The Broken Hours, by Jacqueline Baker

This historical novel is a ghost story set in a maze of nested aliases. At its core, it questions the concept of identity. Who are we? Does that change depending on who we’re with? Who are we when we’re alone?

Arthor Crandle is a man fallen on hard times, a grieving father with an estranged wife. He’s travelled to Providence, Rhode Island to take a position as a personal assistant to a reclusive writer, Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Once installed in the house, supposedly shared with a few other mystery tenants, he is consumed by the mystery of his employer’s past and drawn to the gregarious young actress living in the apartment downstairs.

In the well-established Lovecraftian tradition, Baker’s narrative is suffused with a gloomy nihilistic dread. Set in Spring – my least favourite season, muddy and cold – it rains constantly, the ocean is a repulsive set piece reeking of sewage, and the people are dour and suspicious. One gets the impression that nothing in this story will end far from where it started, and even if it did, nothing much will change as a result, because we are simply too insignificant to move that cosmic needle.

Arthor goes about his work, maintaining the household, transcribing handwritten manuscript pages, and communicating with H.P. primarily through letters. All the while Crandle is unravelling, seeing a ghostly little girl in the garden at night, hearing screams from the study, and encountering an oppressive malevolence stalking the halls. His one source of solace in a storm of confusion and despair is Flossie, the actress, though she too grows more and more insubstantial as the days press on.

It all comes back to the names, the aliases. Baker skillfully uses names as metaphor for the stories we tell ourselves about the world and our place in it. Who are you? Using beautiful language and clever subtext, she builds a new mythology around an already somewhat mythical figure, and slowly, mercilessly, strips it away.

4/5

DETONATION #8: IF YOU'RE GONNA WRITE, YOU GOTTA READ

NAVIGATING LIFE IN A LITERARY MINEFIELD

Warning: Explicit language and mature themes. If you’re offended by such things, you might want to venture elsewhere.

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re on the right side of the issue. For everyone else, shut up, I don’t care. I’m taking no prisoners because there is no grey area. Let me be perfectly clear:

It is immoral to write but not read.

That’s right, children. It doesn’t matter if you are dyslexic, or struggle with ADHD, or have a very busy life. Your excuses bore me. If you have the ability to write, you have the ability and the moral obligation to read.

But let’s back up and first establish what I would consider reading. Perhaps not an exhaustive list but you get the gist.

Books

Comics

Audiobooks

Articles

Essays

Short stories

Poems (I guess)

And perhaps more importantly, what does NOT qualify as reading:

Social media

Headlines

Memes

Podcasts

Buying books

Sniffing books

Posting pics of books to your insta

Talking about how many books are in your TBR pile

Rhapsodizing about how much you loooooove books

Watching the movie (Seriously, this didn’t work in middle school, why would it work now?)

Why is it so important to read if you aspire to write? Why is writing without giving equal time to reading a sign of corrupted character, anti-intellectualism, and a weak narrow mind?

Fairness. Obviously if you are writing with the expectation that others will read your work, it’s rather selfish not to devote attention to the work of others.

Empathy. If you are not regularly taking in narratives that do not originate with you, how are you to craft a story that will connect with others? How are you yourself to connect with others?

Better Building Blocks. Do yourself a favour an unsubscribe to that fucking word of the day email. There is no better vocabulary builder than a robust reading practice. There are so many words to play with and if you never read anyone else’s, you’ll be stuck with your boring starter set forever.

Craftsmanship. It’s been said the way to learn how to write is to write. And yes that’s part of it, but like any other craft, honing it means apprenticing yourself to those more knowledgeable. Study how an author you admire turns a phrase, describes setting, or adds flesh to a character’s bones. Self-taught won’t teach much.

All right, Octoclot, you’re thinking, you may talk the talk but are those tentacles walking the walk? So let me tell you, I was a delayed reader, unable to read fluently at grade level until I was almost nine years old, but once it clicked, it unleashed a monster. I demolished books like it was my job and I didn’t slow down until my thirties when I started to write. The more I wrote, the less I read, and my writing reflected that. It lost depth and breadth. It lost sparkle and imagination and universality. It became familiar and predictable. It didn’t take long to notice a direct relationship between the quality of my writing and the amount of time spent reading.

I’m also a bookseller, so reading a lot and reading broadly is critical to doing my job well. All told, I read about 30-50 books a year, and spend at least an hour a day reading online articles and essays. A good long form journalism piece is one of my fav ways to pass a lunch hour. By almost any metric, I read a lot. This isn’t bragging, but disclosure for the purposes of credibility. You don’t have to read as much as me, and possibly you read more, but trust me when I say the act of purposeful reading is essential to all writers.

