Filler content with a novel and a collection

Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #64:-

DOUBLE ACTS: S. P. MISKOWSKI

According to a blurb in the back of her latest novel, S. P. Miskowski is “one of the most interesting and original writers to emerge in recent years”, and I have to agree with that assessment as I wrote it and the latest evidence bears it out. She is a writer who continues to surprise me or, to paraphrase your investment adviser, “past performance is not indicative of future direction”.

Case in point, that latest novel which deservedly won a This Is Horror Award and was a Stoker Award nominee. I WISH I WAS LIKE YOU (JournalStone Publishing pb, 252pp, $16.95) is nothing at all like Miskowski’s previous outing at this length, the Shirley Jackson Award nominated Knock Knock (lots of awards getting mentioned here, which should tell you something). While that book had about it the feel of a work at home within the parameters of the horror genre in general and southern Gothic in particular, this new novel is entirely modern in cast, something that could pass muster as a mainstream work regardless of the fact that the narrator is a vengeful spirit and a plethora of homicides and other nasty acts take place between its covers. It is a murder mystery and a ghost story, a work of psychological horror and a misery memoir, all wrapped up in a bag of literary tricks that will delight fans of the type of fiction that revels in taking risks. In fact I believe I could make a case for it being the twenty first century equivalent of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho with a woman instead of a male protagonist, poverty instead of unbridled wealth, petty acts of revenge in lieu of more grandiose atrocities, but seen from the perspective of a narrator every bit as self-absorbed and oblivious to the “not me” as Patrick Bateman.

The book opens with the discovery of Greta Garver’s dead body. In a city that is still coming to terms with the death of Kurt Cobain her death is dismissed as just another Goth suicide. Greta however, or her ghost to be exact, knows better, knows that she was murdered by her great nemesis Eve Wallace and sets out to be revenged. Greta’s back life – teenage years without a rudder, directionless, and then meeting with the cynical and bitter Lee Todd Butcher, once a contender in the crime writing stakes, now a former hack reduced to teaching, whose “friendship” doesn’t extend to giving her a free pass on shitty writing. Out of sorts with her “mentor”, Greta flounces, packs her bags and heads off to Seattle, there to become a successful writer, except reality doesn’t accommodate her. After various setbacks, she manages to snag a job as theatre critic on a free newspaper, and sets about wreaking revenge on the woman who, in lieu of any self-awareness, she holds responsible for all her failures, but of course things still aren’t going to plan for our plucky anti-heroine.

There’s a lot going on here, far more than my plot synopsis above can convey. Central to the story is the Seattle setting, and as somebody whose main awareness of the city comes courtesy of reruns of Frasier, Miskowski’s vivid descriptions of the streets and buildings, the newspaper wars and bustling theatre scene, give Seattle an entirely different cast and bring it alive in compelling detail. The impression is of a metropolis on the make, a city that never stands still, but not through restless energy in need of an outlet; rather it feels like a town that simply doesn’t know what to do with itself, what it aspires to, and so is constantly backtracking and running in circles. And as far as that goes, the city seems to mirror the personality of protagonist Greta Garver, who also doesn’t seem to know what to do with her life, whose every action is predicated on responding to others and reacting to them, rather than finding any course of her own. Each step that she takes results in digging a bigger hole, but for Greta the point is that it’s her hole, dug by her and nobody else. Lee Todd gives her good advice about the difficulties of a writing career, and her only response is to attempt to prove him wrong. Other opportunities come her way, and she fouls them up, simply because she doesn’t really want anything, except petty revenge for imagined slights. Greta is a marvellous and memorable creation, not a monster, but somebody all too human and fallible; Patricia Bateman for the twenty first century, to overwork my previous comparison. She can never be happy, because everything she achieves, every step forward, turns to ash as soon as she takes it. Near the novel’s end she sees joy on a child’s face, and it’s a moment of epiphany, a recognition of something that has always stuck just out of reach in her own life, but it changes nothing.

No woman is an island, and so Greta is surrounded by a cast of larger than life characters, each of them complete with their own idiosyncrasies and personality foibles. Miskowski doesn’t stint, even on those who have walk on parts. The genius loci of the book is Lee Todd Butcher, both as an actual person and as a ghost who pops in to check up on Greta before moving on to other realms. Beneath his acerbic personality, is somebody who actually cares what happens to her and who is critical with her good in mind, but Greta is too up herself to see that and reacts to his criticisms in entirely the wrong way. All the people who befriend and try to help her – upstairs neighbour and play director Vaughn, fellow writer Daisy, newspaper man Charlie – end up feeling betrayed and let down, and Greta is unable to stop herself acting like this even though these are people she appears to like. Eve Wallace, while assuming monstrous qualities in Greta’s imagination, is in many ways just the sort of person Greta could so easily have become given different circumstances, and perhaps this is the true source of her hatred. Certainly as ghosts the two feel very much like twins separated at birth.

Another delight of the book are the metafictional and, possibly, biographical touches. Lee Todd is prone to writing diktats, and some of these head up several of the chapters – don’t start a book with the discovery of a dead body, don’t use a dead person as narrator, and so on – and Miskowski in mimicry of her protagonist’s modus operandi gleefully flouts each and every one of them, only with very different results. The Seattle theatre scene, which is so central to the book’s last third, is one that Miskowski knows well and brings to vivid life on the page, a cauldron of creative energy so much of which appears misdirected or futile, experimentation simply for the sake of being different, while the story that Greta submits to a writing competition can be found in the author’s collection Strange Is the Night. Peppered throughout the book are snapshots of the mental states of people on the verge of suicide, with spectral Greta giving them that little push or jolt of encouragement, and the cumulative effect of these scenes is to create a mood of bleakness that would make any self-respecting miserablist throw up his hands in despair. These tiny misery memoirs are invaluable in providing context for Greta’s own psychology, showing that she is a person without a trace of empathy or compassion, utterly devoid of self-understanding.

