The Weird Delights of Daniel Braum’s Underworld Dreams

Cover Reveal: Underworld Dreams by Daniel Braum – Ink Heist
Lethe Press, 2020

Daniel Braum’s new short story collection Underworld Dreams comes equipped with a Story Notes section; within these Notes, the author provides thoughtful reflections on his creative process, narrative intentions, and philosophical interests, among other things. Most prominently, Braum stresses his persisting interest in the ambiguous space between the psychological and the supernatural. Braum’s fiction inhabits this space and engages with the Weird tradition to depict our reality as innately interstitial, slippery, and impervious to “mastery.” By extension, Underworld Dreams repeatedly encourages us to scrutinize the artificial gap between human and nonhuman animals, between subject and world.

This coy, quiet, and unassuming challenge to human exceptionalism resonates throughout. The first story, “How to Stay Afloat When Drowning,” features a disturbing centerpiece in which a group of people brutally torture a shark; later, the story uses its psychological-supernatural ambiguity to blur the distinction between shark and human. “The Monkey Coat” lends attention to the suffering bound up in its titular object (the origin of whose horrors remain unknown).

Braum does not employ this symbolism to bluntly didactic ends; rather, he assesses the artificial divide between human and nonhuman animal to underline broader investigations about the human subject’s relation to the world. For example, the title story sees characters discussing acts of infidelity and dishonesty as reflections of their “monkey in the jungle” selves.

Braum cites Algernon Blackwood’s classic Weird novella The Willows in his Story Notes, and the imprint is visible: Underworld Dreams repeatedly sees its characters encountering eerily numinous spaces and reality-fissures in environments that have evaded global industrialism. Braum finds lots of potential for the ineffable in “natural” spaces, demonstrating a knack for imagery and atmosphere.

There are horrifying moments here (perhaps most notably in the aforementioned “Monkey Coat,” reportedly inspired by advice Braum got from the legendary Jack Ketchum), but this book mostly occupies Weird Fiction’s less macabre terrain. China Melville writes that the “obsession with numinosity under the everyday is at the heart of Weird Fiction,” and this is the obsession that most clearly characterizes Underworld Dreams. For readers seeking fiction with a strong narrative engine and a bold commitment to the unknown, this collection is one to seek out.

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

kathekoja

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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