Enter Armageddon House

Armageddon House
By Michael Griffin
2020
Undertow Publications

Four people trapped in close quarters and forced to relive, day after day, an identical routine that seems to have had no beginning and offers, potentially, no end.

While that could be a scene sliced from today’s pandemic milieu, it is also the cold, stark narrative world of Michael Griffin’s Armageddon House that ultimately offers up a more exotic imprisonment. While this odd little novella is rooted in the horror puzzles of mind-bending grotesqueries like the Cube movies, the protagonists are chained to a world that is less imminently threatening, but no less sinister.

Branded with superficial identities built from foggy pasts, but no real idea of who they are or why,
Mark, Jenna, Polly and Greyson eat, exercise, fight, and occasionally struggle to figure out the greater mysteries of their lives – including, but not limited to, how they wound up in what seems like a concrete condo complex buried several miles underground.

The narrative is networked through the perception of Mark, who, at the start of the novella, awakens already caught in an intense mediation (for perhaps the hundredth, thousandth or otherwise time) on a mural on the wall of his room. The picture “offers a view of a blue lake surrounded by trees” and whose “image seems real enough to convince him briefly, at least, while his mind is partly blurred by sleep, that he’s looking at a beautiful scene outside an actual window, not just a photograph on a wall.”

The narrative is built of such false images: the four cohabitators could be part of an experiment; the last survivors of an apocalyptic event; random prisoners; or inhabitants or a particularly vivid, but sterile purgatory. The reader is never sure if he or she is looking at a hellish scene in an actual jail or an image on the wall of an imprisoned mind.

On one level, Armageddon House represents a standard metafiction, analyzing how the mind creates meaning from its surroundings, as the characters literally must imagine their past and present. At another, it is straightforward horror at a slow burn, as an imminent meaninglessness screws into them from all angles.

As much as the subtle, suggested climax offers the four a final resolution, where Mark slowly moves towards a simple and brutal exercise of free will that could be the only inevitable such expression under the circumstances, the story offers the contemporary, pandemic-enclosed reader an escape from the puzzle of his or her own existence.

Though, hopefully, just at the terrestrial level of imagination.

Enter here.

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Read the Good Citizens

Good Citizens Need Not Fear
By Maria Reva
224 Pages
2020
Knopf Canada

Thinking back on late Soviet-era literature evokes imagery of soulless buildings and landscapes, and gray masses hunched beneath the gaze of a paranoid State while trying to dig meaning from the shallow taiga of their lives. Maria Reva works with that texture in a series of linked short stories set mainly in pre-perestroika Ukraine.

While Reva likes to pull on the curtain of existentialist despair, Good Citizens Need Not Fear is less Kafka than Margaret Atwood channeled through Stephen King to create some bleak carnival of dystopia (although a cockroach does figure centrally in ‘Roach Brooch’). The book is shaded with the perspective of the 21st century as she filters the lives of her characters through more modern tropes. There is pop piracy in ‘Bone Music’; the sheen of celebrity glitz and pre-Reality TV in ‘Miss USSR’; and even a bit of dark, slasherish revenge porn in ‘Letter of Apology.’ These past cultural echoes of our shinier, louder, and more violent present suggest that while literal walls and fences may have crumbled and fallen with economic and political revolution, the spiritual environment that replaced it is as arid as before.

This state of unfortunate affairs is best illustrated in ‘Homecoming’, a story stretched closer to our present where a travel company offers themed trips to experience Soviet history up close, through visits to the gulags and Chernobyl, for starters.

“We’re living in an age of freedom” one character notes in ‘The Ermine Coat’, also set in a more contemporary setting. Another character quickly clarifies that “[w]e’re living in an age of fifteen brands of sausages, which is not the same as freedom.”

It’s a harsh lesson, and one that may have some casting a sentimental eye back to that gray past, thinking that, perhaps, there was some meaning there after all, if harsh and cold.

Peek in behind that Iron Curtain here.