You don’t have to read fast. You don’t have to read War & Peace (I haven’t). But a good rule of thumb is to spend at least as much time reading as you do writing. Ideally more. Read in long stretches, read in tiny bites, read literature, read trash, read poetry, read something translated. Do it every day. Cultivate in yourself a love of reading so passionate that if someone were to ask you to give up one or the other, you wouldn’t have to think twice. I promise it’ll make you a better writer and a probably a better person.

A writer writes. A maxim meant to shore up the confidence of those suffering from imposter syndrome, tentative to claim the title of ‘writer’. While the sentiment is well meaning, it’s not quite complete. Here’s the secret half of what a writer does: a writer reads.

Bunny, by Mona Awad

My name is Octoclot, and I read literary fiction. I read more literary fiction than genre fiction. I’m a snob and I’m not sorry. That said, there’s nothing better than sinking my tentacles into the juicy unicorn that is the literary genre novel, and Bunny fits that bill perfectly.

I’d read Awad’s previous novel, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, and didn’t much like it. So I wouldn’t have read Bunny if I hadn’t attended a reading and fallen in love with Awad’s voice. Seriously smooth. I’d also recently read The Secret History (yes, I’m late to most parties), and the parallels intrigued me. I mean, Bunny.

Samantha is a scholarship student enrolled in a creative writing program at an elite liberal arts university (shades of Tartt and Ellis). Desperately poor and lonely, she’s recruited into a cult of beautiful women in her workshop that dress like little girls, eat miniature food, hug for hours, braid each other’s hair, and call each other Bunny.

Naturally, a cruel obsession lurks beneath the glossy cupcake frosting. In an MFA program fixated on the concept of ‘the body’, deconstructing it in their workshop to the point of meaninglessness, the Bunnies have summoned the power to create life, to create a boy, from a bunny. Though not exactly boys, they’re rough work, malformed drafts. Built to serve until required to ponder a sense of self and then they unravel (or explode, in the more gruesome scenes). They seem to think that Samantha, their unrefined, emotionally wooden newbie, has what it takes to do better, to create a real boy.

In this bizarre story described as The Secret History meets Mean Girls, the juxtaposition of the saccharine with the sinister evokes a dreamlike dread that’s hard to shake. Samantha is more disturbed that you think. The Bunnies, more hollow. The drafts, more calamitous. Make no mistake, this is a horror novel, an erotic horror novel, masquerading as literary fiction.

One of my favourite things about Bunny is the mythic references. We’ve got swans, lambs, wolves, and rabbits. The best part is the complete lack of subtlety. I mean, they go to Warren College for Christ’s sake, and there is almost literally a big bad wolf. Lit fic values nothing so much as metaphorical murk and obfuscation, and to see it explicitly splashed across the page in such an outsized way is terrifically fun. She also refers to poets as Lizard People. Seriously Mona, I feel seen.

And the end, oh the end! No spoilers, but the climax bricked me right in the heart. Let’s just say there are worse things than someone you love dying. And the more beautiful the lie, the more tragic the truth.

For this reader, Bunny was not about mean girls. Or classism. Or the ridiculousness of MFA culture. It’s about desire and loneliness, and the lengths we’ll go just to be loved. Without sentimentality, Awad suggests that perhaps that’s all we’re made for.

5/5

The Arby's S'mores Milkshake Experience

Sometimes Lola Silkysocks wants to go where nobody knows her name and the feature milkshake is orange. Where Picasso prints line the walls, an annoyed shift worker slouches behind the counter, and the place is usually a graveyard. Until it’s not.

After the Garlic Butter Steak Sandwich catastrophe, I’d learned my lesson to not experiment at Arby’s, to just order my goddamn beef n’ cheddar and enjoy the fuck out of it under the sallow cubist gaze of the deserted dining room.

I do not peruse the menu. I know what I want. Noggy and I place our orders. The bored cashier asks if there’s anything else. I swear it’s another voice coming out of my mouth.

“I’ll have a S’mores Milkshake.”

As you may or may not know, Noggy has two glares. There’s affectionate exasperation or I suffer you to live, and they’re functionally identical. Though after the way I carried on about the buttered steak, you can guess which one this was.

How to describe the S’mores Milkshake? It makes you wonder things you never wondered before, like, “What are marshmallows supposed to taste like?” When a marshmallow forward milkshake prompts this question, you know you’re in shark infested waters and Terry is about to offer you a shrimp.

I slurp some more. There are chunks. I’m 60% sure they’re graham crackers. A vague thrill of chocolate runs through the whole business, though little more than it takes to lull you into a false sense of trust.

