Spring Back, an American Gothic

Spring in Goscieradz by Leon Wyczółkowski 1933

It’s spring. It’s the anniversary of our collective isolation. And for the first time, it feels like things might be looking better, like we might be able to put this whole year behind us…spring back to normal. We are reaching towards a resolution point of this gothic horror narrative.

Gothic Fiction

To survive, I’ve read and written a lot this year (I haven’t published much, but that takes a different sort of energy of which I apparently don’t have any). The subject matter of my readings has varied widely — science fiction, science, horror, collected stories, Japanese literature, old fiction and contemporary writings (I will make a few recommendations below). My writing has been quite different too. I wrote a bunch of short stories that were more horror than sci-fi. I wrote a middle-grade novel about demon godparents (and Christopher, my life and writing partner, is in the process of rewriting it — our stories are better when we write together). I’ve written a novel about alternate histories (many different possible timelines that allow the main character to escape one fate in preference for another). I’m about two-thirds into writing the origin story of Baba Yaga — a one-legged daughter of a blind tinkerer is used and misused and twisted into becoming an old bitter crone of the Russian folktales. And I’m about one-third into a story of a man who is a werewoman. All my stories are never about the stuff on the surface. Fiction is a great vehicle for exploring more difficult subjects — homelessness, plagues, disability, anxiety, prejudice, cultural differences… There is freedom in writing fiction, and I’m taking full advantage of it. It also allows me to constructively freak out about social isolation and the fear of losing loved ones by putting my anxieties into words…that are not about me.

I have a little notebook (virtual, of course) where I write down words, or sentences, or phrases, or whole paragraphs for things that struck me as odd or that might have the potential for becoming something else. All my short stories started out as some combination of such notes. All my novels started out as short stories… Since I’m not a plotter and allow ideas to lead where they may, it works for me. For example:

Feburary 27, 2021 7:35 pm.

Not sure if it is better to lose someone by small pieces or all at once. Does slow accustomanization to the nearness of the event make it easier to bear?

I know “accustomanization” is not a word, but that’s irrelevant to my notes.

October 7, 2020 1:04 pm.

When asked who was my favorite vampire, I said, “the Muppet from Sesame Street.”

They told me, “he doesn’t count!” I replied, “I assure you, he does.”

January 2, 2019 4:00 pm.

Peril loop
A continuous series of bad events that happen to the main character in a story
Peril loop fatigue — how the reader feels when too many improbable bad events happen to the main character

The last one became one of my newsletters way back…

American Gothic started out as a comment in a note. It came from musings on the definition of Gothic Fiction and our collective circumstances during a year-long lockdown. Bear with me.

Gothic literature, when it is not written as a self-parody, is about some horror that lurks at the edges of our lives. Something slippery and difficult to take all in. There are horror and gore and death. There is a sense of isolation and being cut off from everyday normal. Things spin out of control. There is a dread that can’t be put aside. There is a continuous sense of anxiety where some feel it more than others. Information about the source of this anxiety comes in every day but it is incomplete. The world is gray or artificially too colorful. It’s not clear whom one can trust. The tension is built up and up until it’s impossible to focus or to do the simplest of everyday tasks. There is even a twisted desire to make whatever bad thing was going to happen happen — just let it be over, the wait is too much.

Sounds familiar? I’d say that we, a collective we, just lived through a year of a gothic horror story, where death was invisible but ever-present. And finally, it’s spring and we might be coming to the end of this narrative. And hopefully, no one we know will get sick before getting their vaccines or, god forbid, die. The Zoom wakes have been a perverted subnarrative in this horror story. But perhaps by the Fourth of July, we might get our lives back…a little…incomplete…but no longer part of the Gothic narrative.

Book Recommendations

Teixcalaan Books by Arkady Martine: A Memory Called Empire (book 1) and A Desolation Called Peace (book 2).

This was an interesting mixture of alternate history — what would happen if the Aztecs became the predominant culture on Earth and spread to the stars to become a galactic empire — and far future (again, galactic empire…). Most distant future Sci-Fi novels start out with an “Americanized” world expanding into the universe. This was a very different take, including bloody sacrifices, poetry, and export of culture that feels alien. Very well done.

I love the second book even more. I like the complexity of relationships and the use of language. In particular, it was great fun to read about linguistics. The science of language is extraordinarily complex and such a rich vein for authors. I’m glad it was explored here.

Mythic Journeys: Retold Myths and Legends

One of the best fantasy short story collections I’ve read in a long time. Not all stories are great, some are too pretentious, some too glib. But the majority are excellent and provide a cool take on some old fairytales. These are not kid stories. They deal with adult themes, all in very unique ways. Strongly recommend this collection.

So happy reading and here’s to hoping that I manage to publish a novel before the next newsletter… It is all ready to go. Here’s a blurb:

Trapped Between Infinite Possible Realities

Martin Harvey Hig (seen here on the left as I imagine him) is a disabled kid with a loving mom, a baby sister, a distant father, and a doting uncle, Charlie. On a trip to a county fair, the family encounters a mysterious “Mirror of Wishes” booth that leads to radical, unexplained life changes, including Hig’s uncle’s abrupt disappearance and his mother’s untimely death. One of the changes is Hig’s miraculous cure — his congenital spina bifida is gone and he no longer needs a wheelchair. As Hig grows up, he continuously frets about what really happened but is too scared to actually look for answers to the mystery.

Years later, Hig takes his girlfriend Klaire to another county fair. They encounter the same booth and its proprietor, Mistress Kismet. A bizarre chain of events ensues, including Uncle Charlie’s return as a very different person. They discover that Mistress Kismet’s booth is a portal that has been altering people’s realities and fates for many decades.

When Hig’s younger sister disappears, he, Klaire, the woman who raised him after his mother died, and friend chaise the girl to a music festival where the visitors are being promised a transformational experience with visions of possible alternate realities. During a performance, Hig and his companions are all physically thrown into one of the possible parallel universes. It’s a very different place where Kismet is a religion, The Beatles released a Black Album, and Hig is again bound to a wheelchair. Yet in this version of reality, Hig’s mother lives.

As their time in a new reality lingers on, they risk becoming stuck there, unable to turn back, overwhelmed by cascading consequences of changing reality. Hig is desperate to return his own timestream or find a new one where they can all be together — before it’s too late.

But can any place Hig ends up ever feel like home? Does love span multiple timestreams? Does the portal offer a permanent answer to the question “What if I could have the life of my choosing?” Or is it a nightmare of neverending change?