionally inclined to a more upbeat ending, it could be argued that in trying to end their lives these two find a reason to live, no matter how misguided it may be. There’s a feel of Dunsany about the fable like story ‘The Choir of Beasts’, set in a world where nearly all life has been extinguished by a plague, and with a shaman gifting a hunter the secret of how to kill the gods, but of course it’s not going to be that easy. Engrossing, from first word to last, this is a story that twists and turns, offering us sudden shifts in scale and meaning, a nasty sting in the tail and the suggestion of a cycle of repetition in human affairs, with the vagaries of fate underlying the narrative.
‘All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Piggy Class’ is set in a world where children are classified as types of animal, with those who don’t fit in becoming outcasts. While the situation is outwardly surreal, Cushing uses it to demonstrate the need to conform, providing a powerful allegory for the way in which individuality is trampled by social conditioning. Short ‘The Last Kid Scared by Lugosi’ is a bitter and ultimately sad story, fangirl Margie raising her horror idol from the dead only to find that old Bela is having none of it, with some black comedy added to flavour, and the irony in the title becoming apparent with hindsight. Each age reinvents the monsters of the past as figures of fun, and then finds its own way to be scared by them.
Shortest story in the collection, the word picture come fable ‘I Am Moonflower’ tells of the transformative relationship between a bee and a morning glory flower, but while undoubtedly written with eloquence I didn’t really find anything else to commend the story. It was slight compared to the others on offer. ‘The Meaning’ purports to be an essay on an obscure film with the title Witchfinders vs. The Evil Red, with hints in the text of something monstrous and terrifying taking place, but suggestion is everything here and the real thrust of the story lies in our own interpretation of the information we are fed. A man is granted knowledge of the true nature of reality when his son falls victim to ‘The Suffering Clown’ in a story that is uniquely unsettling, with disturbing imagery and the sense of sacrifices being made for the common good. Particularly effective is the way in which the authorities collude in maintaining the façade of business as usual in their quaint town, even though something monstrous has taken up residence. It’s easier to pretend things haven’t happened than confront them, and as far as that goes the story could be taken as emblematic of the human will to cover up things that are simply too evil for us to contemplate.
We come now to the ‘Funhouse Mirrors’ section of the book, and probably my favourite story, the vibrant black comedy ‘Eulogy to be Given by Whoever’s Still Sober’. Gloriously over the top, it tells of how a writer of zombie novels decides to turn his death into a public celebration, along the way gently satirising the madness of fans and the craziness of writers, taking the piss out of celebrity and the whole convention scene. Irony comes to the fore again in ‘Youth to be Proud Of’, with a poo faced art critic lambasting a school performance of Our Town in which the cast have been drugged, only to then approve of the following night’s show, totally oblivious to the fact that a firm of undertakers have had more than a little influence on proceedings. It’s very much a tongue in cheek story, but one with a subtext about how we like our young people to conform, even if that requires them to be aesthetically dead. A mother and daughter deal with the end of the world in their own way in ‘Subcontractors’, edging into the funeral market when plague puts the existing network under stress. It is a story of making the best of a bad situation, but at the same time it is one of denial, of closing our eyes to the terrible reality, making excuses that render our personal madness somehow reputable. Insanity as a survival/coping mechanism, and actually that theory could also account for the poo faced art critic’s seeming lack of awareness in the previous story.
Third section ‘Boudoir Mirrors’ opens with ‘The Peculiar Salesgirl’, who manages to intimidate the protagonist of the story into buying new skin, even though it is a fashion she abhors. The thrust of the story is consumerism as conformity, with nobody being allowed to buck the trend, Cushing showing how peer pressure can work in a tale where not everything is what it seems. A couple have an invisible baby in the delightful ‘Non Evidens’, and the strain of dealing with this condition drives a wedge between the fusspot mother and a daughter who wants to live her life by her own standards, not the expectations of another. While the hook is surreal, Cushing uses it to explore once again the idea of conformity, showing how failure to accept our offspring for who they are can result in alienation and bitterness within the family unit, along the way taking a few well aimed pot shots at celebrity culture and how the media can shape a public persona that has little to do with real identity. And it’s not a very big stretch to see the central concept as a metaphor for homosexuality. A lawman arriving to take care of ‘The Squatters’ on his land finds that they are a mythical triumvirate of male, female and hermaphrodite, and his attempts to separate them end in his own transformation, the story running wild and free, with a sense of harmony in nature that must not be disturbed by men, no matter the provocation.
Finally we have the ‘Coda’ section and the story from which the collection takes its title, ‘The Mirrors’. In this ambitious tale people’s reflections start to distort or disappear altogether, giving rise to weird religious cults and questions of who is worthy. It’s a story in which the old adage of the one eyed man in the land of the blind is given a fresh twist, with our hero fleeing a society that finds him unworthy only to make his home with a cult of blind men. The concept is a fascinating one, played out with a larger than life zest and vim. It’s an excellent end to a strong collection of stories, one that celebrates and showcases a new voice in speculative fiction. And, while they touch on myriad subjects, as with all mirrors the image that these stories give back is our own, seen in a glass darkly. Rounding the collection out are story notes by the author, giving her unique perspective on each work of fiction the book contains.
