In his 2016 book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh lays out the case for climate change and charges contemporary fiction writers with the responsibility of writing about it. But why, Ghosh wonders, aren’t our fiction writers writing about it? Ghosh condemns contemporary fiction writers for a failure to address climate change.
I found it an interesting accusation because, in my experience, fiction writers were, in fact, writing about climate change and had been for years. Ghosh proposed the idea that writers in the literary mainstream would tend to be relegated to science fiction when writing about climate change, and considering the realities of western literary culture—where we tend to draw lines of artistic merit between literary traditions—I think he had a point. To me, though, a good story is a good story.
Regardless, in the eight years since Ghosh’s book hit shelves, I think we’ve seen a more widespread willingness of writers to go there.
When I picked up Between Days by Nick DeWolf, I had no idea what to expect. I’d read his novels but only one of his short stories, and I certainly didn’t know what a collection of dreams was. What I found was a cool collection of tales full of wonder, horror, imagination, and heart.
Between Days is a collection of short stories based on dreams, and it’s notably filled with variety and diversity of thought. Each story has its own identity and an apparent reason for being, but more than that, the sheer breadth of aesthetic is impressive. Many writers have trouble writing anything that isn’t literally inspired by their daily lives or lack the ability to imagine themselves as anyone but themselves, but this book demonstrates Nick DeWolf’s imagination knows no boundaries. I didn’t realize until this collection that what I’ve always wanted from him is a book full of his stories. This book shows what his beautifully unique brain can produce when it is unrestrained and empowered to follow its muse. It’s a wonderful thing to behold, and while his novels are magnificent descents into living, breathing worlds full of intriguing characters and compelling plots, this collection allows him to play with his extraordinary imagination in many different ways.
Between Days is kind of like going to Nick DeWolf’s fro-yo shop where the fro-yo is his imagination and you can stick your head under the spouts at will. Toppings are free. Go ahead and heap them on. Nobody’s going to weigh your bowl at the end.
I think most readers look to stories primarily to take them somewhere alluring and to be with people who are interesting. Nick DeWolf has a creative mind that is uniquely suited to satisfy these desires. As a means of escape, Between Days grants readers worlds and realities to wander and wonder about. Moreover, I think most readers are looking for experience, vicarious living through empathy, when they pick up a book. I think most readers are looking to feel something, and in that regard, I think this collection is full of successes.
In 2017, author and editor Richard Thomas assembled a staff of other writers, editors, and artists to pursue a new venture in dark speculative literature. Backed by a Kickstarter, the project aimed to pay competitive pro rates, putting creators first in a business that often privileges virtually everyone else.
That year, Gamut Magazine was born, and over the course of twelve issues, it published some truly pivotal work for dark-leaning literature, pushing genres like horror, fantasy, and science fiction into new realms. Unlike many other literary magazines, Gamut’s only aesthetic was that the writing had to turn its gaze to dark things. Seemingly everything else was not only fair game but encouraged.
Thus, Gamut succeeded in removing many of the stylistic and creative guardrails for contemporary genre literature. Unfortunately, after its inaugural run, the choice was made to close Gamut Magazine.
But it turns out Gamut didn’t die. It just went to sleep for a while.
This year was a bit slow on the publishing front, but I did have two short stories get out there in the world. The first was a post-apocalyptic tale about unlimited power over finite resources, good intentions, and robots, appearing in Haven Speculative’s June issue. Read “Touch of Ruin” here.
The second is a more personal story about grief, loss, and brotherhood, and it won the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival Short Story contest in September. This was a bit of a milestone for me, and I was touched and honored the story won the contest. Read “A Winter Bloom” here.
Aside from those two publications, this year has been another one chock full of rejection. So it goes, right, Kurt? However, I did finish my next novel, titled American Spirits, and I’m seeking representation for this one. If you know any agents who might be interested, send them my way.
My Favorite stories of 2023
This time of year, I see a lot of favorite lists getting passed around, and I thought it was high time to do that myself. After all, I’m nothing if not a fan of other storytellers’ work.
I don’t read a lot of military fiction. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien will forever occupy a space on my bookshelf, but I feel like few people who become good soldiers are predisposed to being good writers. The mindsets would seem to be contradictory (independent thought versus collective thought, you get me), which isn’t to say there aren’t good military fiction writers, just that I think they’re rare.
