Edie is the only black woman working at a children’s book publisher where she hopes to get promoted from reception to illustrator. But when they hire another, younger, hungrier, lighter-skinned black lady, Edie is fired. It’s racism, tokenism, an outrage. It’s also because Edie fucked most of the men in the office and isn’t good at her job. So, lacking any other option, she moves in with her married white boyfriend, his white wife, and their recently adopted 11yo black daughter. It’s every bit as strange as it sounds but this book blew my mind. A story of alienation, desperation, and bewildering tenderness, Luster is a darkly curious dive into unconventional relationships, the surprising ways in which people bond, and what they can teach each other.
I don’t know if I’d call this horror in the genre sense, but since I prefer to think of horror as an experience, an emotion, I gotta say I was peeking over the edge of a blanket, tense, cringing, and biting my knuckles in avoidance of my own unvarnished reactions to this story and the people living inside it. Raven Leilani’s prose is voracious, with a full set of teeth in each sentence.
On March 2, 2021 six Dr. Seuss titles, published between 1937-1975, were pulled from publication by Dr. Seuss Enterprises due to portrayals of people deemed to be “hurtful and wrong” aka racist as hell. The most recent title being a Cat in the Hat companion piece called The Cat’s Quizzer. I’ll save you the math, that’s 46 years ago, and my point is:
A) These are old-ass books
B) You’ve probably never heard of them
But holy shit! Folks get wind that a few obscure books are going away and suddenly it’s Fahrenheit 45-fucking-1. Even more wild is that there’s virtually no disagreement over whether these depictions are racist or not. They totally are, and some of us just really want to show them to our babies. White nostalgia vs. institutionalized racism isn’t a problem I’m going to solve with a few paragraphs and a bunch of swear words, but fuuuuck me side-saddle…
Instead, let’s take a minute to talk about censorship.
Books go out of print. All. The. Time. That’s right ducklings, most books will eventually be lost to the shifting dunes of the cultural desert, with the lucky ones growing spores in a used bookstore somewhere. Why does this happen? The details may differ but it all funnels down to the same reason: no demand. Modern readers have little appetite for the vast majority of what was written decades ago, even if it’s not explicitly racist. With zillions of books flooding the market every goddamn day, their lifecycle is shorter than ever. A midlist book published just five years ago has even odds of being out of print today.
So, if you were hoping to pick up a copy of the 2015 zipper-ripper Donkey Dick Dan’s Billionaire Bride – brand new, without half the pages stuck together – you’re likely out of luck. It’s not banned. It’s just that no one wanted the thing.
Here’s the straight dope. Declining to publish is not censorship. Declining to be published is not censorship. Those with rights to the work get to decide where it does or does not appear. Libraries get to curate what they do and don’t want in their collections. Bookstores get to decide what they will and won’t sell. This is not political correctness on ‘roids. Equating loss of platform with muzzling, cancelling, and attempting to sanitize history is fallacious. We’re smarter than that. Pulling a few Dr. Seuss titles most people didn’t know existed until a few days ago is NOT censorship.
Censorship is government suppression of free expression, and this is not that.
And I get it, y’all love Dr. Seuss and want his wonderful books available to your children and their children and on and on. I do too. And great news! As long as there’s demand, they will be! What the frothing mob screaming about book burning and other nonsense doesn’t seem to get is that Dr. Seuss Enterprises made this decision to protect Seuss and his legacy of delighting children for generations. Instead of, y’know, risking the cancellation of his life’s work because they continued to publish racist imagery and just, like, hoped that people would tell their kids that shit’s not cool anymore.
Why not read your kids some books that portray different colors, and cultures, and identities, and abilities with nuance and compassion rather than lazy ignorant stereotypes? There’s great stuff out there and this is just a short list. Check it out, then if you’re still hungry, you can have your Green Eggs and Ham.
Typically we use this space to yell at idiots, and rarely exclude ourselves from that classification. Today is no exception, except we’re excluding all of you. Feel free to self-include in this public castigation, but today we’ll largely direct our vitriol inward.
Forward thinking is good, mostly. You don’t want to see your best days trailing behind you, winking out like ancient stars. That’s never been my style. I’ve got my eye on the road ahead, on what dreams may come, and mostly it’s served me well. I guess because the alternative makes me sad to the point of illness. People who are like, “Ugh, 2020 is the shittiest year ever!” bother me, because you know they said the same thing about 2019, 2018, 2017, and so on. For that person, no matter what year it is, it’s shit. Every day is the worst day of their fucking life, and I don’t even wanna speculate what that must feel like.
