She Said Destroy – Nadia Bulkin (Review)

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Before I picked up her debut collection, She Said Destroy, I’d never read a word of Nadia Bulkin’s politically charged horror fiction. Renowned horror publisher Word Horde consistently puts out quality work by a variety of extremely talented writers, but with a TBR pile as large as Donald Trump is stupid, I often find myself way behind on their work. Basically, don’t make my mistake. Pick up a copy of this book immediately, because Nadia Bulkin is a literary genius.

This blistering collection opens with “Intertropical Convergence Zone”, a kind of escalating fetch-quest told with fairy tale logic, which charts the rise of Indonesia’s infamous past president Suharto, who at the time of the story is still only a general in the Indonesian Army. The brutality of his ideals is accentuated by the magical lens through which Bulkin examines Indonesia’s fraught political history. In his quest to seize control of the government, the General needs to consume objects of power retrieved for him by one of his trusted lieutenants, who narrates the story. Each object is representative of a particular tool essential to his rise to power, and their fantastical nature highlights not just the violence that hovers around and is perpetrated by the General, but also the dark absurdity of his quest, rendered unto myth or fable in Bulkin’s fiction.

“The Five Stages of Grief” is a chilling and claustrophobic tale that examines the lengths we’ll go to and the lies we’ll tell – both ourselves and others – to keep from the truth of loss.

In a poetic, heartbreaking take on the ‘final girl’ trope, “And When She Was Bad” explores the nature and agency of monsters, upending conventions in a surprising and heartfelt way. In all of Bulkin’s work the reader can sense not only her dedication to fractious and fallible characters, but forces and concepts far larger than any one person. She teases both out with her exquisite use of language; lines like “the great big amorphous past has risen up behind them on the country road and is swallowing those memories whole”, left me literally breathless.

In “Only Unity Saves the Damned”, Bulkin uses found footage horror tropes and antisocial adolescents to look at the psychogeography of a dead-end small town. Once again character is at the heart of the story, and the teenagers here are scratched out with pain and poignancy, weighed down by the insularity of their own existence. The true horror here is not the supernatural, but the starkly quotidian.

A truly bizarre story about an unexpected friendship, “Pugelbone” examines issues of class and colonialism, highlighting Bulkin’s propensity for lonely, broken, doomed characters. But this isolation isn’t limited to the individual; it engulfs families, races, and societies. This is the kind of prescient subject matter Bulkin excels at like no other writer I’ve ever read, truly expanding the reader’s knowledge and perception of the world through the lens of horror.

In “Red Goat, Black Goat”, a woman takes a job as a nanny for a wealthy single family in Java, in a truly devastating take on H.P. Lovecraft’s monster, Shub-Niggurath. Bulkin’s take on the mythos is so much more devastating for the ruin it makes of her beautifully crafted characters. Her prose isn’t purple, but it’s the way she puts her words together, the rhythm and pacing that comes from her constructions. Take this line: “the entire shape shuddered and the facades of skin melted back like a drawn veil. Beneath it darkness came a-crawling.”

A more ambiguous, illusive affair, “Seven Minutes in Heaven” is about the lies adults tell children to cover up the past. An intimate character study, the story is told in fractured fragments, revealing the protagonist’s mistakes and experiences, anxieties and fears. As we scratch and dig down through her life, something terrible that’s been lurking around the edges like a bad feeling or a floater in the eye soon becomes appallingly apparent.

In one of the collection’s more existentially harrowing tales, “Girl, I Love You” really throws the middle finger to people who hold tight to the idea of karma, of bad people getting what’s coming to them. The story explores the conflicts and connections fostered between people in a world where a certain kind of magic is commonplace, but where the emotional and social consequences of that magic are not ignored. A truly poignant story about the “raw, wriggling emotional stuff” of the human psyche that Bulkin is so adept at exploring.

“Endless Life” begins as a story about dark tourism and becomes a ghost story about the horror of the body. It’s a glittering, multifaceted tale that explores the things we’re blind to, and how that shapes the world we see. The complexity of its overtly political subject wouldn’t normally lend itself to a short story, and in a lesser writer’s hands it would feel like someone trying to stretch a blanket over a mountain, but Bulkin pulls it off with ease and skill, evoking as much of what she says as what is left silent. But we can hear the words all the same. And the words she does deliver, they dance and spit and burn with a bright-hot poetry you really have to read to believe.

“Violet is the Colour of Your Energy” is another Lovecraftian reimaging, this one a more lyrical and character-driven version of “The Colour Out of Space” that grabs you with its breathtaking opening line and corkscrews into a vibrant mystery. At the story’s centre is a marriage in vertiginous freefall. This is an excruciating slow-burn of escalating tension where the minutiae of the mundane is juxtaposed with the weirdness blooming around the family. There’s a whiff of VanderMeer’s Area X here in the imagery, and in the notion of escaping the limitations of the human. Bulkin’s language reaches transformative, sublime heights in a cataclysmic finale that’s as beautiful, engulfing and liberating as it is horrific. For the intensity of the writing, this is a story to be read slowly, each word savoured and truly tasted, and like every other entry in this collection, hungrily re-read.