Meanwhile people are wandering into Arby’s by the dozen. Boomers ordering coffee, bougie boxing week shoppers, a mom berating her small child like she’s his parole officer. Arby’s employees leap into unprecedented levels of animation. The meat trays empty and full baskets of curly fries sizzle in their vats. Metaphysical laws are being broken. This is Arby’s. The very gates of Purgatory. No one comes here intentionally. But it is the season for Deadly Sins, and I’m heavily distracted by this confusing confection that is the S’mores Milkshake.

Eventually it had to happen. “Hey Nog, try this.”

In my defense, he didn’t have to drink the whole thing. But he did, and he can tell you the rest…

It should be obvious, if you’ve been paying attention, that Lola has this thing about trying ‘new’ and ‘possibly interesting’ items on the menu at our vintage Picasso adorned local Arby’s. Undeterred by the nightmare that was the Garlic Butter Steak Sandwich, and ravenous after running for thirty days straight, she swore they couldn’t possibly fuck up a milkshake.

Yeah.

I should have known something was up when Lola had a couple sips, pushed it across the table, and said “Try this.” She had that look in her eye. That glazed look. The kind you get when you’re teetering on the edge of a coma. And it wasn’t so much an offering, as a challenge. Sadly, I can’t resist a challenge, or any eatable substance jammed in my face.

Well, I’m going to come right out and say it. It’s not that it’s… bad. And not that it’s… good. It’s just… sickly sweet. Like you used a Christmas elf to clean your teeth with and then washed it down with liquid marshmallow juice. While it does taste vaguely S’more’ish (as any combination of graham cracker, chocolate, and marshmallow tends to) it’s a pale imitation of the actual heavenly camping staple.

Regrets? So many. Within minutes, my stomach began to gurgle. Within an hour, I was little more than a perturbed sea cucumber, nastily expelling both my stomach and twenty feet of large intestine, while hastily scrawling my last will and testament on three sheets of toilet paper I couldn’t actually spare.

Will I drink it again? Uncertain. I guess that depends on if she thrusts it in my face next year.

Noggy and Lola went back and forth on a flame rating and ultimately split the difference between the not totally terrible flavour profile and post-shake warp core ejection.

2/5

Season's Meatings

On behalf of the Purgatory Towers tenant’s association, Gary would like to wish you an Incendiary Solstice and Saturnalia.

We love a delicious Yuletide tale, so consider this our gift to you. Snuggle up with us on The Seventh Terrace and let this letter to Santa toast your wee hearts this winter’s eve.

Merry Christmas, ya filthy animals!

xoxo

Rob & Sarah

The First Wife

Dear Nicholas,

I promised never to write this letter.

If you still read the letters at all, you might be clutching mine in your hand, tempted to throw it in the fire. Are the flames hot on your bare toes? Or perhaps, like me, you wear socks now, and shoes, proper clothing all around. Perhaps there aren’t any more fires.

After so long, I’m sure you’ve changed. They say you got fat. A neutered animal has a way of going soft, I suppose. Still, I remember the way you were, the way we were. Do you ever think of that time? Before?

~

Arctic air tore at our throats like fangs. The bone runners of our sled shrieked over snow and ice as our laughter filled a black sky. Sealskin robes, clean and pliant when we departed, crimson-splashed and frozen stiff on our return.

On those nights, we owned the world. The Germanic cowered at our names. Others knew us only as death. They terrorized their children with our stories and left lavish offerings at their hearths. In the hopes that we might pass over.

Much as I loved the frost on my face and the burn in my veins, my favorite part came at the end of the hunt. At the top of the world, we’d descend into the ice. In that tiny burrow, deeply suspended, the surface ceased to exist. Blood-drunk, we’d stumble about building up a fire that would burn all year round. Then we tore away the sealskins with greedy hands and teeth. Our bodies, robed in firelight, were sculpted renderings of immortality. Your beauty left me speechless. Not that it mattered. In those moments, words were a waste of our mouths.

In our dark cocoon, time blurred into a fevered dream, sifting and drifting while we’d whisper and sing and fuck and sleep endlessly; eternally. Until the hunger quickened – calling us to the surface with the promise of a child’s whimper at our shadow filling his bedroom door.

~

The happiest time of my life. Before her.

How she came to you, I still do not know. I do know she taught you a word. A word in her language that had no equivalent in ours.

Sin.

She insisted that a life of savagery had corrupted your soul. She spoke of Jesus, the fisher of men. Give back, she said. Make amends. Repent. How could she poison you so completely against yourself? How could you let her? My love, you and I took only what was in our nature to take. Deviants, she called us. Base and depraved. I argued that denying one’s true self was the purest form of depravity, the very definition of deviance. You wouldn’t listen. She urged you to rise above your nature.