I can be cynical when it comes to human nature, but when it comes to the arc of my own existence I am an incorrigible optimist. Believe me, no one is more surprised than I am. Single days may vary in degree of suckage, but over time I believe each year will be better than the last and you know what? I haven’t been wrong yet. I went through a dark period in my thirties when I had young children and no personal identity outside of Chief Juice Pouring Technician, but even at my lowest point, I never wished to go back to some better time in the past. The future is unwritten, you know? You can fill it with all the good exciting stuff you want and so long as it remains in the future you can’t rule it out. It’s how I’ve learned to thrive in high stress environments, to keep cool in the cut, to be happy when there is objectively little to be happy about — because there is always something to look forward to.
And in this way, by rolling at a breakneck pace towards that brilliant light on the horizon, I cheat myself out of taking pleasure in where I’ve been and where I am.
A case study: Lola and Noggy are not ambitious in the traditional sense. They aren’t type A. They aren’t climbers out to prove how much better they are than anyone else. They’re more like those annoying kids that won’t sit still at carpet time. Most of the time they’re barely aware there IS anyone else. They’re just…busy.
Lola: I see you’ve made a spreadsheet of all our projects and tasks for the next few months.
Noggy: Launch two books, finish our novel drafts, edit forthcoming publishing projects, and make more spreadsheets. Think we can handle it?
Lola: What’s the worst that could happen?
Noggy: We’ve spent the length of a pregnancy working on these two new releases for The Seventh Terrace, it’s so cool to see them birthed out into the world.
Lola: That was yesterday, Nog. We got drunk on zoom, ensured both authors will never work with us again, what’s next?
Lola: Wow, did we really just launch two books and do NaNo?
Noggy: That was yesterday Silkysocks, shouldn’t you be editing our next book for TST?
Lola: And then we have to work on that new Purgatorio book
Noggy: And then we’re going to run every single day in December
Lola: And then I’m going to get back to my novel
Noggy: And we have the winter running scavenger hunt
Lola: And then we should co-write another story, and it’ll be race season again!
Noggy: And then I’ll make more spreadsheets!
If you ever wanted to see goblins on Adderall, this is it. These two are fucking exhausting, and the problem becomes evident.
There’s nothing wrong with having goals and a plan for the future, but at a certain point I find I’m moving too fast to take any real satisfaction in what I’ve accomplished. Maybe I’m even more afraid of getting stuck in the present than I am in the past.
I don’t do resolutions, but this is more about evolution. I still believe my best days are ahead of me, but I’d like to develop the skill of being still, to lose the fear of losing momentum, to hang out unhurried, look back and be like “Wow, we really did some cool shit, didn’t we?”
Like many a nitwit in quarantine, I was at first optimistic about my productivity. I suddenly had no plans. Obligations evaporated. My social calendar emptied out. I’d get so much done. Life would finally slow down and I’d have time for everything I’d wanted to focus on but was too busy.
Then I had to homeschool three gremlins.
Then I was working in a bookstore pivoting to a phones-ringing-off-the-hook fulfilment center so fast it gave me whiplash.
Then, far from being isolated, I never had a single conscious moment to myself.
What a little idiot I was. What hubris. But it wasn’t as simple as being busy or mentally paralyzed because teaching me a hard life lesson is never that straightforward. I keep thinking I didn’t write at all over the last six months. I keep thinking I was totally unproductive and uncreative. I keep thinking I had a great summer, camping, swimming, and shaking the absolute shit out of fancy craft cocktails. I keep thinking that overall it hasn’t been so bad, that I’ve been okay.
Yet I did write two short stories, a novella, and query a publisher
Yet I did edit two books
Yet my buoyant moods are fragile, I’m latching hard onto anything I can hold up as proof of my uselessness, and I drink soooo much.
I’m a runner, right? It’s my medicine, meditation, religion, and all my goddamned races got cancelled. Adventures in the mountains bursting with mud, suffering, exhaustion, and camaraderie by the light of my dim junky headlamp. I’ve been running, of course. What the fuck else is there to do besides attend some shitty virtual hangout where everyone is awkward and looks like garbage and I’m so self-conscious I spend most of the time staring at myself on camera wondering if I’ve always been this ugly. So I run. I signed up for virtual challenges and did a self-directed urban ultra-marathon. I’ve been running more than ever.
But I don’t feel fit.
But I feel worn out.
