ANTISOCIETIES by Michael Cisco (Review)

Michael Cisco is one of many writers I’ve long intended to read but haven’t. So it goes. Over the course of Antisocietieswhich I couldn’t put down, by the way—I found myself compulsively ordering titles from Cisco’s catalogue. The majority of his publications are on the way to my house at the time of writing. The point here is important enough to state clearly: if you’re a reader of weird fiction and haven’t yet given Cisco the time of day, you need to rectify this. Right away.

“No work has been more Ligottian, not even Ligotti’s.” This is what I wrote in my notes at some point. It’s clearly one of those indefensible claims manufactured for the sheer shock of saying it, so I’ll leave it distanced by quotations.  Given, however, the permeable membrane separating outside and inside in Ligotti’s work, that element of “unreal reality,” to cite Ligotti’s description of the work of Bruno Schulz, that is “like dreams and not like them at the same time,” it’s worth keeping Ligotti close, since Cisco’s collection continues in this Ligottian key. But make no mistake, Antisocieties stands easily—fiercely even—on its own merits.

This collection’s immense power resides in the fact that it’s possible to read a story like “Intentionally Left Blank” and feel simultaneously that something horrific and momentous occurred while also questioning if anything truly happened at all. This is a Ligottian strength, the imbuing of nothing (an overlooked art exhibit in a library, a dilapidated gas station) with the weight of a world-ending. It’s a talent Cisco has made seem solely his, so seamlessly is it put to service.

A child moves in with an aunt, begins watching the neighbors, since there’s nothing else to do, and catches a glimpse of a man with a mask. What happens next is difficult to describe. The misty anti-logic of a dream assumes dominance, and every word is weighted with lead-heavy dread; Dog Scream is his name, the masked man says, and no one surrounding the protagonist can be bothered to deny or rationalize this unsettling turn reality has taken. They’re unwittingly complicit in the nightmare, observing the same events with the emotional detachment of a cardboard cutout, leaving the protagonist, just as Cisco has left the reader, with a “monster” divorced entirely from the symbolic ordering of reality. You are not told what’s to be said or thought or felt about Dog Scream; the great violence of language against alterity is prevented (as much as possible) from occurring. It is sheer otherness, then, a signifier “intentionally left blank,” which lightnings convincingly from the page to the reader’s mind. The result is disorientation, confusion, a sense of losing your way that leaves you on edge. It’s a masterful bit of manipulation, priming you to mistrust all that is to come. This is the very first story, after all. There’s much left to mistrust.

Ligotti’s best tales tend to involve subjects who fixate on elements in their surrounding object-world that have ceased fulfilling their proper function. We could say Ligotti’s characters find themselves maniacally obsessed with signs that no longer signify as they should. When Ligotti’s protagonists investigate further, they discover in the misbehaving object a reflection of their own disintegrating interiority. It is a violence to the illusion of self that Ligotti seeks to inflict, and he does it by enacting a play between the cracks in subjectivity and the abysmal nature of the object.

Cisco’s work pursues a similar ontological deterioration, but the cursed, reflective objects in Antisocieties reside even further than Ligotti’s from the language of categories that structure the social sphere. “The Starving of Saqqara” involves the disappearance of an ancient Egyptian sculpture that seems anachronistic in its realistic depiction of suffering. It is explicitly acknowledged as either “pre-Dynastic Egyptian art, or a modern fake,” and thematically paired with, of all things, Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” It is precisely these details undermining the plausibility of the object that imbues them with a kind of super-charged strangeness. They are tainted things that can’t quite be grasped by the mind, entities withheld just beyond the cognitive Tantalus grip, generating a psychical distance typical of works of high art. If this collection has a signature move, it’s Cisco’s masterful distortion of the mundane, an alchemical metamorphosing of the everyday into the profoundly weird.

Cisco’s (mis)handling of objects, however, is never itself the target; the real assault is always on the self, as is made extraordinarily clear in stories like “Saccade,” “Antisocieties,” and “Water Machine.” In each, Cisco demonstrates with terrifying vividness that our bodies and minds are strange, potentially alien things, ready, with just a few adjustments, to exchange the invisible maintenance of equilibrium for vistas of unimaginable agony. “Saccade” suggests levels of signification that lie beyond perception, a symbolic order we can only glimpse when our bodies stop lying to us; “Water Machine” posits a similar edifice, decodable only with the paranoiac’s insanity (which Cisco depicts almost too convincingly). Both stories pull the primacy of the subject up short, suggesting that we live everyday lives only at the expense of truth.