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Reading, Pop, and Poems

Pop
By Simina Banu
80 Pages
2020
Coach House Books

John Storey, Emeritus Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Sunderland, has defined “popular culture” through a variety of helpful academic-flanged maxims, including (amongst less interesting observations on the metrics of popularity) as “whatever is left after you’ve identified what ‘high culture’ is: in this definition, pop culture is considered inferior, and it functions as a marker of status and class.”

Poet Simina Banu offers a similarly flexible approach throughout Pop, refining and redefining the titular term from section to section, from a starting base of noun to verb and back again. Her exposition of culture also concentrates on that Storey angle, as she sharply hacks away at “high” culture, and polishes that which is “left” behind. It’s a Bahktinian Carnivalization card that pits Cheetos vs. Merlot, Ariana Grande vs. Charles Mingus, and prosody vs. doodling.

Less a collection of fully and separately defined works than a synthesis of fragments that quilt a fractured narrative, many of the poems within Pop suggest a passing fancy with traditional structure, mimicking a typical late post-modernist’s short, sharp free verse. But Banu is less interested with metre as an organizing principle, preferring visual, concrete, and aural tropes borrowed off a multitude of potential pop culture ephemera, from comics to newspaper puzzle sections to graffiti.

The closest she gets to hunkering down in a formal pose is a section in ‘Part Four: Remastered’ where she knots corollaries together, binding the high and low brow in a more recognizably versified pattern:

“Is this aesthetic or a brand deal?
Either way, the artist has
created both.

Is this a political machine or a
coping mechanism?
Either way, the artist has
created both.

Is this word play or a play word?
Either way, the artist has
created both.”

By Pop’s final section, Banu has rushed the reader through many anti-modes on her flurrious search for sensual meaning in a world that sometimes prefers too much of the blandly serious over the fresh and tasty. Pop is informed by contemporary poetics to create a joyously subversive wink at these modes, but is never weighed down by textbook theory.

Pop in here.

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A Read of A Letter From Your Sheets

A letter from your sheets // if your sheets could speak

By Elizabeth Kemball

16 pages

Nightingale & Sparrow Press

2020

Profound things sometimes publish in compact packages.

Call it a lyrical meditation condensed to an imagistic series of candid moments, or a haiku stretched out on pegs of emotion, A letter from your sheets unfolds a brief, tragic relationship in miniature. Elizabeth Kemball transposes the human urge to communicate, commune, and connect against the literal barriers we face in the attempt.

The single, poem-length microchapbook (or microchapbook-length poem) snaps this paradox to life through the image of a couple waking up together (yet apart) in bed, wound up in the wrinkled sheets. There’s an intimate scene of “feet twisted around/the edge of the duvet,/so nothing can creep/between us”.

It’s an elegantly simple metaphor of separation – the cool sheets wrapped around bodies like a second, tougher skin, letting suggestion whisper and tap through to each other, but also presenting a barrier to full communion. Like the imprecise medium of language itself.

“Sometimes I hear you/speak clearly,/a message only meant for me” Kemball mourns, but “it’s abstract verbal/caligraphy,/too twisted in on itself/for me to decipher.”

Kemball’s verse is threads of short lines stitched together, the images wrinkling into each other as she notes how “[e]very day, the only/marks I make/on you/are my temporary/crease-pressed tattoos”.

A letter from your sheets is a quick, elliptical read, like a few half-formed thoughts that skip across your mind as you stir to consciousness, yet with a subtle weight that holds there for deeper meditation.

Slip in under the covers.

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Dusting Off: The 30 – Day Diarrhea Diet Plan

The 30 – Day Diarrhea Diet Plan
By Kurt Brecht
86 Pages
1989
Dirty Rotten Publishing

An early example of alternative-rock-artist-as-author, a sneaky subversion of Manifest Destiny, and a chaotic punk travelogue, The 30 – Day Diarrhea Diet Plan chronicles Kurt Brecht’s retreat to Mexico for a break after a long tour with his thrash metal band, D.R.I. It also follows his enthusiastic immersion in the culture south of his border in a quest for inspiration, rejuvenation, and recreation. In the company of a few fellow travellers, he plans to be “lying on the beach, drinking cheap beer” and, hopefully, writing songs for his band’s next album.

