Barrel Fever by David Sedaris

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Barrel Fever (1994) is a pretty good and quite funny collection of short stories, humor pieces, and essays that served as my introduction to David Sedaris, although I’ve quite enjoyed his appearances on a few podcasts I listen to.

Although Sedaris is mostly known as an essayist now, at least by me, anyway, he started out as more of a short story/humor piece writer, and perhaps it was a good idea to transition because I do think his essays (all at the back of the work in their own, too short section) are superior overall.

Barrel Fever, like almost all collections, and especially humor collections, is pretty hit or miss. But the hits reach heights of snarky, dark hilarity that make up for the lows, which aren’t bad so much as they don’t do much for me (with one exception I’ll get to below).

Highlights include:

“Music For Lovers” – An increasingly absurd piece about a man who does his own medical procedures, as well as his daughter’s, to increasingly absurd ends.

“My Manuscript” – Really good and hilarious fantasy of a teenage boy, more or less erotic fan fiction for his life.

“We Get Along” – An excellent one about a son and mother dealing with the aftermath of the death of the philandering father while cleaning out the basement they rent to tenants, most recently one the son had an affair with. Very funny but sad.

“After Malison” – Great tale of a sycophantic young writer desperate to meet her hero writer, full of disdain for people who aren’t like her or him.

“SantaLand Diaries” – The essay that made Sedaris famous, a beautiful, epic diary of his time as an elf at Macy’s. Just fantastic.

The lowlight:

“Season’s Greetings To Our Friends and Family!!!” – A story that makes me think 1994 wasn’t that long ago, now was it? Because this has not aged well and basically hinges on a cheap Asian language barrier joke.

That exception aside, Barrel Fever is a really funny and entertaining collection that leaves me primed to check out more Sedaris in the future. Maybe not the best introduction, if only because there are other books that are more essays than stories. I’ll find out.

By Bizarre Hands by Joe R. Lansdale

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By Bizarre Hands (1989) is a somewhat uneven but very enjoyable and at times downright grueling collection of brutal and comic bizarro and horror tales.

Lansdale floats around several recurring themes: the brutality of human nature, racism in the South (even though I think he goes back to the well of characters casually using the n-word a bit too often), and misogyny. He likes his monsters human for the most part but throws several weird beasties in, too.

I expected to outright love this collection based on my reading history with Lansdale but found it didn’t turn my wheels like I thought it might. But it’s still an excellent collection of stories overall, and entertaining throughout. A good read but not as great as I hyped it up in my mind.

However, there are a few tales that rise to masterful:

“Fish Night” – The opening story is a nicely wrought character study of two traveling salesman crossing through a desert that takes a poetic bizarro turn.

“The Pit” – An absolutely brutal look at two slaves, one white and one black, captured by backwoods hillbilly maniacs and forced to fight to the death. There is some difficult imagery here but Lansdale keeps a steady hand and brings us to a vicious end.

“Duck Hunt” – A vivid portrait of a young man’s induction into hunting culture turns blacky absurd and horrific. Hell of a central image.

“By Bizarre Hands” – Darkly comic Southern Gothic tale of a preacher with an unhealthy interest in preaching to mentally handicapped girls. Reminds me of Flannery O’Connor a bit – horrible and funny and sad. And fucked up, very fucked up.

“The Fat Man and the Elephant” – Another traveling preacher story but this preacher is considerably less psychopathic – he just gets visions from hotboxing elephant shit. Didn’t say he wasn’t still crazy.

“Down By the Sea Near the Great Big Rock” – Perhaps my favorite. A short but fantastic story of a family vacationing by the sea where intrusive violent thoughts build in each of them. Very pulpy and strange turn at the end.

“Night They Missed the Horror Show” – A masterpiece of pitch-black horror. A pair of racist assholes save their black football captain from a beating only to run into some truly sick shit. Drenching with the darkness of real human evil – no one is good here – even racist assholes don’t deserve this.

“On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert with Dead Folks” – Epic of fucked up bizarro zombie madness. Scumbag bounty hunter and psycho pedophile run into mad scientist messiah who’s controlling zombies and more than enough and maybe too much said. Weirdo wildness.

By Bizarre Hands starts well and ends very well but overall I do think it’s a little padded out for its own good. Yet the heights are truly tremendous. Reading Lansdale is like reading no one else in the world.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carré

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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) is a brilliant work of Cold War espionage. George Smiley is called back in from forced retirement to investigate a mole in the British secret service, with no support or authorization from the service itself, but rather relying only on a handful of like-minded allies.

The almost detective novel-like mystery unfolds in interviews and information gathering, break-ins and leaks, and tense clandestine meetings that feel like they could explode into violence at any moment.

Throughout we see the toll that espionage work has taken on these people, the gray morals they’ve been forced to adopt, and the utter paranoia that grips their line of work mixed in with a nostalgia for the good old days of spying (WWII) and anger at how many of them have been forced out by regime change.

I’ve previously met/read Smiley in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and The Looking Glass War but in those books he’s the cold operator and here we see him sweat and live and breath and piece together the situation with his experience and acumen. The large cast of other characters, spies mostly, are fully realized and with games of their own to play – whether bureaucrats or rough-and-tumble gunmen.