Engrossing throughout, the book becomes a powerhouse in the final pages, as Greta finally confronts the complete mess she has made of her life, even though it doesn’t seem to provide her with any closure, just another reason to feel sorry for herself. It is a moment of self-realisation, but as with every other such where Greta is concerned it doesn’t truly sink in and take root. Miskowski has produced an exemplary novel, one that deals intelligently with themes of creativity and self-absorption, one that leaves the reader with much to think about and is every bit as brilliant as the work Greta Garver dreams of producing but can’t deliver. I loved it.

The author’s latest collection, STRANGE IS THE NIGHT (Trepidatio Publishing pb, 252pp, $16.95), contains thirteen stories, three of which are seeing print for the first time, and another which has the distinction of previously appearing in Black Static #45. Three of the stories – ‘This Many’, ‘Somnambule’, and ‘Stag in Flight’ – I’ve reviewed before and so, as per standard operating procedure, instead of going over old ground with the attendant risk of contradicting myself, I’ll post the text of those previous reviews to the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com.

Opening the proceedings is ‘A.G.A.’, which is not the name of a brand of cooker but an acronym for something else entirely. Over late night drinks in a bar Ed explains to his good friend Phil how bad things always happen to people who cross him, only Ed is not as friendly to Phil as you might think given the chatty tone, and his words carry a veiled threat. This is an old style story, one along the familiar lines of revenge foretold, and most readers will guess the end, though here Miskowski pulls an extra trick by leaving it all up in the air, so that both Phil and the reader are left to ponder if Ed is just shooting the breeze or warning of a genuine peril. With its chatty tone, the author capturing perfectly the voices of her characters, the story has an amiable feel to it, in direct contradiction of what is actually taking place, and it’s a great curtain raiser for what follows, with the author getting tone of voice just right. In ‘Lost and Found’ a female milquetoast chooses to vacation by visiting the haunts of her favourite writer, but stumbles into a reality where what happens to her mirrors events in the writer’s life, the story offering us a song in praise of those who fail to make their mark, who are not so much living their lives as just passing through, guests in a hotel from which they can never really depart or feel at home. Imagine Hotel California reinvented as a Jonathan Carroll short story and you’ll have an idea where this piece is coming from.

In ‘Fur’ Mary ends up going on an unusual date thanks to the efforts of her employer at the dog grooming parlour. The story is offbeat, to say the least, cultivating a mood of strangeness even while it stays just the right side of the line between the real world and the numinous, with all Mary’s doubts and insecurities given form in the person of Johnny. It culminates in an ending that hints at something more outré, a link of sorts between the two characters. Three students sharing the bills for the ‘Animal House’ find that they must take on a fourth to make ends meet, only new roomie Kirsten is not what she appears to be, with disastrous consequences for all. This is an assured feat of storytelling, a tale that takes its time to build, drawing in the characters effortlessly and showing how they interact, with casual hints that not all is well, the sense of menace slowly mounting until it bursts forth in all its horror. In fact I’d argue that the true value of the story lies not in the terror unleashed, which may be down to either Kristen or the house itself, or some amalgamation of both, but to the near perfect characterisation Miskowski gives us.

‘Ms. X Regrets Everything’ consists of text from a parole appeal by a woman serving a long term gaol sentence, intercut with scenes from her past life (the story is quite specific as to the woman’s identity, but today I’m trying to avoid spoilers). While she doesn’t exonerate the character or shy away from her violent actions, underlying the text is an attempt to understand how somebody could come to act in such ways, how devalued as a human being Ms. X must have felt, and the ironic title refers to far more than the murders she helped commit. Natalie looks out for her sister Sandy, and doesn’t baulk when a phone conversation hints at something terrible having taken place in ‘A Condition for Marriage’. The story is predictable, but that doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of a well-written piece with thoroughly believable characters. There’s a double whammy to the ending, with more than a hint of further trouble ahead, and a final sentence that underlines the “special” nature of the sister.

Returned to the scenes of her early struggles, now a famous playwright, Jane is disturbed by more than memories in ‘The Second Floor’. It’s a story in which past and present events overlap and inform each other, with the feeling that you can never get away from the things that went wrong back in the day, no matter how far you travel or what you accomplish, the whole underpinned by an insider view of the theatre scene in Seattle. ‘Death and Disbursement’ is told from the viewpoint of a call handler at an insurance company forced to deal with a particularly difficult customer. Again nothing is overtly presented, and yet you sense that there is something lurking in the background, that the threat is more substantial than just an angry old white guy with an attitude. Miskowski excels in making the ordinary seem strange and menacing in this most unusual of Halloween stories.

In title piece ‘Strange is the Night’, a story inspired by Chambers’ ‘The King in Yellow’, a vindictive theatre critic gets his much deserved comeuppance. Miskowski is excellent at portraying Pierce, the ways in which he exploits his position and the self-loathing and sense of failure that drives him to act as he does, then brings it all to a glorious conclusion with an outré and highly appropriate resolution, one in which the macabre invades and swamps the everyday. Finally we have ‘Water Main’ in which dissatisfaction with her boyfriend’s shortcomings as a plumber lead Nancy to seek somewhere else to live, with unforeseen consequences. The opening scenes of relationship discord and dissatisfaction with physical environment are handled well, but only set the scene for what is to come, with Nancy stumbling into a nightmarish scenario, one where crawling babies seem to be emblematic of the man she has chosen to live with, of all her wrong life choices in fact. It’s a powerful and hallucinatory ending to a strong collection of stories, a volume that effectively showcases the range and talent of one of the most original and distinctive new voices on the scene.

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