Earlier this year I had a very belated introduction to Marge Simon’s work with Satan’s Sweethearts. Like War (Simon’s newest, co-written with Alessandro Manzetti), Sweethearts (co-authored by Mary Turzillo) is a dense, rigorously researched collaboration in historical horror poetry. Maybe this comparison makes War and Sweethearts sound like extremely particular (even niche) sub-genre pieces, but they benefit equally from clearly defined senses of focus, cohesion and specificity.
War has provided me with another long-delayed introduction, this time to Alessandro Manzetti. Like Simon, Manzetti is an extraordinarily prolific and celebrated force in the contemporary genre field; and like Turzillo’s poetry in Sweethearts, Manzetti’s style in War meshes intuitively and powerfully with Simon’s.
This collection’s title implies a far-reaching, even macrocosmic thematic thread; but Simon and Manzetti wisely choose to lend attention to the tangible, the microcosmic, sometimes even the horrifically banal. Written as a series of free-form pieces (some collaborative, some solo), War is comprised mostly of brutal and uncompromising vignettes and tableaux. Both Simon and Manzetti demonstrate aptitude for calculated and disturbingly descriptive language, making use of poetry’s formal confines to hone exacting depictions of human cruelty.
This focus on the particular does not overshadow War’s considerable ambition: spanning time, place and point of view, this collection approaches its title topic from the terrifying angles of imperialism, post-traumatic stress disorder, misogyny, fear, racism and ignorance. Sometimes slipping into their speakers’ perspectives and sometimes writing with chilling omniscience, Manzetti and Simon offer no reprieves. This book delivers blunt-force impact to match its subject. Fitting for a contemporary world that feels more apocalyptic with every passing day, War demands attention and makes no compromises.
Stephen King often cites the influence of crime/mystery authors, from brutalist Jim Thompson to classicist Agatha Christie. He has also showcased a career-long interest in the intersections and tensions between genres, often pitting disparate modes against one another (consider the Western/high fantasy/horror fusion of his Dark Tower series). Hell, even his most explicitly horror-specific work is often working within the conventions of “literary” (or non-genre identifying) fiction.
It’s no surprise, then, that his latest novel The Outsider plays out as a police procedural narrative that gradually succumbs to the infection of supernatural horror. The author tried a nearly identical maneuver to less successful effect in 2016’s End of Watch, the final entry in his Bill Hodges trilogy. To that end, his meta-reflective doppelganger riff The Dark Half (1989) showcases another variation on this theme. As such, The Outsider reads not as some unprecedented betrayal of genre-defined rules, but as another iteration of a career-long M.O.—to oversimplify, novels like The Shining (1977) and Pet Sematary (1983) are basically domestic dramas invaded by horror conventions, so why not apply similar principles to the mystery genre?
The Outsider is absorbing as a pure exercise in plotting: King explores his “immovable object against unstoppable force” concept with great aplomb. He writes in his typically minimalist late-career prose style, which lends to compulsive reading but arguably less immersive effect than his early masterpieces (I must admit, I really do miss the intensity and imagery-laden excesses of novels like It , The Tommyknockers  and even Insomnia ). Granted, The Outsider’s debatable lack of total immersion should not be attributed solely to King’s relatively recent change in style. The novel’s generally surface-level and lightly quasi-omniscient characterization is necessitated in part by mystery conventions: the author cannot fully disclose his characters’ deepest secrets and reflections, because (A) it could result in premature plot revelation, and (B) it would be counter-productive to what is essentially plot-driven fiction.
As with Revival (2014), I would have loved to read a longer and more fleshed-out version of The Outsider, allowing for the kind of richly descriptive language and wide-spanning social diagnosis that bolsters King’s best novels. While I ultimately think this is a pretty “minor” book, that’s not so much a slight as it is a tribute to the author’s phenomenal body of work. It’s not without its faults, but it’s engrossing and well-crafted fiction just the same.
I read from my weird academic-in-distress story “Mired” (included in Darkest Hours) for the latest episode of Writer’s Block. Listen to the reading.
Writer’s Block is CJSW’s monthly foray into literature. Hosted and produced by Dymphny Dronyk and sound engineered by Cody Dronyk, the program is focused on local events, writers, poets, publishers, while keeping an eye on the bigger literary picture across the country and around the world! Writer’s Block airs at 90.9 on the FM dial in Calgary on the third Tuesday of every month at 11 a.m. and 8 p.m.
Ben Walker just posted a new video review of Darkest Hours on YouTube.
Check it out!
“There is more than enough talent showcased within these pages to suggest that Mike Thorn’s journey has only just begun. I look forward to seeing where he goes from here.”
Read the full review here.
Alvaro Zinos-Amaro asked me thoughtful, personal questions for April’s issue of WORDS (an online zine through Hex Publishers). Among other things, we touch on transgressive art, John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, Catholic school, philosophy and Kanye West.
Read the full interview.
Farah Rose Smith’s “The Visitor” does not serve simply as a delivery system for a riff on the Faustian bargain narrative; it showcases its author’s obvious attentiveness to each and every sentence, to how the lines sound and feel. This is the kind of fiction that begs to be read aloud. I find it difficult to describe good prose, but Smith writes with a seemingly effortless elegance that reminds me of some of the genre’s best stylists: think Kathe Koja, Anne Rice, Thomas Ligotti, S.P. Miskowski, Clive Barker and Gwendolyn Kiste.
I have no shortage of respect for “The Visitor”‘s form, but the content is also worth discussing. Smith writes thoughtfully and powerfully about the relationships between romanticism and destruction, between horror and seduction. This is a supernatural story, but it is also a story about the desperation and vitality of artists on the fringes, about the complicated dimensions of love. There’s an impressive amount of subtext compressed into such a short amount of text.
The author’s biography cites her experience not only in fiction-writing, but also in the worlds of music and film. It’s all visible here. There’s a clear focus on affect and vibe and all the sensory qualities available to prose fiction, and Smith taps into these wells with a vibrancy that brings to mind Gothic post-punk, noise and experimental horror cinema. All this is to say that I thoroughly dig “The Visitor,” and that I recommend it highly to all fans of dark fiction.