Mini Reviews – horror, heroes and angst

Self Made Man by Poppy Z Brite – I’ve tried to read Popy Z Brite’s work in the past, because I know her reputation as an amazing and controversial writer, but it didn’t really work, I didn’t even get the whole way through Swamp Foetus, I think I found it too brutal. This time was totally different, yes, several of the stories in Self Made Man are very brutal, especially basically the whole of the title story, heavily influenced by Jeffery Dahmer, but with a bit of a cult horror twist that was unexpected but really interesting. In some ways Brite’s writing reminds me of the feeling Angela Carter’s stories in The Bloody Chamber have, though more overtly erotic, in some cases pornographic, there is the same dark beauty among the grusomeness, it’s just that for Brite the ratios are reversed so that the violence is more explicit than in Carter’s fairy stories. Brite’s own fairy story is of course the one where the similarities are most obvious, King of Cats works as a homosexual reimagining of a classic story because it doesn’t present the homosexual relationship as deviant or even really worth commenting on, it simply is. The only problem I have with Self Made Man is that several of the stories are about recurring characters from Brite’s novels, which I have not read. Much as I appreciate the stories on their own there is none of the pleased recognition of a character which I could have had, but the fact that the stories do work on their own with no previous knowledge being needed is a compliment to the accessibility of Brite’s writing, if not always of her sometimes rather unsubtle scenarios.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by John Chobsky, is in some ways the opposite of Poppy Z Brite’s short stories, the actions that drive most of the plot are subtle, not emerging until the very end, and even then there is a understatedness to the reveal, there is a climax but it feels more as if the whole novel has been one long denouement. I had always known of Wallflower without actually really knowing what it was about, only knowing it has a reputation for having a really good ‘soundtrack’, and it does, reading it made me want to listen to The Smiths, to Nirvana, bands that were important for me at the same age as they are important to the protagonist Charlie, even if I was that age nearly 10 years later, perhaps there is a universality of being an awkward teenager. I found the whole novel very easy to read, I read it in a day, reluctant to do anything else, and very affecting, the epistolary nature of the novel means that the ‘dear friend’ letters are addressed directly to the reader, making it very personal, I did end up in tears a couple of times. Despite that it is a very happy novel, when the group of friends are having fun it seems unselfconscious, they seem the type of people you could really be friends with, by no means perfect or even always nice, and it’s full of little recurring in-jokes, for example about celebrity interviews which create the feeling of belonging between Charlie and the reader that has strives for throughout the novel.

Soon I Will Be Invincible, by Austin Grossman, is also obsessed with the theme of inclusion and belonging, or lack of it. This is not surprising as the narrators are a literal mad scientist and a cyborg with no memory of her previous life, struggling to adapt to life on a superhero team. The novel contains so many parallels with classic DC and Marvel comics that it is almost a game of “spot the parallel hero”, as well as containing many superhero tropes, I only found this distracting when it came to Fatale, the cyborg who could be Justina Robson’s Lila Black character taken from Keeping It Real and given a new name. Despite this found Invincible to be an incredibly fun read, the way the best comics should be, but also it is though-provoking, I found Doctor Impossible an utterly tragic character, in the classic sense, he is so bound by the tropes of the evil genius, even while he is aware of them he is almost totally unable to avoid them, constantly nearly telling other characters his cunning plan. However, the most interesting character by far was Lilly, villain turned hero and the only really morally ambiguous character, by the end of the novel I felt I was as unknowing about her motivations as at the start, but not in an annoying way, it was pure mystery rather than bad writing. Despite the novel’s awareness of the grim-and-gritty direction comics have taken, acknowledging it in places, Invincible was a fun read in a way that the frustrating love/hate relationship I have with DC cannot compare, a loving homage to a genre as well as a good standalone novel.