In some ways Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the most traditional spy novel of Le Carré’s I’ve yet read. There are more guns (if rarely fired) and spies bedding women and outright suspense in addition to the cynical themes and elusiveness and minute details I’ve come to expect from his work. The character Ricki Tarr, a low-level spy who’s not afraid to get his hands dirty, could potentially be read as a critique of Bond.

Le Carré does not hold the reader’s hands – he slips information towards us without beating us over the head with it, allows very important things to happen offscreen, and requires us to read the nuance between the characterizations and the very fine line-by-line prose. A masterpiece.

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones

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The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (1996) is a really funny fantasy dictionary/atlas with a playful meta structure. Jones builds her work as if fantasy quests, or, more meta-fictionally, every fantasy story ever, is a tour arranged by Management.

Each entry (including such topics as DARK LORD, THIEVES’ GUILD, or WARRIOR WOMEN) is a  brilliant cataloguing of generic fantasy tropes and clichés that she provides a logical and often hilarious explanation for.

There are dozens and dozens of references and in-jokes towards popular works of fantasy, as well as the scores of hackwork that fester in the field. (Especially seems to be poking fun at the ’80s publishing landscape.)

Tough Guide is a brilliant idea and well executed. The visual design is well-done, as well, from the cover to the map to the little icons on the margins of each definition. I especially am in awe of her how her concept allows her the privilege of not necessarily having a hard joke every time – the definitions that aren’t funny are just accurate – thus you never feel cheated or bored.

It’s like a fantasy The Devil’s Dictionary or a proto-TV Tropes and, much like any humorous compendium of disparate entries, best enjoyed slowly.

Humor Piece Self-Promotion Initiate

 

My new humor piece “Cup of Bro’s: The Coffee Shop For Regular Dudes” is up at Little Old Lady Comedy.

It’s kind of a commercial for a douche bag alt-right (same thing) coffee shop. I like writing in that fake commercial format even though I know prose isn’t necessarily the best way to do it.

However, I am lazy and lack good video/audio editing software (and know-how) so still I try.

I dedicate this piece to Broomwagon Coffee + Bikes in Lexington, KY. They inspired me with their fine coffee, not by having abhorrent political views. They’re a combination bicycle/coffee shop, so, of course they’re progressive as fuck.

The House of Souls by Arthur Machen

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The House of Souls (1906) is a collection of four near novellas of the supernatural by the Welsh fantasist and sometimes horror writer Arthur Machen. These stories are set in an England beset by hidden worlds and pagan cultists and gently mad upper-class scientists.

“A Fragment of Life” – More like A Fragment of Novel. By that, I mean, it very much reads like a novel Machen was trying to write but more or less gave up on. It pretty much stops out of nowhere, reaching only the most generous reader’s definition of any kind of conclusion. However, what is here is a really intriguing mix of naturalism and mystic yearning in this tale of a tender married couple and the emotional and spiritual journey of the husband who hears the call of a far off land.

“The White People” – A very weird fantasy, playing on fairy tales and witch myth and paganism, that is not quite a horror story although there are several horrific elements. An unreliable narrator writes of an almost psychedelic dark fantasy. In some ways it feels like another novel cast-off like “A Fragment of Life” but this one exists much more satisfactorily as a short story.

“The Great God Pan” – The first true horror story in the book. It plays with many of the same elements as the previous two: ancient paganism and hidden worlds and such but takes a decidedly more sinister approach. A story of stories within stories and discovered documents in the grand turn of the century horror fiction tradition. An experiment reaps bad. Machen describes a monster here that is mostly off-screen yet terrifying. Ends with a burst of vivid body horror. The only downside is how driven by coincidence this story seems. Machen is very good but his stories are somewhat haphazard and seemingly cobbled together – – – there is nothing tight here plot-wise. It’s all in the mood and hints and flourish of the prose.

“The Inmost Light” A final tale of esoteric knowledge and upper-class occultists, with an even more vivid off screen monster. There’s a very mysterious circle of pagan conspirators who dance at the corners of this tale but much of their purpose is left obscured. The little brother of “Great God Pan”, especially with its rogue scientist and female test subject.

The House of Souls is throughout very interesting, and pleasant to read, if rarely actually horror, as Machen’s reputation seemed to me. Line by line, Machen moves with a beautiful eye for landscape, a fine attention to characterization, and a throbbing heart of wild weirdness.

Death of an Unnecessary Pseudonym

I created a pseudonym for the classic reason: not enough markets. There several prose humor markets but not many in the grand scheme of things and sometimes I’m sitting around waiting for my various submissions to move through the slush before I can submit again.

Thus Glenn Woods was born. Well, the name Glenn Woods was born a long, long time ago as a potential pseudonym. My grandparents lived in Glenwood Hollow and it seemed like a nice Stephen Kingian name for potential pulp horror stories.

I used the pseudonym twice. The first time I used it to submit to an online magazine a friend of mine co-edited (I didn’t want to only get accepted because she knew me). Ultimately, I used my real name when it was published. That story is “The Hoop” on The Ginger Collect.

The second (and last) time I used Glenn Woods was for an online humor magazine in which I’d already been published two times in basically that many months. I didn’t want to seem like I was hogging all the space. That piece is “How About You Or You Or You” on The Dirty Pool.

But then I found out there was another writer named Glenn Woods and that was the end of that. I’ve got another pseudonym I haven’t used yet but I’ll keep it secret just in case. Sometimes I write things so horrible I don’t want my name attached to it, both in content and quality. Maybe I should’ve done that with this blog post.