I think Benjamin Inks is something of a rarity, and I think there’s an important distinction to be made with regard to his debut book, Soft Targets: this isn’t a collection of stories about soldiers so much as it’s a collection of stories about people who are soldiers. Similarly, Inks is a veteran, but I think it’s important to know he’s a writer who’s also a veteran. These stories demonstrate, while he was serving in the military, he was observing his world with the depth of perception and thought of a writer in conflict.
I think comparisons to Tim O’Brien are fair. Inks isn’t writing about the nature of war so much as he’s writing about the nature of living with it, all aspects of the before, during, and after. This is a book of stories about people and how war affects us, and the stories are told by someone who knows that effect intimately.
I found many of these stories deeply affecting. “Learning to Be You” is maybe the best piece of literature I’ve read this year, and “Love in the Time of Combat Injuries” is as close as you can get to a romantic comedy in a veteran’s hospital while maintaining authenticity.
Authenticity is important, too. These are stories by a veteran who not only lived the life of the soldier but lives it still. Its authenticity is evident in the book’s every pore and unmistakable in its inspiration; these stories are unlike any you’re likely to read elsewhere because the experiences they’re based on are unique and lived.
Furthermore, Inks calls into question the very idea of “veteran,” not to disrespect the title but to lift it up. Inks ponders whether “soldier” is something someone becomes or if it’s something they’ve always been and always will be. He explores what that means in scale, from the very intimate to the societal and cultural to the cosmic.
There are a lot of deep, heavy thoughts in this book, and I think its physical size betrays its material weight. At the same time, stories like “Jack Fleming Lives!” and “American Nesting Dolls” offer some levity while exploring the nature of storytelling in regards to the stories soldiers tell themselves. Are they even true? Or do they obscure the truth for the sake of coping? Is there truth in the obscurity itself? I think Tim O’Brien would have a lot to say about that.
If you’re looking for some military fiction that will provoke deep thoughts and move your humanity in ways you are either craving (even if you aren’t a soldier) or have never actually experienced (especially if you’re not a soldier), Soft Targets is a good bet. For my money, Soft Targets gives me such a humanizing and normalizing view of soldiers that we so rarely get. We see them without their weapons and body armor. We see them, and we connect with them, and we feel for them, and we love them for who, not what, they are.
When I started reading The Ferryman, the latest novel by Justin Cronin, I had a sense that I pretty much knew what I was in for. I was wrong.
To use a rollercoaster metaphor (because I think cliches should be played with, not dispensed), sometimes a book offers a clear day and you can see all of the ascents and dives, twists and turns, before that first ratcheting climb even begins. Sometimes the fog rolls in off the bay and you can’t see a damned thing, so you just hold on as you’re taken up and then dropped into a gray void. The Ferryman is a bit like riding a rollercoaster inside of a mirror maze. You think you see what’s coming, but what you actually see is a reflection of yourself, eyes and mouth agape, an embarrassing squeal ringing off your tongue.
Rollercoaster aside, The Ferryman isn’t a thriller. It’s not a plot-driven story seeking to play with your expectations for the next twist. Don’t get me wrong. This book will thrill you. Even when you’re reading it and you think, maybe this is a thriller, that’s the mirror again. It’s almost as if Cronin is begging you to ask yourself why you’re trying to pin this book down at all, and it challenges you conceptually in the most extreme ends of the creative spectrum. So, let’s shed the labels. It’s a story about intimate, life-affirming love shared between partners, family, or friends. It’s a story about cosmic philosophies regarding our species and its fundamental state of being. And it’s a story about everything in between.
The Ferryman is a book of wonder, mystery, heartache, and existence. It’s a beautiful book, and it’s a terrifying book. It’s a book that will immerse you in calm waters, and it’s a book that will exhilarate you with violent storm surges.
If nothing else, The Ferryman is a book with a concept that, if you’d told me everything about it—spoiled it utterly—I would have said a book like that can’t work. And yet it does, and that fact, above every nit-picky reservation or petty grievance a reader might have, elevates The Ferryman to something like a literary magic trick.
It’s been a while since I’ve read a good ghost story, and there’s a reason for that. The genre has become so defined by its tropes that it’s formed its own subgenre of reality TV, which itself has tropes. Genres evolve, but between evolutions, they fall out of favor, the proverbial haunted house going inactive during the daylight hours.
