Joanna Koch’s The Wingspan of Severed Hands is a Brilliantly Challenging Work of Speculative Fiction

I tend to value style most highly in works of fiction. Of course, I enjoy the pleasure of sinking into a well-constructed plot as much as anyone, but for me, voice and perspective are most important of all. It is no surprise, then, that I am quite taken with Joanna Koch’s novella The Wingspan of Severed Hands, whose deliberately obstructive narrative strategies are delivered through such stunning, distinctive prose.

The story tracks Adira, a young woman who fights against misogynistic familial and social structures that aim to lay violent claim to her body. Simultaneously, it depicts Bennet, the weapons director of a secret research facility who constructs a sentient, neuro-cognitive device that develops her own disorienting self-awareness. As the novel progresses, these three characters (Adira, Bennet, and the weapon) discover a common, quasi-cosmic enemy.

This is a slippery book, whose hallucinatory sequences leak between different character POVs with stunning abandon. Koch, who has an MA in Contemplative Psychotherapy, applies Cronenberg-esque body horror to transferences of consciousness and selfhood. Much like Cronenberg, Koch intertwines institutional corruption and scientific inquiry with vivid, hyper-visceral depictions of bodily destruction and transformation. Although the novel’s climax swerves into trippy, consciousness-hopping dreamscapes, Koch seems more interested in the intimate interiority of trauma than they are in “cosmic horror” conventions.

The result is an impressive achievement, massive in scope and narrative ambition, but insular in thematic focus. Koch applies elements of experimental speculative fiction to both body and cosmic horror, placing their primary emphasis on the formidable (but ultimately beatable) power of trauma. Although the book goes to nasty places, it does not submit completely to its darkness, and I respect it for that.

Koch is a stunningly original talent, and I enthusiastically recommend this novella.

“To Exist, but Not Be There”: Terence DeToy Reviews Shelter for the Damned


“The novel’s pacing is relentless. You may find yourself breathing only during page turns. Thorn has a real knack for building intensity to a fever pitch and letting the effect carry over into the action. His prose is smooth and his dialogue stretches the anger of juvenile angst without forcing it into unnatural banter. What’s really terrifying about this novel is its fidelity to the suburban experience—that is, what’s scary is how realistic so much of it is.”

Read the full review on Tuerlemot (warning: plot spoilers).

Kathe Koja’s Velocities is a Major, Genre-Transcending Achievement

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Kathe Koja’s work has always wrestled with complex issues: the limits of agonistic art, performance/performativity, and expressions of embodiment. From her groundbreaking debut novel, The Cipher (1991), to her 1997 collection Extremities, the author often evaluates these topics through the porous boundaries of horror. Of course, it is not only Koja’s compelling thematic engagements that set her writing apart, but also her crackling, inimitable, urgent prose style.

Koja’s career-long fixations persist in her new collection, Velocities, one of the most vital, haunting, and commanding genre releases in recent years. Particularly noteworthy is the book’s interest in art (especially performance art) as a catalyst for negotiations with trauma. Two stand-out examples are “Velocity,” which sees its performance artist reliving a horrific event through his work, and “Pas de Deux,” which depicts a woman grappling with the interior catharsis of dance versus exterior demands on her body. Indeed, this tension between desires of interiority and those of embodied, physical reality (central to novels like Skin [1993] and Strange Angels [1994]) shows up repeatedly throughout this collection.

When dealing with Koja, one of the twentieth century’s major American horror novelists, it seems impossible to avoid the question of genre. Is Velocities a “genre” collection? Undoubtedly Koja lays bare her expertise on genre forms and modes (“The Marble Lily” might be the most convincing contemporary imitation of nineteenth-century Gothic I’ve read), but this book circumvents categorical structures at nearly every turn. Within the first couple stories, it dawned on me that Koja’s fiction is simply a genre unto itself; hers is a body of work defined by singular style. Truly, Koja’s voice is among the most distinctive and invigorating I have encountered.

Koja maximizes on that which is specific to the written medium; her wildly unique prose style delivers affective experiences that I cannot imagine transmitting fully to any other artistic form. At the same time, though, this author draws often on the tactility of performance and dance, imagining the many ways in which artistic modes can either mirror or contend with each other.

Suffice to say that Velocities is, like any other Koja book, a major event. This writer’s work has had more impact on me and my work than I can express. Time and again, her fiction has reinvigorated me and helped me to imagine the boundless literary potential of genre. It is no exaggeration to say that she is among the most important writers in horror, and a major figure in contemporary American fiction more broadly.

Buy Velocities.

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