“Truth is Order and Order is Truth” explores familial strife and royal machinations in pre-colonial Java, which is a fresh setting for this kind of fantasy if nothing else. The writing and imagery are as luscious as ever but the opening is bogged down a little in exposition and family history – necessary, but not gripping. A mid-point turnabout isn’t exactly shocking but it is beautifully executed, a revelation about the protagonist’s family that interrogates the beauty of hybridity, and what we have to become – or recognise that we didn’t know we already were – in order to find a comfortable place in the world.

Another small-town, backwoods horror, “Absolute Zero” looks at different aspects of that dynamic. It casts an eye over the things that we carry with us from childhood, that shape us in all sorts of unpleasant ways. The protagonist’s journey mirrors the nature of the town itself, with its “battered, ghostly layers peek[ing] through the concrete”. The evocative collision of the supernatural and the mundane in this instance examines the price you pay, the parts of yourself you have to kill, to gain some semblance of happiness, normality, acceptance.

Finally, in the longest and last story of the collection, “No Gods, No Monsters”, follows a family who’s made a terrifying deal with a devil, each generation carrying a burden they didn’t ask for but cannot refuse. The truly nasty family politics and dynamics on display here give the impending supernatural threat further weight, as it drags down Bulkin’s achingly human characters in its wake. In the same way – and in a genius move that makes the two elements inseparable – the evil works through the characters and thus affects them all in horrible, violent, and heartbreaking ways. The third act lands with a literal storm that pulls absolutely zero punches, and Bulkin rains down the horror an extended scene of blistering gore and masterful pace. Like all of Bulkin’s work, “No Gods, No Monsters” can work as a poignant metaphor, in this case about the fear of passing your demons on to your kids, and the moral complexities of deliberately having a child in spite of their inevitable dark hereditary. Like all of her work, too, it can just as easily sit with the reader as an exhilarating piece of fiction. Why not have both?

Every story in Nadia Bulkin’s collection is a minor masterpiece, on every level. Her characters breathe on the page, and her monsters are truly terrifying. She writes in a way that’s not flashy or flamboyant but dangerous, lean and fast and finely honed. Her words are utterly beautiful, too, and there are so many sentences to stop and savour the taste of.

I envy getting to read these works for the first time, but I’m also so excited to read each story here for the second time, and third and fourth. With the sheer volume of fiction out there I’m dying to read, the highest compliment I can give an author is that I’d push those new books and stories aside to read one of theirs again.

The best kind of fiction snatches you out of the world, and teaches you something valuable about it at the same time. She Said Destroy does both of these, and the stories in these pages have moved me in ways I never expected, have terrified and thrilled and broken me. They’ve entertained me, and changed the way I look at the world, and they’ll stay with me long after the last page is turned. Bulkin writes that “some worms cannot just be un-dug”. Neither can the catastrophic impact of her fiction.

You Cannot Trust Your Senses: Jeff VanderMeer’s Dead Astronauts

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One of the – many – great things about Jeff VanderMeer’s books is that the cover art is often just as gorgeous as the words within, and Dead Astronauts, his latest novel, is probably the most dazzling so far. The US hardcover – pictured above in my clunky attempt to take a photo with subtext and impact – is a neon shout of colour from the dustcover alone, which then peels back to reveal its pearly white underside and, on the hardcover itself, metallic blue swirls of organic design, along with some actual text from the novel. A wonderful little detail I noticed is that while reading, the pink endpapers cast a glow on the glittering white flap of the dustcover as it sits half-open in my grip. A small but beautiful detail in a book that’s full of such things.

Dead Astronauts is about… I don’t even know where to start. This doesn’t have a single, easily-defined plot or concept that can truly encompass the breadth and depth of story growing in its pages. This is set in the same universe as his previous novel, Borne, and although there is connective tissue between the two, one can be read independently of the other. In its broadest strokes, Dead Astronauts encompasses a fight against the faceless, nefarious, world-ending Company, in an entirely different kind of post-apocalypse – not empty or desolate but absolutely teeming – where biotech runs rampant and dimensions are multiple and nothing – I repeat, nothing – is what it seems.