Other writers have suggested this, including Ligotti, but Cisco has a way of recasting the inherent weirdness of consciousness with more urgency than ever. “Antisocieties,” the last story I’ll discuss here, is a horrifying portrayal of the body as a prison. The story begins, benignly enough, with descriptions of an area surrounding a park. A black car pulls up, and a man named simply “the administrator” walks up to a man sitting on a bench. The man on the bench—we are not told why—is nearly paralyzed with terror over the course of the administrator’s seemingly inconsequential attempts to interact with him. A lesser writer than Cisco would succumb to the temptation to record the seated man’s subjective mental process; a lesser writer still would lapse into flashbacks to justify his fear of the administrator. Cisco passes over subjectivity and history to focus on surfaces:

“The man nearly sighs through his nose and stops abruptly in a windless snort. He draws his lips into his mouth and presses them shut. His eyes fail to receive impressions. He struggles to keep himself completely still. Sitting without breathing, without moving.”

It is this excruciating corporeal detail that deprives the human body of familiarity. The horror of “Antisocieties” is this sudden nakedness, this uncanny alienation of our own flesh. Our bodies must operate in invisibility for life to be bearable—this very invisibility is taken from the man on the bench, along with the invisibility of his subjectivity (“The man winces at the word ‘you.’”) and the all-too-subjective assumption that the ego tunnel will continue linking the past and present with the future without interruption. Cisco accomplishes a brutal dehumanization here, a relentless objectifying of the human body that far trespasses the borders of comfort. We are back to the problem of objects, except this time it is the human body itself that is butchered into ungraspable otherness.

Horror, according to Eugene Thacker, “is about the paradoxical thought of the unthinkable.” No other characterization of horror feels truer, even if most horror fiction itself appears to challenge this standard by groping clumsily towards it without ever reaching (which isn’t meant to sound as critical as that—how, after all, can one reach the unreachable?). Antisocieties is an unqualified victory for Thacker’s definition of horror, since it convincingly posits terrors beyond thinkability without telling the reader about them. Antisocieties is also a victory for Grimscribe Press, for Cisco’s already-standing reputation as a master, and for readers who enjoy their horror unforgettably outré. It may seem overwrought, but I mean it: this collection is as close to perfect as they come.

-Justin A. Burnett

Justin A. Burnett is the author of The Puppet King and Other Atonements, to be published by Trepidatio Publishing in 2022. He’s also the Executive Editor of Silent Motorist Media, a weird fiction publisher responsible for the creation of the anthologies Mannequin: Tales of Wood Made Flesh, which was named best multi-author anthology of 2019 by Rue Morgue magazine, The Nightside Codex, and Hymns of Abomination, a tribute to the work of Matthew M. Bartlett. His quarterly chapbook, Mysterium Tremendum, explores the intersection between horror and the holy. He currently lives in Austin, Texas, with his partner and children.  

Lyrics of Mature Hearts by Bob McNeil – Poetry Anthology

In his landmark Surrealist novel Nadja, Andre Breton said, “Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all.” This sentence perfectly conveys our involuntary attraction to both the Romantic and the macabre. It speaks to the love that exists in all things, whether it’s our treatment of life or the subject of death.

It is impossible to write anything of merit that does not acknowledge, in one way or another, the inevitability of decay. Humans, like all other species, are built for obsolescence. Still, this is a fact which is difficult for modern writers to confront and even rarer for readers to embrace.

This explains why older characters have become a bit of an endangered species in contemporary fiction. It also explains why everyone should pay attention to the new anthology from Bob McNeil and Gordon P. Bois.

In Lyrics of Mature Hearts, an independently-published collection of poetry, McNeil and his authors candidly deal with the issue of adulthood in various poetic variations.

The genesis of the project demonstrates the unpredictable paths that life takes us on as the sand passes through the hourglass. About a year ago, McNeil was approached by a talented Chicana poet on Facebook. She proposed a collaboration in which the pair would use Elizabeth and Robert Browning as sources of inspiration.

Although initially intrigued by the offer, McNeil ultimately thought it odd to express adoration for someone he wasn’t intimately familiar with. After giving the idea some more thought, he proposed they work on an anthology on life and love by older people.