Suicide is a subject that cropped up in several of the stories in The Mirrors and it’s a theme that recurs in Cushing’s suggestively titled novel MR. SUICIDE (Word Horde pb, 226pp, $14.99). Before we get down to brass tacks a caveat lector – this is most definitely not a book for the squeamish. If scenes of sex with amputees and mutilated bodies, of gross violence, humiliation and torture, are not your fictional cup of tea, then it’s probably best to give this book a miss. If however you have a strong stomach, then it’s a book that will more than reward your interest.
It’s written in the second person and told from the viewpoint of a never named teenage boy, and by way of grabbing the attention it opens with our protagonist confessing that he wanted to kill his mother. Bullied at home and at school, he has an imaginary friend he calls Mr. Suicide, who urges him to take the final solution. In desperation he makes various efforts at self-mutilation, but nothing quite goes according to plan. Subsequently his older brother, who still lives at home and has been completely cowed by their mother, introduces him to Perfect Monsters, a magazine of amputee porn. Repelled at first, our hero finds that he is attracted to these pictures, sexually aroused by the images and the strange dreams that they bring, leading to a sexually charged and abusive relationship with the disabled Cressida. It is the first step in a journey of discovery come dark rite of passage that draws him into the bowels of the city in which he lives and to the club known as The Border Crossing, where he encounters an entity far more powerful than Mr. Suicide, a being known as the Great Dark Mouth, who promises oblivion to his devotees. But as with everything there is a price to be paid, and our hero must perform certain tasks to achieve the nirvana of non-existence, tasks that will drag him ever deeper into squalor and degeneracy.
Superficially this book reads like a conflation of the in your face horror of Jack Ketchum, who has contributed an inside cover blurb, and the intellectual rigour and sense of existential despair of Ligotti, whose own work foreshadows the Great Dark Mouth of Cushing’s fiction. Perhaps more appositely, it mirrors the work of the Marquis De Sade who explored the outer limits of the fiction of outrage, filling the pages of his books with extreme acts of sex and violence, but informed with a unique perspective and philosophy. The typical Sadean anti-hero commits torture and rape and murder as an affront and challenge to a God he doesn’t believe in, daring the creator to strike him down for his sins. For De Sade his philosophy was a justification for and rationalisation of the atrocities he portrayed, with nihilism as simply a means to an end. Cushing’s protagonist differs from the larger than life monsters of The 120 Days of Sodom and similar works from De Sade’s canon in two ways – firstly he is not some omnipotent figurehead who can strike with impunity, but an outcast for whom extreme behaviour is both an affirmation of his own existence/worth and a form of sublimated revenge, and secondly for him the extreme acts of sex and violence are not an end in themselves, only the route he must take to reach some higher state of being, with oblivion itself as the ultimate nirvana, a higher form of nihil.
Having been rejected by society, having suffered abuse and belittlement from even those who should have granted him unconditional love, Cushing’s protagonist embarks on a course that sees him embrace all the things rejected by society, the acts and behaviour patterns that ordinary, decent people abhor. He has first-hand experience of the hypocrisy and double standards of ordinary, decent people – a mother who lectures him on morality but masturbates while reading The Book of Revelations, teachers who humiliate him, and potential friends who stab him in the back. Designated worthless, a monster in the court of public opinion, he consciously reifies himself as something monstrous, externalising some inner voice as his guiding principle through the labyrinth of a nightmarish existence. In doing so he also in part alienates the reader, who might otherwise have greater sympathy for the character. As it is we can only profess to part understand how he came to this pass, what drove him to such desperate measures, without approving of the choices he makes. And this understanding, or at least the possibility of it, appears to be more important to Cushing than our sympathy for her character, though here her use of second person pays dividends, in that the “you” phrasing invites us to also wonder what it would be like to kill our mother, to fuck amputees, to dismember a tramp with our bare hands. We are drawn, deep inside the head of the monster, kicking and screaming perhaps but unable to resist, and what we see there reveals the potential for the monstrous in our own psyches.
To repeat my earlier warning, Cushing writes with no holds barred and there are scenes in this book that will be repellent for many readers, non-consensual acts of sexual violence and mutilation, murder and mayhem, but they are not gratuitous. Rather they are rendered in such an extreme manner so as to have a powerful effect on the reader, not simply to shock and outrage, but to show us that monsters are not just born but fashioned by the society that contains them. For the protagonist self-harm doesn’t consist of just cutting, but of moral outrages that will ravage his psyche.
It’s not all grim though, just mainly. As part of the book’s end game the protagonist is granted something he refers to as Plastic Vision, seeing other people as cartoon creations, as people made out of plastic and speaking in Looney Tunes voices, a tack that enables Cushing to inject a note of humour into the work. At the same time she uses scenes like a meeting with an evangelist on a bus and an encounter with a homeless Trekkie and conspiracy nut to show that we all have our belief systems to sustain us, and that ultimately they are just as arbitrary and ridiculous as that adopted by the protagonist.
Only when the protagonist starts to see others as flesh and blood again, to invest himself in the future through the child his former disabled “girlfriend” is expecting, does a cure of sorts commence and the will to live begin to assert itself. He develops a new belief/support system, one in which the appeal of oblivion is muted. And yet there isn’t really a happy ending as such – the closing image of the book seems to suggest that only in conformity is a tenable existence possible for him, and possibly for all of us – all mad people marching in step to a common beat. In spite of all the sound and fury, the splatter effects and acts of outrage, in fact because of them, this is a serious work that addresses moral themes in an uncompromising and unflinching manner, a work of courage for the writer and reader both.