Divided into a series of vignettes, each of which take conventions of voice and structure to strange new levels, the largest chunk of the book follows the titular trio of not-altogether-human companions/lovers as they attempt, across multiple realities, to beat back the Company and its horde of monstrous, sometimes unwilling denizens. They lose and they lose and they lose, and they keep trying, their realities fractured and fracturing as they traverse a new version of their world with every attempt. They are Grayson, Chen and Moss, and their bond is tenderly evoked in these chapters, the endless, maddening repetition of their failures strengthening their unique dynamic. Although we know from the book’s title – and their presence in Borne – that the trio dies, their quest and its demise reverberates throughout Dead Astronauts. This is particularly true for Moss, who is fluid in gender and form; she can transform into a carpet of budding moss, and her transformation blooms across several other sections of the narrative, anchoring the story in ways that don’t become apparent until the book’s final, quietly revelatory scene.

Among other characters are a sentient blue fox, a homeless woman who forms a bond with a giant salamander, a scientist employed by the Company, a sentient leviathan, and a malevolent duck that isn’t really, exactly a duck. Nothing in this book is really, exactly what it seems, narratively or linguistically or even literally. The reader’s perception of the novel, the characters’ perception of their world, and the world itself, all exist in a state of constant collision and change. It’s a novel untethered from such pedestrian constraints as genre or category, spanning sci-fi, horror, fantasy, literary fiction and love story – and all of these evoked in ways you haven’t seen before. The absurd merges with the surreal and the horrific, the beautiful, the intimate. The violent and dark and sorrowful. The hopeful and the exhilarating.

Multiple narratives collide with one another, each subsequent section or chapter narrated from a different – and most often nonhuman – point of view, each one illuminating the story’s overall geography a little more, a little more. Dead Astronauts is a book whose perspectives and fragments piece together a greater picture as it progresses, but the story also obfuscates and confounds as often as it reveals.

What VanderMeer can do with language, how he shapes it, is astounding. He plays with words and puts his own sentences through strange and beautiful metamorphoses, transforms the way you think of inflection and style and even thought itself. And that’s what this book is all about – change. Metaphorically, linguistically. Literally. A character becomes a swarm of salamanders, or a carpet of flowers. A duck is not a duck, a monster is something much more complex. Gender and shape and love are all utterly mutable.

There’s a lot of hope in Dead Astronauts, with its diverse and inclusive cast of characters, its exploration of animal consciousness and environmental concerns. So much of it is beautiful and tragic. So much of this story, too, is anger, and an anger I can relate to, an anger pointed towards the destructive obliviousness of humanity and its – our – insistence on repeated patterns of behaviour, our contradictory treatment of anything nonhuman, trying to help it out or conserve it but only on our terms and only needing to because we fucked it all up or hunted it down or killed or tortured or obliterated it in the first place.

VanderMeer writes about, and from, a variety of nonhuman perspectives in a way that feels authentic, but he also captures the human with such delicate urgency, the way we bond and the way we fail and fight and die, that it’s almost too much to bear. There’s a sense of deep pain in Dead Astronauts, and a real self-reflective darkness that seeps to the surface at times.

I’ve been a manic Jeff VanderMeer fan ever since City of Saints and Madmen. His work is always an absolute pleasure to read. Not only entertaining but complex, challenging, confronting, original, beautiful, heartbreaking and sublime. Dead Astronauts was all of these things, but perhaps, for me, a little less entertaining. Often, its complexity eluded or frustrated me. Some of the more experimental chapters were admittedly a little difficult to get through, and as I was reading I felt like some aspects went right over my head. This book requires work, but that’s a good thing. Like all genuinely ground-breaking works, it wasn’t an easy read. But the more I think about it, several weeks after turning that last page, the more it’s burrowed into my brain, colonising me with its weird imagery and its frankly gorgeous examination of nature, and cruelty, and love.

The ideas and concerns he explores aren’t necessarily things we don’t already know, but I can guarantee we’ve never heard them being said like this. VanderMeer doesn’t hit you over the head with a big glaring “message”, he gets your blood boiling with the horrors perpetrated, he breaks your heart with the consequences of them, and he wraps it all in a crazy, exhilarating story. He captures ideas and moments and tiny little aspects of things in a way I feel like nobody, living or dead, has ever thought of. His work truly comes across as having been written/narrated/constructed by something that isn’t human, that doesn’t have the same thought patterns or make the same assumptions as us, the unavoidable ways we think about and build our perception of the world around us, and the things in it, and the interactions between the two.

There is so much to recommend about this book, and so much to feel in awe of. VanderMeer has broken what we know of as story, cracked it open and spread it out across the expanse of Dead Astronauts, let it grow into something truly vibrant and new. This is a book full of secrets and hidden things, a puzzle to be poured over again and again.

If you look at the trajectory of his work over the years, it’s like VanderMeer is heading somewhere utterly beyond our comprehension, shedding skin after skin and changing his form as he travels. But even if I can’t always understand or appreciate the stops he takes along the way, I’m hanging on until the end, into whatever strange places he wants to take us. Following this “map that does not know its borders.”