The poet agreed, but eventually quit after the project became too difficult. McNeil was, by now, so committed to the project that he carried on without her. Soon, he and his colleagues had filled nearly 70 pages with lyrical works about the growth and growing pains of getting old as well as the prevailing love many of us carry, for life and for each other.

If all of this sounds somewhat maudlin consider this: Bob McNeil has penned some of the smartest short horror fiction of the 21st century; his work has appeared in several print anthologies from Deadman’s Tome, among others. Lyrics of Mature Hearts is more than just poems about the aging because McNeil is more than just another Poe wannabe.

Check out the book here.

The Lucky Star by William T. Vollmann – Book Review

Review by Ben Arzate

Neva, often referred to as the people who know her as “the lesbian,” has a seemingly supernatural ability to make anyone around her love her on the condition that she loves them back. This results in her gathering an almost cult-like following at the Y Bar that she frequents. Her lovers include the alcoholic Richard, the bartender Francine, and a transwoman named Judy. Judy’s boyfriend, a retired policeman named J.D., grows jealous of her relationship with Neva and starts digging into Neva’s past to try to find a way to get back at her.

The lesbian was nearly always on time for our appointments. That made I easier for us to pretend that she was faithful to each of us alone.”

While Richard is the narrator of the book, the main characters are really Neva and Judy. The main theme of the book is “performing femininity.” In the case of the lesbian, Neva (technically not really a lesbian), does not need to “perform” as she’s a goddess-like being. The platonic ideal of femininity. Judy, a transwoman, is, in contrast, constantly in need of performing it to “pass.” This comes to the forefront with her love of both Neva and J.D. She seeks the perfect femininity of Neva but often finds herself pulled away from it by J.D., who often abuses and misgenders her. This is made even more obvious by the fact that characters are often referred to as their “roles” such as “the lesbian,” “the transwoman,” “the retired policeman,” etc.

While Vollmann is actually quite skilled at sketching out his characters, and this is a book more driven by character and theme than by plot, he’s not so good at bringing it together as a coherent whole. At least not in this book. An example of one of this book’s major failings is that the main plotline of J.D. exploring Neva’s past is rendered completely pointless as much of the beginning of the book explains it in great deal. The plotline is ultimately a shaggy dog story, which makes it even more annoying.

The novel is over 600 pages. This isn’t unusual for a Vollmann book, but here it isn’t warranted at all. The stories of these characters are ultimately straightforward and much of what Vollmann puts into it is just filler. To contrast it with another Vollmann book with a similar premise, The Royal Family actually earns it 800 page length with its wide cast of different characters, its odd non-fictional digressions, and some of the genuinely nasty imagery. Here, it feels like Vollmann is simply trying to wear the reader down with repetitions of the various characters’ devotions to Neva, J.D. learning things we already knew about her, and the dead sex scenes that I’m really not sure were supposed to be erotic, disturbing, or just meant to unerotic in the most banal way.

I can’t say this book is a complete failure. I found when Vollmann zoomed in on one character and focused on their individual stories I was far more engaged. Also, despite being rather worn down with this book by the end, I still felt a little sad watching the mostly tragic endings all of the characters unfold. It’s obvious he did something right.

Vollmann is known for being somewhat difficult with his editors and often refusing to make cuts, sometimes even taking lower royalties and advances to offset the risk of the size of his books. However, this is one that really would have benefited from a lot of cuts and rearrangement. There’s a pretty good 300-400 page book inside this 600 page one. As it stands, I really can’t recommend this book unless you’re a hardcore Vollmann fan. Otherwise, you’re better off picking up The Royal Family.

Planet 6 by Morgan Gendel—Book Review

Zed Hellfinger is a cadet in the force known as the SkyRiders, soldiers who ride devices called Discs. While out on a joyride, he ends up making a shocking discovery and finds himself captured by the enemy’s genetically-engineered super soldiers, known as Thuggs. Zed has to escape while stopping a war from breaking out and stopping a traitor in the ranks of the SkyRiders.

Zed was certain that this Thugg knew what the outcome would be. For a brief second before Zed squeezed Rifle’s trigger, he thought he sensed something in this artificial beast.

Something like humanity.”

Morgan Gendel is a TV writer whose CV includes shows like Law & Order, The Dresden Files, and Star Trek. Most famously, he won a Hugo for the Stark Trek: The Next Generation episode, “Inner Light,” widely considered one of the best episodes of that series, if not the best. Planet 6 is his debut novel and, for the most part, his transition is smooth and avoids the pitfalls of being a screenwriter transitioning to prose.