From the beginning, I knew she wanted you, that apple-cheeked cunt. Fool that I am, it never occurred to me that you might want her.

God will forgive, she said.

God?

What could we possibly have to fear from this God? What Hell could He create that we had not already wrought upon His earth? I wonder, has rising above your nature changed what you are, my love? Has this farce of an existence sanitized your soul?

Now your satchel is full when you enter, and empty when you leave. You are a giver. Yet, they still leave offerings. Their ancestral memory quivers, and subconsciously, they are afraid. Does it tempt you? A tender throat relaxed in sleep. Does it make your jaw ache? Just a taste, after all – you’ve brought them so much joy. You said you’d lost your appetite for the kill. Who were you trying to convince with your lying?

I remember a time when there were no falsehoods between us. A time when I laid my head in your lap and you twisted my hair into a thousand slender braids, one for each blood-drenched December. You swore to love me always. Now, your eternity yawns, filled with the adoration of legions. But none of them know you. She doesn’t know you. I felt your every thought and deed as if they were my own. I loved you brutally and without end.

Sin.

Before her, it didn’t exist.

Are you happier, now that it does?

I sound bitter, don’t I? A woman scorned. The first wife. A joke. This is the letter I promised I wouldn’t write: a letter to Santa. You bring gifts for good boys and girls, don’t you? I’m not entirely good – we can’t all be saints – but I believe I’d still make your ‘nice’ list, if only for old time’s sake. Now I want to ask for something.

Your Mrs. Claus.

Bring her to me.

Lay her under my tree like a sweet, ripe plum, and I will show her what you are. We’ll show her together. Then, if she can kiss your mouth, wet with her blood – if she will yet offer up her flesh to her defiler – if she can forgive, as her God would; then I will release you. I will keep my peace, knowing you are loved for who you are.

Burn my words if you must. In writing them, I’ve done what I must. You have my heart, Nicholas – the only heart that has ever known you – the only heart like your own.

Love eternal,Krampus

Detonation #6: Hustlers

NAVIGATING LIFE IN A LITERARY MINEFIELD

Warning: Explicit language and mature themes. If you’re offended by such things, you might want to venture elsewhere.

Recently I watched a YouTube video of Jennifer Lopez taking pole dancing lessons in preparation for her role in the movie Hustlers. I learned that the only thing I have in common with J.Lo is…well, nothing. She’s a goddess. I’m a goblin. Moving on.

Let’s talk about the money. Makin’ it rain as a writer. You’re good at this wordsmithing stuff, and you work really hard. Is poverty inevitable? Is there a way to use your skills and ambition to make a bit more cash than it takes to buy a second helping of gruel?

Some writers make bank off their writing, we’ll call them Darryl, and they can go directly to Hell. Others, like Noggy, are gainfully employed in a day job where they go to an office, do business, get regular paychecks that are more than three digits, and can afford to get their kids teeth unfucked. I both respect and resent that, but I’m not talking about them either. I’m talking about Lola, and those like her. The freelancers and part-timers, Frankensteining an income through several different writing adjacent streams. I’m talking about the writerly side-hustle.

Here’s the thing. A Lola is nothing if not an opportunist. She’s been fortunate, strategic, and manipulative enough to do work that dovetails with her writing career. Like Lola, I coordinate literary events at an indie bookstore, teach creative writing, and freelance edit. I’ve also written articles, done one-on-one mentoring, and ‘assisted’ young people with their college admission essays (all ethics are situational). It’s a juggling act I perform on top of my own writing projects, publishing, running in the woods, attending to family and friends, and other…interests (see the Six Lives Theory).

I’m grateful to be a professional creative, but it didn’t just fall into my tentacles. When Auntie Octoclot was just a baby mollusk, slinging ink and dreaming of one day maybe, maybe, seeing my work in print, someone gave me some very good advice. GET INVOLVED. The writing community is not just a group of people doing what you do, they are a resource, a pool of limitless opportunity. So, I took classes, went to events, volunteered, collaborated, and worked hard at building real relationships. Finding kindred monsters is its own reward, but beyond that, when paying work comes up, so does your name, and when it does, you gotta be ready to say yes.

Jennifer Lopez is the original Lola. A creative role model. An artist with an appetite for experience and an eye for opportunity. Dancing, singing, acting, and learning to kill on a pole at fifty freaking years old. I bet both her kids have Invisalign. Making a living off your writing is great, for Darryl, but if I did that, I probably wouldn’t have the drive to do and learn all this other cool stuff, like planning burlesque literary salons, singing, acting in plays, and posing as a corpse for someone’s book cover. My writing is better for the experimentation, and while I may not be J.Lo, I’m definitely a hustler, and my back porch ain’t half bad. Just sayin’.