Now, I’m loving what Mike Flanagan is doing with ghost stories on film. He seems to be progressing the genre into character-driven territory in which the horror is driven by environment instead of gorey thrills. As above, so below, what Flanagan brings to film, Craig DiLouie is bringing to literature.
His latest, Episode Thirteen is a further evolution to the ghost story genre, taking a ghost hunting reality TV show and fictionalizing one particular hunt where the show maybe gets a little too real.
Stephen King was fundamental to my formative years in storytelling, and I know I’m far from alone in that. His writing has touched millions, and his reputation has preceded him for many more than that. You know all of this.
(If you really just want the review, scroll down to the subheading. You can’t miss it.)
When I was discovering fiction writing as a central part of my life, I found myself connecting with and inspired by his stories more than many other writers’. Like the literary elite, who might still puzzle over what it is about King’s work that people like so much, I’ve spent much of my studies thinking about why his work resonates with me. Is it the fascination with the dark and macabre? Is it some deep-seated psychological need for me to gaze into the unknown? Do I ironically find delight in terror? Wait, is there something wrong with me? I think if it were any of these things, any horror author would do, and that’s at least not how I work.
When I read Notes From a Necrophobe, I discovered a story that was gruesome and dark yet engaging and fun. I found a book that was surprisingly fresh in well-trodden territory. Many writers sit down at the computer and hope to create a unique zombie apocalypse story. T.C. Armstrong did that with her first one. This one turns all the right screws, becomes something different, and manages to be even better.
Those aren’t empty reviewer words you expect to read from someone hoping to get a blurb on a banner ad somewhere. I really mean it, and I’ll prove it.
There’s an interesting dismantling in the first act of this story. In a sense, the book deconstructs much of what the first book established and reinvents itself. The product is an adventurous romp that’s something like the Goonies meets Zombieland.
At its core, this is a story about the ingenuity and resourcefulness of kids, and I feel like it’s the story the author wanted to tell with the first book but couldn’t quite get there because she had to do all of the world building and rule establishing and conflict setting and yada yada yada that goes with beginning a series. Delusions of the Dead dispenses with the burdens of having to set things up and just dives right in. And rather than falling into the trap so many storytellers do of using a sequel to just continue a story or give us more of the same, I feel like this one immediately glared at me, slapped me across the face, and said, “nah, I don’t wanna do that. I wanna do something else.”
The result is a bit jarring at first, but it’s for the reader’s own good.
Now I get it. If you hear a sequel is different, you get a bit cagey. When you like something, some part of you that likes satisfaction wants the same thing again but this time a little different. But the same. You want it both nostalgic and fresh. You want it both familiar and new. You want the chicken stew your mom used to make in the dead of winter, but also you’re an adult now and it would be nice if she could spice it up a bit, k? Thanks.
This is why writers shy away from sequels.
Yes, things are a bit different now, but much of what I liked about the first book hasn’t changed. There’s still a sense of glee and infatuation with morbidity in the storytelling. There are still hilarious jokes from snarky characters, many of which are returning from the first book. There’s still a sense of disillusionment with the world and wonderful allusions and references to pop culture.
It’s the same storyteller, but the story is refined, and she’s playing with some new ideas, which all means Delusions of the Dead stands on its own but also is a must-read if you enjoyed Notes From a Necrophobe like I did.
If you’re friends with me on social media (or you’re that damned stalker I almost caught in the tree outside my office that one time when my wife said, “it probably was just a couple of squirrels making that rustling sound,” and I said, “I know what I saw,” and she said never you mind what my wife said), you may have seen me mention this anthology, “The Will To Survive.”
If you’re not friends with me on social media, that’s fine, I guess. *kicks rocks
But this isn’t about us, friends, non-friends, and frenemies. This is about an anthology for hurricane relief.
I know last fall seems like ages ago, but it was, in fact, mere months, and if you recall, hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria pounded the Southeastern United States, Virgin Islands, and Caribbean in rapid succession. Damage estimates are in the billions of dollars, and still, five months later, parts of Puerto Rico’s electric grid remain down.
In case you need a translation on that, those are U.S. citizens who don’t have basic utilities five months after a hurricane.