Objects of Worship, Monstrous Affections, and The World More Full of Weeping

OBJECTS OF WORSHIP
By Claude Lalumière
MONSTROUS AFFECTIONS
By David Nickle
THE WORLD MORE FULL OF WEEPING
By Robert J. Wiersema

Fantasy and horror are popular niches that recent start-up ChiZine Publications, under the editorship of Toronto-based Brett Alexander Savory and Sandra Kasturi, has quickly filled with its own compelling brand of “weird, surreal, and disturbing dark fiction.” In their first wave of offerings certain recurrent themes, including a penchant for alternative mythologies and relationships gone perilously sour, are already starting to define a ChiZine sensibility. Most impressive, however, is just how good these books all are.

Genre fans won’t be surprised. Two of these new volumes are story collections by experienced practitioners and represent some of their best work. David Nickle’s Monstrous Affections begins with a story, “The Sloan Men,” first published fifteen years ago. Perhaps the strongest piece as well, it introduces the reader to Nickle’s “Canadian gothic” terrain, and in particular the landscape around Fenlan, his own imagining of a town somewhere deep within a perverted version of Alice Munro country. It’s a monster story – the twisted cover art by Erik Mohr (who did a great job on all three of these books) might be one take on a Sloan man – but also a kind of allegory for the motif of love as a dangerous trap, one that frequently ends in sinister codependency. People do such terrible things for the tenderest of motives. In particular, what makes our affections monstrous are the ties that bind: a family learns what it means to stick together in “Night of the Tar Baby;” a witch holds an entire town in amber, with predictable results; a footloose young man is made to feel “The Inevitability of Earth” when he tries to walk away from his wife. And there’s no leaving those endearing Sloan men.

The stories work so well in part because Nickle knows the language of the place. He is comfortable writing in different voices, even a nearly illiterate young woman in the excellent “Janie and the Wind,” and also knows the idiom of his semi-rural environment, where a house might stand “miles outside town, on an ugly flat scratch of land where the grass grew too high and you saw the neighbours by the smoke from their woodstoves in the winter.” Such properties might be “free and clear,” but not their residents.

In addition to writing his own fiction, Claude Lalumière has edited eight anthologies and does the Fantastic Fiction column for the Montreal Gazette. In the dozen stories collected in Objects of Worship much of the emphasis is on strange gods and weird new religious orders presiding over “wondrous worlds – alternate realities where every fancy could be true.” The influence of H. P. Lovecraft, dean of this school of writing, can be discerned in figures like Yameth-Lot, the dark lord of nightmares, and the use of an eldritch word like “eldritch” (the definitive Lovecraft adjective, and one that could be applied to Nickle’s Fenlan as well). But Lalumière’s fiction is also of a place and that place is, in terms of its faith, Montreal. The reader senses it not just in the transformed cross on Mount Royal that becomes the symbol of a post-apocalyptic cult in “This Is the Ice Age,” but in what is made of the sacrament of communion. There’s a whole lot of eating going on in these stories, both of and by gods and monsters. And while the overall tone of the book is lighter than Nickle’s, borrowing heavily from pop fare like zombie movies and comic books, it’s not without a sharp satiric edge. What good are gods for anyway, if not for munching on?

If Lalumière’s main literary influence, at least within the fantasy genre, is Lovecraft (with some assistance from Jack Kirby), then Robert J. Wiersema’s is Stephen King. The World More Full of Weeping is a novella very much in the King mode, from its subject matter – family breakdown, a plucky kid on his own in the woods – to its style – layers of keenly observed domestic detail rendered in an everyday, generalized vernacular that doesn’t draw attention to itself. But while the presentation is perfectly controlled and fluid, building suspense nicely as it moves back-and-forth between the little boy lost and the search-and-rescue mission to find him, the premise is a bit conventional and the book doesn’t have the same crooked bite that Nickle, for example, gives much the same theme of crossing the shadow line from youth to experience in one of his stories.

Like Nickle and Lalumière, Wiersema is a writer whose fantasy is grounded in a place, in his case a small town in southwestern British Columbia named Henderson which is (as a fine essay attached as an afterword discusses) modeled after his own hometown of Agassiz. By grounding his fiction in a “personal geography” Wiersema gives it a physical and psychological presence – one made out of the history, culture, and geography of a real place – that the fantastic elements play off against. Or, as Michael Rowe puts it in his introduction to Monstrous Affections, “It is impossible to experience horror – which is a destination, not a departure point – without first experiencing the security of a place, literal or conceptual, from which the ground will fall away, revealing a vast, awful blackness of terrible possibility; a cold lightless country of sharp teeth and claws.” In each of these three books an archetypal Canadian literary setting – the forests of BC’s interior, Montreal, the small towns of Ontario – becomes “an eternally rediscovered country” transformed by the imagination.

In other words: Yes it’s Canadian literature. And it’s fantastic.

Notes:
Review first published in Quill & Quire, November 2009. Monstrous Affections was the first “starred review” I had run in Quill & Quire.