Benefitting from direct experience informed by journal jottings rather than a memoirist’s lacquer of nostalgia and ego, the strength of the book is Brecht’s energetically hedonistic, straightforward recounting of the trip and his attempts to dig into various sensual aspects of Mexican culture. He details the food, drink, and particularly the drugs, with great care: the unsuccessful feast of raw oysters at a beach bash; picking wild mushrooms to consume in a variety of methods (including a creative brew of “crazy mushroom tea mixture flavored with lime, orange and garlic”), indulging in punishing quantities of pulque; and the enthusiastic recounting of a meal of iguana soup that includes explicit instructions for its preparation.

The 30 – Day Diarrhea Diet Plan is a compact 89 pages, well-suited to Brecht’s smooth prose that blends in chips of Mexican culture: “We drank caguamas at a store near the tracks till the train came”; “Hotel room. Coatzacolas. We walked to the beach and checked out the market. The beach was your typical Gulf of Mexico waveless muddy water deal”; “Celaya is famous for cajeta, which is a caramel-like confection made with goat’s milk”.

There is a tinge of the Ugly American to the immersion. Brecht and his cronies can be too content to use and abuse the culture for the sake of their own indulgences. He ends the narrative as the trip winds down and he winds up back over the border, “worried that none of the songs that [he has] written on this trip will be good enough to use”. Neither are any of the scraps of lyrics patched throughout the book based in any of the surroundings, relationships or experiences he’s had, but, instead, are rather solipsistic and focused on personal issues he left behind at home in the first place.

But maybe that is the lesson. The tourists end up broke and exhausted, apparently having learned little. They have immersed themselves in the foreign landscape without gaining any transformation, or even reflection on the culture (a curious result from the singer and lyricist of a punk band known for its social consciousness). But again, maybe that is that point—unpretentious punker wants to meet the Other at a basic, human level. That inability to absorb the other culture is symbolized in the substantial loss of weight suffered by the member of Brecht’s group who suffered the titular gastrointestinal trauma.

American cultural imperialism meets its match in the deserts, bars and food carts of Mazatlan.

Get with it.

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A Read of Raymond (and his Indescendants)

Indescendants
By RL Raymond
53 poems
2019
PidgeonBike Press

RL Raymond’s Indescendants offers a suite of lean yet muscular poems based in and building up tales of a familiar suburbia that, at one level, most of us can recognize. But the poems also dig deeply through the veneer of a typical middle-class block, down to expose the place where the dark roots of this society meld with the cold concrete, brick and asphalt of its environment.

The essential elements of this exploration morph into many solid forms. A gang of boys scenting blood in their first, primal romp with violence. The anti-romance of couples seeking pools of vitality in the shoals of their hollowing lives, amidst the wreckage of a lineage that ends in Monday’s trash at the curb. Animals pulling rotted treasure from Fall mess. The emotional debris wrought by bullies of all shapes and sizes.

It’s heavy and heady stuff, but Raymond manages to pull recognizable truths from dozens of miniaturized apocalyptic moments.

His verse is as lively as the landscape is forlorn. Each short poem is like a bundle of nerves packed with blunt images and rhythmically driven by spondees that fire like frenzied synapses in hyper-real, almost cerebral imagism. Raymond writes of “Frogs/darting from murk/slimy with silt”; meditates on “crumbling bridges/the threat of concrete/windshield concussions”; and recognizes the “fear/that gnaws our bones/deeply/gnash-mark shadows/erasing the white”.

Indescendants illuminates the shadowy traces of ourselves that we might find settled in at the edge of the mirror, should we choose to focus on them.

Stop by the neighborhood.

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A Dizzy Read of Alien Virus Love Disaster

Alien Virus Love Disaster
By Abbey Mei Otis
232 pages
2018
Small Beer Press

There are many nightmares, daydreams, and drug trips that drive the narrative shuffles and shimmies of Alien Virus Love Disaster. To say that the stories are a dizzying exercise in world-building and bursting would be to undersell Abbey Mei Otis’ mind-contorting short fiction.