But I feel sick sometimes and hate my face.
Anger? Is anger the right response? It feels better than despair. How many nuanced emotions are realistically available under these circumstances? Anger is the spearhead. It drives forward with purpose and a message. Aren’t these detonations nothing more than angry little letters to a disappointing world full of assholes? I guess this one is for me. I did not lose my job. My family is safe and healthy. What do I have to complain about? Suck it up, there are people with REAL problems out there.
I guess what I am is sad and bored.
I guess it’s harder to find happiness in the dark.
I guess the heading to this post should’ve had a question mark because I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing or what the fuck to do.
It begins, as so many things do, with Lola and Noggy’s inability to take even the smallest action without turning it into a quest, a quest inevitably deteriorating into a comedy of errors. And if you’re worried, you should be, but know that this boondoggle ends happily.
In all fairness this particular quest wasn’t their idea, but rather part of a summer scavenger hunt put on by some fun-loving race organizers after covid-19 forced a blanket cancellation of all the season’s ultra-running events. Thirty or so running challenges, and a badge for each one completed. Fun stuff like 2000 stairs, a sunrise run, running in loops, and saying something nice to every goddamned menace on a bike you see during your run. That kind of thing.
(By the way, this review is a TL:DR internet recipe. Scroll to the end if what we thought of the fucking milkshake means that much to you.)
Anyway, on this day Lola and Noggy had their sights set on the “Run for Food” badge. Basically what it sounds like. You run directly to obtain food. Their choice of sustenance was, no surprise, the much-maligned Arby’s.
But first, the run. Here’s the thing about these knuckleheads, they can never just “go to Arby’s”. No, those beef ‘n cheddars must be paid for in suffering. It has to be “get lost in a blizzard, wandering until Arby’s reveals itself like a celestial mirage” or “run 50km in February and stagger into the fancy Arby’s like smelly arctic explorers” or in this case “an easy 10km and then dive face first into the horsey sauce.” Simple, right?
You know where this is going…
Lola: I found a new trail!
(wading through waist high wet grass)
Noggy: This isn’t a trail and my feet are soaked.
Lola: You said you wanted an adventure. It’s the trail less traveled.
Noggy: Again, not a trail
(wading through waist high wet thistles)
Lola: Hmm, I’m sure this connects with the main path somewhere.
Noggy: How, genius? In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re on the wrong side of the creek.
Lola: Right…no problem, we can just crawl over these boulders and…Nog?
Lola: Ouch, that is some blood.
Noggy: I hate you.
(several kilometres later)
Lola: [rips off her sunglasses, screaming]
Noggy: Jesus, what?
Lola: [incoherently babbles, clutching the side of her face]
Noggy: Use your words, Silkysocks.
Lola: A wasp stung me twice in the brain. Am I going to die?
Noggy: [inspects Lola’s swelling temple] Definitely scarred for life. Come on, let’s get some curly fries.
Our intrepid dimwits, with their fancy gps watches, cannot navigate themselves out of a wet paper bag and end up running closer to 16km before the semi-iconic ten-gallon Arby’s hat comes into view. They stagger into the parking lot, scraped and inflamed, spirits buoyed by visions of meatcraft, and in this way their “Run for Food” attempt is foiled, ironically, by three Corona-fuelled words…
Drive Thru Only
Anyway, the Arby’s orange milkshake is not at all terrible. You should try it.
You know what’s great? Books not written by white people. So we’re sharing some recent reads so delicious you should definitely buy them and lick every page with your horny eyeballs. BIPOC voices are crushing it, and if it’s been a while since you waded off white author island, you really ought to dive in because the water is glorious.
Noemí Taboada is a Mexico City socialite sent to check on a sick cousin at High Place, a dilapidated Victorian mansion in the mountains, and the ancestral home of a once wealthy English family that owned the nearby silver mines. Soon Noemí finds her cousin has married into a family with secrets eating away at them much like the strange mould devouring the wallpaper, carpet, and draperies of High Place. At a loss for how to help her cousin or herself, Noemí’s dreams turn to dark horrors and every flicker of light leads her down yet another haunted corridor.
This book serves up mood and atmosphere big time, steadily dialling up the dread, violence, and desire. It’s Noemí, however, that keeps the story from tilling up the same gothic soil farmed over and over again by so many others. She’s spoiled and beautiful. Sharp and tenacious. Neither a damsel in distress nor a Strong Female Character perfectly executing roundhouse kicks. She’s a young woman still discovering who she is and what she stands for in a world controlled by men. She’s also frequently bored, and enjoys rubbing one out in the bathtub on occasion.
