At their best, these stories are sinister and beguiling in equal measure, tracing the border between fear and obsession and...

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DEAR SWEET FILTHY WORLD

Horror blends with love, obsession, transformed bodies, and terrifying mysteries in this collection of stories.

Kiernan’s surreal and often unsettling fiction derives much of its power from the way it causes characters and readers alike to question reality via a shroud of narrative ambiguity. The best stories in this new collection channel this mysterious and haunting quality by invoking other creative disciplines. The protagonist of “Workprint,” a moody narrative abounding with menace, receives a mysterious film still that leads her to explore the world of special effects in the 1980s, hinting at a secret and unsettling cinematic history. A painter confronts inexplicable weather—indoor snow, specifically—in “Three Months, Three Scenes, With Snow.” Here, too, the protagonist searches for the answer to a question that defies logical explanation—always a warning sign in the realm of the uncanny. And opener “Werewolf Smile” brings together seemingly disparate elements—the legacy of the Black Dahlia murder, the slow dissolution of a relationship, and a centuries-old legend of lycanthropy—to produce a slow-building, genuinely disorienting work of horror. Other stories explore more fantastical realms. “— 30 —” follows one writer’s quest to overcome a severe case of writer’s block, which leads her to investigate supernatural remedies. In the end, though, the most memorable aspect of the story isn’t its foray into the paranormal but the elegiac quality it takes on as it explores questions of memory and sacrifice. And “Another Tale of Two Cities,” in which the narrator is transformed into a city by a microscopic civilization, brings together elements of body horror and science fiction in an unpredictable way.

At their best, these stories are sinister and beguiling in equal measure, tracing the border between fear and obsession and asking powerful questions about desire along the way.

Pub Date: March 31, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-59606-819-3

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Subterranean Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 27, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2017

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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An almost-but-not-quite-great slavery novel.

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THE WATER DANCER

The celebrated author of Between the World and Me (2015) and We Were Eight Years in Power (2017) merges magic, adventure, and antebellum intrigue in his first novel.

In pre–Civil War Virginia, people who are white, whatever their degree of refinement, are considered “the Quality” while those who are black, whatever their degree of dignity, are regarded as “the Tasked.” Whether such euphemisms for slavery actually existed in the 19th century, they are evocatively deployed in this account of the Underground Railroad and one of its conductors: Hiram Walker, one of the Tasked who’s barely out of his teens when he’s recruited to help guide escapees from bondage in the South to freedom in the North. “Conduction” has more than one meaning for Hiram. It's also the name for a mysterious force that transports certain gifted individuals from one place to another by way of a blue light that lifts and carries them along or across bodies of water. Hiram knows he has this gift after it saves him from drowning in a carriage mishap that kills his master’s oafish son (who’s Hiram’s biological brother). Whatever the source of this power, it galvanizes Hiram to leave behind not only his chains, but also the two Tasked people he loves most: Thena, a truculent older woman who practically raised him as a surrogate mother, and Sophia, a vivacious young friend from childhood whose attempt to accompany Hiram on his escape is thwarted practically at the start when they’re caught and jailed by slave catchers. Hiram directly confronts the most pernicious abuses of slavery before he is once again conducted away from danger and into sanctuary with the Underground, whose members convey him to the freer, if funkier environs of Philadelphia, where he continues to test his power and prepare to return to Virginia to emancipate the women he left behind—and to confront the mysteries of his past. Coates’ imaginative spin on the Underground Railroad’s history is as audacious as Colson Whitehead’s, if less intensely realized. Coates’ narrative flourishes and magic-powered protagonist are reminiscent of his work on Marvel’s Black Panther superhero comic book, but even his most melodramatic effects are deepened by historical facts and contemporary urgency.

An almost-but-not-quite-great slavery novel.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-59059-7

Page Count: 432

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

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