Planet 6 reads very much like an old-school pulp action novel. Everything from the plot, the mix of action, adventure, and mystery, the names of characters and alien races (a large humanoid woman referred to as a “Zon” as in Amazon, for example), and the fast pace make this read very much like something one would find serialized in the pages of the old pulp magazines with “stories” in the title. Even the structure of the story, often involving Zed being captured and escaping or being rescued, reads like it was originally written in a serialized form. However, it still ties together as a coherent overall narrative.

Gendel’s action scenes are engaging and vivid. The book opens with Zed’s capture and escape from the Thugg soldiers. It’s a fun scene that draws the reader in and kept me turning the pages. Likewise, the mystery of the SkyRiders traitor is something that doesn’t factor hugely into the plot until later in the book, but is set up subtly without interrupting the flow of Zed’s escape and return to the SkyRiders’ base.

If I had to point to any flaws in the book, besides minor things like the awkward introduction establishing the setting and a few moments of unnatural sounding dialogue, it’s that as fun as it was reading it, I didn’t find it particularly memorable. It’s very much a book one reads once and then moves on from. However, it is only the first part of a series, and I wouldn’t at all be opposed to reading future installments. There is a lot of potential in the world built here.

Though not the most unique and outstanding book, Planet 6 is still a fun sci-fi action ride. If you want a fun, fast read then you’ll very much enjoy this one. Gendel has shown he is just as capable at writing prose as he is at writing for television. I hope he continues this series and I’m interested in seeing where he takes it.—Ben Arzate

Hospitalized Factory of Pain by Zakary McGaha – Book Review

Review by Ben Arzate

After a doctor commits a massacre at a hospital in Grenade City, causing it to be abandoned, a skeleton wearing a suit takes up residence in the building. Charlie, a young man who survived the massacre, decides he wants to learn to how to use guns to protect himself and his grandmother. Meanwhile, Hobart and Ruckus, two old locals, seek to exorcise the demons that have been causing havoc in Grenade City.

What does evil hate, and fear, the most?

Hypothetical…maybe even rhetorical..-

answer: humiliation.”

Hospitalized Factory of Pain is probably best described as a horror comedy. There are lot of hilarious moments and even the central premise gives a lot of comic possibilities. In the world McGaha creates here, demons fear humiliation more than anything. This results in the book’s demon hunters, Hobart and Ruckus, mocking demons to fight them. The most memorable moment of this is when they dress a possessed person up in a platypus costume and deride the demon as being a dumb platypus until it leaves its host in sheer embarrassment.

Several plot threads run through this novel. The main one is about Charlie, a dim young man who wants to learn to defend himself after surviving a massacre by a doctor possessed by a demon in the hospital. He’s eventually taken under the demon hunter Hobart and Ruckus’s wings to assist them in fighting the demon’s terrorizing Grenade City. Along the way, he also learns about his unusual family.

McGaha does a good job of balancing the storylines for the most part. One section of the book is dedicated to exploring how Hobart and Ruckus became demon hunters. It’s an enjoyable story of the two rowdy boys standing up to a bully and learning in detention the school janitor is an expert on demons. It’s my favorite part of the book and could easily work as a separate short story.

It makes for an interesting contrast with the more surreal and fantastic Mr. Wrinkles storyline. Mr. Wrinkles is a skeleton in a suit who takes up residence in the hospital abandoned after a mass murder. There, he sets up a sort of factory where he tortures ghosts to create a substance which he bottles and sells. The reveal of why he does this is an interesting one.

McGaha likes to break the forth wall, and does so several times here. However, there are times where the fourth wall breaks don’t contribute much or feel out of place, especially at one point where one of the characters does so rather than the narration. It’s the only time a character in the story does so and it reads like a mistake rather than an intentional break in the fourth wall.

The ending, while fun to read, does move a little too fast. McGaha brings all the storylines together, but they feel like they’re collapsing in with how quick the pace becomes. It also makes some of the plot lines, such as Mr. Wrinkles’ reason for creating a substance from tortured ghost, seem like they could have used more development.

Despite that, Hospitalized Factory of Pain is an entertaining and hilarious horror comedy. McGaha has a way of mixing engaging, fast-paced storytelling, weird and creative ideas, and action in a way that reminds me a lot of Joe R. Lansdale. This is a novel well worth your time.