How Long Til’ Black Future Month: Stories by N.K. Jemisin
This is a beautiful melange of fantasy & science fiction told from a black perspective. Some stories feel like a red hot bullet right between the eyes in our current context. There’s a story about the spirit of a city becoming aware she not merely a human walking its street with the idea that these city spirits travel and awaken their kin across the world over time. We’re presented with a Jim Crow-era story of a black witch and her children encountering a demonic fey-like entity posing as a beautiful blonde white woman. There are stories of secret agents from an alternate universe Haiti sneaking through New Orleans to take out a white cabal. You get the transformational narrative of a young chef introduced to alien ingredients and becoming a sorceress who can create food that radically affects her customers. The most resonant for me was the opening story, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” where a beautiful utopia is described, a place where all prejudices are gone, and humanity lives in beautiful harmony and follows a path that parallels and reflect our own. You can read that story, and you most certainly should here.
It’s not just important to support Black Lives, but you also need to engage in and promote Black Art. Here are some books I absolutely love that are written by Black authors. I hope you find something here to pick up and read. These are not just books by Black writers but also some of the best books period I’ve ever read.
Instructions For a Funeral: Stories by David Means
I really disliked this collection for one main reason, Means’s prose is meandering so much that you completely disconnect from the character he’s giving a voice to. There are some alright pieces with a good core idea, but then the execution is soporific, leading me to realize I’d “read” three pages and not remembered a stitch of what I’d seen on the page. I’m a reader who loves literary fiction and even postmodern writing that plays with structures and voice. But this is just plain boring, with characters who never become compelling and lacking the urgency good short fiction possesses.
Capitalist Superheroes: Caped Crusaders in the Neoliberal Age by Dan Hassler-Forest
I don’t pretend I’m in love with the superhero film genre. As much as I love the comic books I grew up reading and still love to read today, the films never sit quite well with me. Author and critic Dan Hassler-Forest details the underlying ideology presented in modern superhero movies and how it only reinforces capitalist patriarchal hegemony. Hassler-Forest argues that these are merely an extension of the same blind patriotism seen in the Stallone and Schwarzenegger movies of the 1980s. Instead of being expressly American, due to a growing global audience, specifically China, these movies are couched around post-9-11 ideology.
Friday Black: Stories by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah Ever since I read Civilwarland in Bad Decline and Pastoralia, both by George Saunders, I have been searching for that sort of literary voice, and I think I’ve found it in Adjei-Brenyah. The most obvious connection is the short “Zimmer Land,” a theme park where people come to act out their aggressive fantasies while mostly ethnic minority employees (wearing high tech protective gear) become human punching bags. “The Finkelstein Five” continues that exploration of contemporary race conflict as the narrator becomes caught up in the reaction to the acquittal of a child murderer who took the lives of four black children with a chainsaw. There’s a duo of stories about the Thunderdome like conditions of a future shopping mall, where customers kill each other over insulated parkas. My favorite was the closing story, “Through the Flash” and it brought me to tears while reading it. That tale features a teenage girl caught in a dystopian time loop where she and her neighbors have lived the same days for thousands of years. It was an oddly hopeful and heartbreaking story. Of all the fiction I’ve read this year Friday Black gets my most enthusiastic recommendation.
Insurrections: Stories by Rion Amilcar I had heard a lot of hype about Amilcar after his latest collection, “The World Doesn’t Require You,” was published earlier this year. I went back and read his first anthology and was a little underwhelmed. When Scott is at his best, he channels the urgency of Flannery O’Connor. Most of the stories fell flat for me, and it did cause me to move his new book down my reading list in favor of other titles. My favorite story in this collection was “A Friendly Game,” which follows a high school student caught up in an incredibly toxic male friendship. This is paralleled with the story of a mentally ill homeless woman in their neighborhood who lost her son years earlier, which led to her breakdown. The antagonist in the story is great and really gets you inside of what the main character is having to deal with daily.
The Need by Helen Phillips There are subtle shades of Jordan Peele’s “Us” present throughout this novel as it tells the story of a housewife encountering an entity in her home that will up-end her life. Molly is an anthropologist by day and worn out mother by night, often tasked with caring for her two very young children by herself while Molly’s husband is away. It’s one of these lonely nights at home when Molly becomes aware that something else is in the house. The brief movement of a toy chest lid in the living room informs her that this thing is watching her, and when it reveals herself, she isn’t quite sure how to process what is going on. Then the deal is struck, and soon, Molly finds she’s an outsider in her own life, becoming an observer as someone else takes her place. The scary part is that Molly finds relief in handing the burden of parenthood off to another. The Need is a tightly written and deeply existential & weird text. I’m not a parent, but the anxieties experienced by parents are palpable in this book. I imagine this could be a cathartic release for parents who naturally have those moments of regret from time to time.
Song for the Unraveling of the World: Stories by Brian Evenson
I have yet to read any of Brian Evenson’s novels, but I have enjoyed his short stories so far. His first collection, A Collapse of Horses was tremendous, but this volume is even better. He’s very confident in the work and can present multiple perspectives without ever being reductive about mental illness. There are quite a number of characters who could be considered mentally ill, but they never get presented as tropes. In “Room Tone” a young filmmaker is obsessed with getting the ambient noise of a filming space. However, the house he shot his movie in has a new owner that wants to be left alone. The director just can’t move past this and goes to extreme lengths to get his recording. In “Born Stillborn” a patient believes his psychiatrist is visiting him at night as he tries to go to sleep, asking the real questions. His daytime sessions are full of false questions with secret messages the doctor is sending. “Leaking Out” is a wonderfully simple horror tale about a drifter seeking refuge in an old house. The premise is classic, but the monster living in this place is nebulous and terrifying. “The Tower” is a dark fantasy apocalypse about what might be a vampire who comes to a scattered settlement of survivors. This story was one of my favorites and created such a fleshed-out world in so few strokes that it made me want to explore this world even more. “Lather of Flies is a mind-being horror story about a reclusive director’s lost film which goes to some fantastic places. This is one of the most substantial short story collections I’ve read this year, which says a lot because I’ve consumed some great ones.
Here are the things I have planned for the second half of the year on my blog.
I’ll start doing a bi-weekly short film review roundup on August 17th. I plan to feature quality short films that are available online so that readers can view them. I have the first eight posts planned with three short films on each post. The first post will feature reviews for the short films He Took His Skin Off For Me, Janciza Bravo’s Eat, and Ari Aster’s The Strange Thing About the Johnsons. I’ll be looking at films that come from all corners of media from classic French shorts (Le Jetee) to Adult Swim middle of the night surreality (the works of Alan Resnick).
Fiction Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado I’d heard much acclaim about this short story collection and figured it was time to sit down and read it finally. I’m thrilled I did. Machado reminded me a lot of Kelly Link, weaving themes of feminism and horror into stories that stand strongly as genre pieces or a literary piece to be dissected. There’s an incredible inventiveness to the stories Machado tells. She repurposes the old folktale/urban legend about the girl the green ribbon around her neck to tell a story about a woman having her sexuality slowly but surely stolen from her over the course of decades. There’s a tale about a store clerk uncovering the horrific truth behind the seams in the prom dresses she sells that is chilling. The stand out work is the novella “Especially Heinous” that starts as TV Guide-style episode synopses of Law & Order: SVU. Things get strange when a narrative strand begins to connect these summaries, and we see a story unfolding of evil twins and demon possession. It’s one of the most ingenious ways to twist how a horror story can be told and well worth the read.