I have a special fondness for books that subtly or not subtly celebrate the oddity and eeriness of lived experience—capturing and harnessing the odd unsettling we’d feel from, say, an absurdist novel, but within situations that are not absurd per se, in that we are liable to encounter them in our everyday, real world—sometimes to humorous and pleasing and sometimes to daunting or horrifying effect. It is a little bit of the Mark Twain dictum about truth being stranger than fiction, but perverted to say, there is so much unusual around us, I don’t even need to reach for speculative books that consciously venture into the unreal.
The Third Person, by Emily Anglin
Emily Anglin is one of my favourite contemporary writers. With the quietly devastating, roaming quality of the protagonists she is able to create an ambience of such suspenseful eeriness and unease. On the surface, we are merely seeing people interact in common social situations—old jobs, new jobs, new neighbours, someone trying to sell you something on a street. Yet there is the sense that Anglin’s heroes/anti-heroes are striving for something that is just out of their grasp. There is a visceral loneliness or even pathology to them that makes them appear to be detached from their social setting, to the point of almost being ghost-like, floating about, but of course they are not unlike like you or me or the people in our lives. I’m sitting at the edge of my seat, awaiting Anglin’s next project.
The Listeners, by Jordan Tannahill
The protagonist of The Listeners is a high school teacher living in an American suburb who hears a persistent humming sound and joins a support group with others who can hear it. Their allegiance garners criticism and suspicion from those who cannot hear the sound, and believe the “hummers” to be either liars or to lack a grasp of reality. Factions are born and, as is wont to happen when factions are born, conflicts ensue. But weird frequency sounds are a known phenomenon. There is the resonant frequency of the earth itself, as one of the characters in the hummer group points out. On a walk in my neighbourhood that I like taking at night in the summer, on a very quiet street, one particular house I pass by causes my ears to suffer a barely perceptible, tinny sound. It is an odd experience that feels like someone is pointing a laser beam at the path between my ears, which of course can’t be the case. It’s strange and unsettling—and it can only be heard because of the utter lack of noise pollution—yet night after night I return to the same spot and pause for a while, I guess to confirm it is real, which it is; I hope everyone believes me.
Safari Honeymoon, by Jesse Jacobs
The graphic novel Safari Honeymoon presents a simple story, perhaps even an allegory, set on a richly illustrated, almost claustrophobically richly illustrated, stage of organic and hallucinatory flora and fauna. Jacobs’s illustrations are meticulous, strange, organic, frightening, and also cute, in their creepy-crawly anatomy. The story concerns a newlywed couple’s luxury jungle safari experience—think White Lotus levels of entitled, annoying, eco-insensitive tourism—that takes an accelerating turn for the weird (also not unlike White Lotus) the more the couple obliviously interact with their natural surroundings. While the story seems to cross into the realm of horror—as creatures of the jungle appear to parasitically inhabit the protagonists—there is really nothing unusual about parasites, and nature’s utterly fascinating dominion over us. The current pandemic is no exception: us as victims of the natural world’s creepy-crawly organisms, whom we continue to feel superior to and immune from. While Safari Honeymoon may appear fantastical, our hubristic belief of control over nature is as real as it gets.
I Become a Delight to My Enemies, by Sara Peters
This hybrid novel or collection, part verse and part prose, presents a series of points-of-view of the women in a town, perhaps only metaphorically a “town.” The women, through various veils of allusion and imagery, recount the horrific fates that they’ve met, in a place that is ruled by a strange, but unequivocally patriarchal and violent force. It is a dark story, so dark it can come across as fable or nightmare, or magic gone awry. The beauty of Peters’ writing, and of her imaginative reach, make for a fascinating mix: beauty and horror, the story of a group of women in the most frightening of places.
Guestbook, by Leanne Shapton
An artifact, an artbook, a collection of found objects and of their stories, a collection of ghost stories?—it’s wonderfully impossible to pin down Shapton’s book. It features photographs of dimly lit interiors and vintage clothing, of icebergs and buildings. It contains fiction set next to holiday wrapping paper, and Shapton’s own watercolours. Its unifying theme—gleaned from the subtitle of the book “Ghost Stories”—is spectres and presences, the feeling that something or someone, possibly of the past, lingers in something of the present. This feeling or sensation or being haunted is something I imagine has been felt at some moment by everyone, and yet the concept of ghosts or spirits remains for the most part shelved as fictional, made-up, and unproven. Maybe the universality of the haunted experience combined with its relegation into the unreal is what makes it so enticing as a topic, it is magic and yet not—perhaps we wish to prove that once and for all it is true. I’ve never seen a ghost, but I have to some degree experienced the sensation of being haunted and of feeling the ghostly qualities presented in the stories of this collection. My favourite piece, though a devastatingly sad one, is that about Billy Byron, a pro tennis player driven to exhaustion in his game by an imaginary companion named Walter who urges him on, leading him both to success and an ultimate downfall.
Just Pervs, by Jess Taylor
There’s a wonderful nonchalance to the title “Just Pervs”—the characters in these short stories are only perverts, deal with it! Or perhaps it is more like: we, as sexual sentient creatures, are all to some degree “perverts,” and that’s natural, so stop making a big deal out of it. As the stories deal with women’s sexuality, it is maybe even more accurate to say: women can be and are perverts, no apologies needed. The stories all touch upon some form of sexual behaviour or desire. Often, it is a type of compulsion that could be labelled as deviant or taboo, or at least as something that does not typically get positive, if any, light shed on it, such as the meditations on pleasure by an octogenarian woman in the story “So Raw You Can’t Sit.” These desires and acts are not oddities and strange compulsions in an objective sense, but throughout the centuries that have amassed before our present moment, we’ve been led to believe they are, in particular when displayed and acted upon by women. Taylor lays out her characters in all their unredacted and X-rated glory, with tenderness and care, for our pleasure.
South, by Babak Lakghomi
South is narrated by a freelance journalist, identified as B., who travels to the south, desert region of an unnamed nation on assignment, in order to temporarily live on an offshore oil rig while documenting its working conditions. There is a sparseness to the narrative style—the sparseness characterising how one might communicate a long and intriguing but ultimately highly unsettling dream, upon waking and recollecting, or perhaps ostensibly waking, recollecting, and not being fully sure one isn’t still dreaming. Compelling, somewhat mysterious plot points start to coalesce as details are slowly revealed—a strained marriage, a manuscript-in-progress about the narrator’s father who’d left his family for this same south region. In the novel-world’s background, the locals of the south struggle as traditional industries are displaced, and rely on myths and beliefs that B. feels skeptical about and intrigued by. South is eerie and engrossing, punchy yet veiled in a semi-conscious aura.
In my novel Big Shadow, the narrator’s closest friends become preoccupied with a belief in the titular phenomenon, a shadow that will be cast by a singular cloud, and that will somehow allow them to transcend their current state of existence. At the same time, the narrator begins to spend time with a new friend: a man much older than she is, a poet and musician who enjoyed fame two decades earlier and still has a latent fan base and membership in NYC’s art scene. He promises to launch the narrator’s artistic career in NYC—and despite being a very intelligent person, she believes him, whereas we, the reader, might have our doubts. I think the ways in which our minds can twist our sense of what is possible, of reality and the truth of a situation, is up there with the fantastical, in terms of both how strange and how fascinating it is. In the end, it’s not any more unusual to believe in a coming big shadow cast by a cloud than it is to believe in the possibility of a relationship of equals.
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