The stories, dressed up in science fiction tropes (and with the occasional fantasy and horror accessory), are loosely linked by setting. Most take place in some sort of post-invasion landscape, whether the invading forces have come as conquerors, new neighbors, or reluctant refugees.

Science fiction, in its natural state of exaggeration, is well-suited to satire and/or the dissection of contemporary issues, a tradition dating back to Jonathan Swift and his Gulliver Muse. So, sure, thematic leverage of the ‘alien invasion’ could easily be serviced for discussion of societal relationships with ‘the Other’ (whether in a post-colonial or psychological sense). But Otis is leveraging the genre for its ability to warp reality and our interaction with it. The lesson doesn’t involve how one society may feel threatened by another; rather, these stories look at how humankind is beginning to regard the physical world as something looming like an insidious presence in its peripheral vision. Whether because of our environmental neglect or disinterest, through technological evolution, or natural disasters, the world out there is more of a threat than ever, with no easy rescue other than decoupling. In Otis’s brave new world(s), the post-post modern consciousness yearns to move fluidly through people, places and things, unhindered by flesh, blood and genetics.

You can see it in the repatriated lunar orphans of “moonkids”, who try to shape themselves to a world to which they never belonged, both socially and genetically; the decayed, zombie landscape of “i’m sorry your daughter got eaten by a cougar” where an iota of redemption comes through a (literally) degenerative lust; and the unrepressed violence of “blood blood”, a more coldly utilitarian Fight Club in which aliens pay to watch ordinary men and women engage in repeated physical combat, and which leads the accidental entertainers into an unfortunate rediscovery of their own innate, primal instincts.

The language Otis pours through the pages offers one psychedelic pill after another: “Time swims through the emptiness of the warehouse”; “I lie down on the ground. The rocks have heartbeats. They throb fast and irregular and infect me with their fear”; “We let them leave their seats and wander around the room. They make doorbell noises and tap dance and eat their hair. They roll their faces against my body and mew.”

That’s some hallucinogenic poetry for the End Times.

It’s also light years from the sci-fi of pulp pioneers-past. Otis can work more like William S. Burroughs, with gross exaggerations of the physical to accentuate the alien-ness. She is also reminiscent of M. John Harrison and his ability to infuse the singularly weird with the profoundly moving.

These are stories that necessitate revisiting – compact funhouses that demand deep exploration…although you may need some patience to orient yourself within them first before you can begin to discover their secrets.

Start your trip here.

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Domesday Reads Doomstead

Doomstead Days
By Brian Teare
158 pages
2019
Nightboat Books

In a series of apocalyptic chants that attempt to thread the universal with the particular through the eye of mortality, Brian Teare becomes an anti-Walt Whitman; a poet acknowledging the desire to contain multitudes while keenly aware of the degree of difficulty in the attempt. He also recognizes, more practically, the havoc that human ambition can wreak upon the rest of creation.

Teare does show a reluctance to make simplistic thematic linkages. While maintaining, during a hike/meditation in the title poem, that he is “not/supposed to posit/an analogy/between the river/& [his] body”, he still feels the currents flow through him, and can’t help but conclude that they are “related/on a molecular/level so intimate”.

The imagery in the book consistently reinforces that relationship. Teare, perched on the edge of a pond, observes “an elk [that] steps/forward from the sedge :: it steps/into the image/of an elk who steps forward/from the sedge & bends its head/to drink from my mouth”.

On the darker side, Teare links illness, including his own subjective condition, with a vulnerability apparent in the objective world. When he is diagnosed by a rheumatologist (somewhat ambiguously) as potentially having just limited “years/of mobility left/if [he’s] careful” the diagnosis is echoed in Teare’s catalogue of oil spills, chemical leaks and deforestation that have potentially limited the years of humanity’s mobility in its native habitat.

Teare also shares Whitman’s poetic stamina. In an age of bite-sized lyrics, Doomstead Days is made up of epic, if fractured, verse that, at its most straightforward, is a condensed elegy for a world facing environmental devastation, and whose mode mimics a slowly growing panic over the consequences. His long sentences are hacked up into short-syllabled and truncated verses, rather than unwinding in more prosey, Whitmanesque lines. They don’t build momentum so much as pile up an overwhelming load of imagery – an unsubtle mimicking of how our species has an obsessive drive to imprint itself literally and metaphysically all over the planet.

