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.

Taken the Crazy Train – John Claude Smith’s The Wilderness Within

Nobody does an acid trip of a story quite like John Claude Smith. What I’ve read of his short fiction is dazzling, and weird, and dazzlingly weird. His first novel, Riding the Centipede (which I reviewed here a while back), was a marvellous debut, a neon-lit, hallucinatory nightmare of manic proportions. Smith’s writing thus far feels like the perfect distillation of gonzo horror fiction, a combination of great character beats, off-the-wall insanity, and an enormous bit of fun.

His newly released second novel, The Wilderness Within, is less of a gut-punch – to begin with, at least. it opens with protagonist Derek Gray visiting his long-time friend, Frank Harlan Marshall, who lives on the edge of a big old creepy forest with only one neighbour in sight.

This is a book exclusively about artistic types, and delves deeply into, among other things, the minutiae of the creative process. Derek and Frank are both very successful horror writers. Frank, whose work is much more bleak and brutal than his friend’s, is also a bit more successful, with books on the bestseller lists and blockbuster film adaptations earning him riches and a celebrity status that seems much scarcer for writers these days, especially of horror.

Anyway, the two catch up, shooting the shit and reminiscing about the good ol’ days. At some point, their comedian and actor friend, “Dizzy Izzy” Haberstein, turns up, and Derek’s sense of reality starts to skew. Smith skilfully portrays the interactions between the three friends as insecurities, old feuds and nostalgia rise to the surface.

Derek also strikes up a friendship/flirtation with Frank’s only neighbour, the singer known as Alethea. With her interest in philosophy and metaphysics, her looks and wit and charm and intelligence, Alethea comes across as more male fantasy than rounded character, at least to begin with. At the core of the novel’s first half is Derek’s growing connection and interaction with Alethea; their conversations about philosophy, humanity and nature – and, importantly, humanity’s relationship with nature – lay the foundations for the thematic direction Wilderness takes.

From here, once dynamics and core relationships have been established, the weirdness starts to creep in. Some characters are not what they seem, and maybe Derek’s conception of reality isn’t, either. These questions keep popping up at various points throughout the book, which often has the quality of a dream or drug-trip. Unfortunately for the characters, it’s not all in their heads, but that doesn’t mean that what’s in their heads is harmless.

Where Riding the Centipede was a fairly fast-paced novel that juggled a number of intersecting – and often colliding – character arcs, The Wilderness Within is much more of a character piece, with its introspective first-person narration and its exploration of its protagonist’s primary relationships. There’s still a copious spray of weirdness, especially in the second half, but by the very nature of the story, this plays off and is shaped by the humanity at the heart of the novel.

In a lot of ways The Wilderness Within is a book about the past; Derek is constantly rubbing the present thin enough that it beads through, but the foundation of Derek and Frank’s friendship, their years of adventure and success, is mostly kept out of the way. It looms in the reader’s peripheries, crouching behind the presently unfolding madness, more a concealed framework than an overt influence.

What Smith does very well is craft this world of artists and situate it firmly in our reality; it really feels like his characters and their work – books, films, music – exist within our pop culture bubble, and as I read about them it was almost disheartening not to be able to go and consume some of it.

There are some sharp, gorgeous observations here too, though. One character is “noticeably winding down”, and Derek observes that “it reminded me of the nervous deceleration of a music box, the end creeping up to sweep it into silence.”

On the whole the novel has the grainy feel of horror made popular in the 80’s and 90’s. There’s more than a whiff of Clive Barker in there, but also some unexpected flavours. The first few chapters are reminiscent of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, with Derek’s exhaustive descriptions of (in this case fictional) bands.

This influence carries through into the feel of the protagonist, too. He reminded me in a less sleazy way of one of Ellis’ characters, a dysfunctional world-weary guy cutting through life, telling his stories but not really knee-deep in any of them; he has a history and a life but he’s strangely removed from his past despite being so informed by it. I could never quite connect to Derek, never bridge that gap between the fiction and the human, despite the admirable world- and character-building chops Smith clearly demonstrates here. Derek talks about his emotions, but he never really seems to feel them, and subsequently neither did I. This doesn’t mean the novel isn’t engaging – it absolutely is – but I felt like more of an audience member than a participant.

Smith writes with gusto and honesty, the weirdness flaring across the page. The story jumps between this great pulpy weirdness reminiscent of Barker, King (especially The Shining) and a little Campbell, and the more overt philosophising that manifests as conversations between characters (most prevalently, Derek and Alethea). This is fine, but would have worked a lot better in certain parts if it wasn’t quite so meticulously explained. Philosophy as exposition, as character-building conversation is hard to pull off at the best of times, more so when it’s being juggled with a bunch of other big ideas and set pieces. It mostly works here, but I feel like some fat-trimming, some pushing down of these ideas into the story’s subtext might have served its flow much better. This is especially evident during some of the more action-centric scenes, in which characters will have an aside with each other while fleeing something or engaged in serious conflict. This breaks the rhythm of the action and, more importantly, the tension such action evokes.

The ideas themselves, however, are all very engaging, even if the execution falters at times. This is a novel packed with ideas. Smith’s observations about the nature of sounds are fascinating, as are the existential musings on nature and our relationship with it; not only its alien allure, its otherness, but the idea that we shape nature by our perception of it, and it shapes us in turn, is carried through to its logical conclusion.

Smith is at his best when the shit hits the fan and things get really weird. You can feel him having fun with scenes and characters, his prose revelling in grotesque turns of phrase. Everything becomes tactile and delicious as he puts his characters through all colours of hell. The action, when he kicks into full gear, is written with a kind of joy and flair for juggling; all these elements stacked and tumbling around each other in a whirl of chaos, before Smith catches them momentarily, and then back up into the air they go.

There’s a cartoonish, almost slapstick tone at times that feels both intentional and familiar after Smith’s psychedelic debut. In a book like Centipede, this really works to its advantage. In Wilderness this is effective for the most part, but with a narrative more grounded between reality and what seems to be a more dreamlike, philosophical breed of horror, this can sometimes blunt the tension, making comic what should be taut and terrifying.

The more I think about it, though, the more I realise that this may be the point. That line between horror and comedy, encapsulated nowhere more perfectly than in Dizzy Izzy’s character and his various incarnations/inspirations, is straddled so violently that the two often converge. There’s something hysterical about the later, more outlandish scenes that, had they not been blackly funny, would actually have fallen flat.

The final reveal(s), as telegraphed to an extent by the themes laid out from the beginning, is both brilliant and disturbing and a little reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky’s latest controversial offering, mother! (which I reviewed recently). There’s something beneath the skin of this revelation that’s more than a little unpleasant in its almost masturbatory exploration of the ego and/of the artist. It explains some of the misgivings I had about earlier scenes and characters, but within the story, this does nobody any favours. To this extent, there was no character I really rooted for here, although I suspect that might be Smith’s intention. I couldn’t relate to the protagonist in the same way I can’t relate to – again – a Bret Easton Ellis character, but that doesn’t mean they’re not engaging or fun to read.

This is a relatively slim novel, but it feels like a big, busy one. I admire Smith’s ambition and especially his ability to corral humour, horror and pathos together into scenes. His tone and his style, after Riding the Centipede and The Wilderness Within, is unique and engaging and already quite recognisable. More than that, it’s a style I recommend you get acquainted with.