Between the ghosts, family tragedy, eugenics, mycology, feminism, and romance, Mexican Gothic lives up to the hype and leaves you with a lot to think about.
This book isn’t horror, but it’s pretty fucking horrible, in the very best ways. I’ve got a stygian sense of humour, and damn if this novel doesn’t tickle my blackened funnybone.
It’s pre-911 NYC, and the unnamed narrator is tall, blonde, pretty, and above all, thin. An art history major, recently fired from her job at a shitty gallery. Her best friend Reva is sleeping with her boss and obsessed with her twin interests of “weekend plans” and pouring tequila into cans of diet Mountain Dew. She’s a wretched human, but she’s all the narrator has left. Both her parents are dead, and though they were objectively terrible people, she can’t bring herself to sell their house. She decides to sleep on it. For a full year. Sleep as much, and be awake as little, as possible. Her project requires that she seek out a goofy psychiatrist and manipulate her into prescribing ever increasing doses and varieties of tranquilizers, downers, sleeping pills. All taken with an OTC chaser of NyQuil, or Benadryl. In her passionate dedication to hibernation, she hopes to find a way to truly wake up.
This novel is so, so dark, and utterly hilarious. You’ll cringe, you’ll laugh, you’ll want to black out for three days and wake up on your couch wearing nothing but a Brazilian bikini wax and a mink coat with broccoli in the pockets.
I’ve had the good fortune to read not one, not two, but three fabulous cosmic horror novellas over the last number of weeks, and there are few things I love more than cosmic horror novellas. They hit the sweet spot. Long enough to tell a fleshed out story, short enough to devour in one or two jaw distending gulps without leaving you cramped and bloated. Which happens more frequently than you’d think – especially to hairless guinea pigs – but that’s a different horror entirely, one we totally don’t need to get into right now. Unless you want to? I’m here all night.
Anyways, on with the show.
All three of these are about the monsters within us, either figuratively or literally. In these cases, definitely leaning on the literal side.
I’ll start with a two-fer, a pair of delightfully dark stories starting off Cassandra’s “Persons Non Grata” series (which I’m now impatiently waiting for more – so chop chop!). This is cosmic horror of the Lovecraftian persuasion, with just enough to anchor you to the mythos.
Hammers on Bone tells the story of a John Persons, a unique private eye cut right out of the detective classics. While there are the elements of that homage you’d expect, it’s just enough to give you a warm fuzzy and not make you roll your eyes and mumble “oh god….” John’s a monster who hunts monsters and the story is solid and excellent with a great hook: A ten-year-old kid hiring him to kill his step-dad. Wow. Not something you see every day.
A Song for Quiet is not a direct sequel, but shares the setting including John Persons in a cool supporting role. This story is a deeper one, more musical than pulpy. Lyrical. Deacon James is a bluesman haunted by a lot of things, including the music in his head that wants, and needs, to get out. Though that’s not a great thing. For him. Or everyone on the planet.
I adore the covers. Black and white and red. Powerful stark imagery. One of the things that drew me to them me when I saw people gushing on Twitter. Where you should definitely follow Cassandra at @casskhaw.
I’m a slacker. I’ll come right and say it. I’ve been meaning to read this since it came out, but somehow never did. Why? It kept popping up in my “this is your thing, why haven’t you read it yet,” list and yet… Yeah. Anyways, I did read it and I did love it. And now I have The Devil in Silver sitting on my table staring at me, taunting me. I’ll slack less with it. I promise.
The Ballad of Black Tom is a retelling of H. P. Lovecraft’s story “The Horror at Red Hook” through a substantially different lens. I read that original story way way back, and it comes up often as quintessential Lovecraft horribleness, so it was cool to see how Victor turned it on its head.
Tommy Tester aka Black Tom is an interesting fellow, a not so great musician, but with a knack for doing jobs and going into white neighborhoods where his fellows fear to tread. One of these jobs lands him in the sights of a the police and goes swiftly off trail from there. There are some great cosmic horror elements at play, with a spooky old lady that’s obviously way more than she seems, cryptic books, dark cults, a rich occultist, and powers beyond time and space.
I’d highly recommend it, especially for the rich setting and feel of 1920’s New York and the racial conflict which is as real today as it was then (which makes you realize how much HASN’T changed in a century).
Victor is also found on Twitter, at @victorlavalle, and is always worth listening to.