Such a poetic scope and execution is challenging. But it invites repeated returns, especially once you find your way into the jagged, unrelenting rhythm and Teare’s pessimistic but gripping vision of the “Doomstead” we have built for ourselves to inhabit.

Move in here.

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How to Read Stained Glass

The Stained Glass Sequence
By James Dunnigan
18 pages
2019
Frog Hollow Press

A church is a physical space designed and built to enhance transfiguration, with the architecture sheltering intimate ritual from the vagaries of the outside world. This is accentuated by the main portal that links the two – stained glass windows that let a little light shine in from the outside, but in a thoroughly mediated fashion.

Stained glass itself is like a decoration hung on perception, one that refracts the light and shadow of the reality behind, transforming it into a more ornate version. Poet James Dunnigan leverages that quality as the foundational conceit for The Stained Glass Sequence, a chapbook plunged in reflection on another primordial creative force: language. But it’s not for the sake of an academic lesson so much as a means to show how poetry transfigures society into civilization.

In his ‘Ten Notes In Lieu Of Preface’ (i.e. a stylized Forward to the chapbook), Dunnigan argues that “[t]he basic unit of poetry is the line…an audiovisual notation of a phrase of language: it organizes languages into frames, the way cinematic frames organize movement and sound”.

So does poetry organize the elements of culture for the narrative of civilization, and so do Dunnigan’s poems mix myth, autobiography, philosophy, art criticism and journalesque jottings into a textual refraction of these elements.

In some places, Dunnigan moves from religion to geopolitics to astronomy; in others, from philosophical musings to a literal and figurative trip along the Lachine Canal in Montreal. It’s a disorienting techique, as his lines (true to argument) are sliced, diced, and scattered across the page, making for a poesy not meant to be read aloud, like musical notes plucked from a staff, but of clues to be attacked, as if part of a code or a puzzle.

Dunnigan occasionally launches into a more linear rush, such as in ‘Stained Glass 5 – Ceiling’, in which he imagines, “if Michelangelo…did a flood scene/for the Sistine/Chapel/involving the most massive use of blue” that quickly gushes out into a recounting of a failed attempt at the writing of a scifi novel, before whorling back into a mournful dirge. He delivers it all with the wonderful, twitchy energy and jumpy lyricism of a sermon given by a slightly deranged priest, one whose congregation is based in the Church of Disunited Abstraction.

Congregate here.

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Collecting Postcards from Impossible Worlds

Postcards from Impossible Worlds: The Collected Shortest Story

By Peter Chiykowski

Chizine Publications

192 Pages

2018

With the quaintly-angled darkness of a Stephen King short story, the trajectory of a Rob Plath poem, and the compactness of Japanese Tanka, Peter Chiykowski’s ‘postcards’ read like flashcard science and horror fiction that are often surprising and witty, and, occasionally, thoroughly unsettling.

Chiykowski’s preferred medium is short text over washed-out photo. The supporting image is usually torn from a sentimental nature shot, a flash from a bad acid trip, or an eruption from a surrealistic nightmare. The narrative tropes include your garden variety zombie apocalypses, tales of mirrors sharpening the evil within into shards of evil with-out, ghosts in the duct work, and other Weird Tales settings that end on a punch-line that can conjure up pointed irony, or birth slick snakes of dread.

Despite the brevity, a number of the pieces dredge more sinister depths. Among the best is a post-urban folktale in which some seemingly quaint backwoods townsfolk trick more ‘civilized’outsiders into becoming unwitting participants in a mysterious local ritual. As curious temptation gives way to sudden demise, you find yourself looking at something not unlike The Wickerman in ultraminiature.

A read of Postcards from Impossible Worlds is akin to a brief immersion in a dark kaleidoscope built of 1950s pulp and late 20th century irony. An enjoyable pop culture siesta you can take with a side-dish soundtrack of the Cramps, the Teen Idols or the HorrorPops.

Start collecting here.

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