A Lengthy Pre-Digression
One of the other books I’ve been reading recently is David Byrne’s “How Music Works.” While its all generally interesting, I really enjoy reading the odd specifics of how artists create, so I found the sections about recording fascinating. In particular, there’s a part about how Byrne developed a process for writing lyrics that he developed as their recording style changed during early 80s and the band (along with sometimes-producer Brian Eno) began to develop complicated, drop-in-drop-out tracking on their songs.
The 20-second run down with no visual aides is this: With the instrumental work done, Byrne would then write lyrics by first vocalizing non-words in the spaces left for lyrics. Using these as a sort of feelings guide, he would then brainstorm potential lyrics, writing down everything that came to mind and to see what developed. From this he found certain thematic structures recurring for each song and then cherry-picked the most resonant lines from the whole gamut of brain-stormed “narratives.”
Particularly enlightening are Byrne’s recounting of how he wrote the lyrics to “Once in a Lifetime” while influenced by television preachers and the picture of the page with his rough drafts of lyrics for what became “Naive Melody.” In particular, I think of the line from “Naive Melody” that goes “Home, she lifted up her wings” — which is, in the final composition, a striking image and particularly resonant summation of the combined effects of the instruments and they lyrics.
While this line is a great image, I think the strength comes from the fact that its thematically coherent within the larger structure of the song, but its not narratively inevitable. Looking at the sheet of lyrical brainstorms, you can see that there was at one point an entire set of lyrics that centered around the angel metaphor. That would have been narratively coherent, but the worldview of the song would have been much more circumscribed than the final product. In the end, though, different pieces of the disparate alterante-narratives were pulled together to combine with the musical element to make the most thematically resonant song.
All of this is a long (very long way) of saying I feel like Adam Golaski must do his work in a very similar way.
“Worse Than Myself” by Adam Golaski
Let’s get it right out there, these are great stories. Absolutely great.
But is it a great book? Well. The back of the book says these stories are “to be savored late at night in bed, read by the light of a single lamp in an empty, dark house.” I’ll add the caveat that they should be read one at a time and spaced out. More like a macabre palate cleanser.
I’ve already given my thoughts on the first four stores (“The Animator’s House,” “In the Cellar,” “The Animal Aspect of Her Movement,” and “The Demon”) here. I will stand by my prior statement that “The Animator’s House” is one of the absolute creepiest and best short stories I’ve read in god knows how long.
The “Dream Stories” (my name for them)
But the whole above spiel about David Byrne seems particularly apt in retrospect with “In the Cellar” and “The Animal Aspect.” In those stories, along with later ones “They Look Like Little Girls” and “A String of Lights,” I feel like Golaski found the thematically resonant pieces from several alternate narratives, then cherry-picked the best scenes and images with little regard for narrative cohesiveness. (This is especially apparent in “Little Girls,” which uses 3 dream sequences within a suitably uncanny framing narrative)
Does this work in a short story? Well, its certainly an easier trick to pull off with music, where there is a separate yet equally important non-verbal component that carries along the work. It’s no surprise that “Naive Melody” has ‘melody’ right there in the title and isn’t “Naive Song.”
In stories like “Little Girls” and “String of Lights,” it feels like the narrative was almost completely excised. While this does create a very alien and upsetting vibe to pieces, I can sum up these stories as “Something normal happens, then it gets weird, then really weird, then — whaaa?”
But this same tactic is very effective in a story like “Back Home,” which has a similarly “off” and disturbing elements, but instead of feeling disjointed, those ghosts haunt a melancholy story of finding parts of yourself that have been gradually lost over time. As a result, those weird elements reinforce and elevate a standard story into a really good one. It’s odd and a little scary and beautiful and sad. Really, really tops.
The “Narrative” Stories (again, my term)
Looking back at the stories that I liked the best, what can I draw out of my whole, strained music/story analogy?
Well, I think plot acts like the instruments in the stories I like the best. If I had to recommend specific stories to people, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the most “traditional” (i.e. narratively coherent) of them. It’s no surprise that Ellen Datlow chose “The Man from the Peak” for her annual horror anthology. It’s a great take on a hoary trope (I won’t spoil which one), that really excels with Golaski’s weird and strange elements elevating it to new peaks (haha, get it?).
But, along those same lines, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend “Weird Furka,” “What Water Reveals,” or (maybe) “Dead Gather on the Bridge to Seattle” to horror novices and aficionados alike. These are similarly narratively coherent (and well-paced, excellently written) stories with just enough of the horrific and other-worldly to make you say “Good god,” not “Huh?”
The only reason I hesitate to the throw “Dead Gather” in the same group of “no reservations recommendations” is that it has a sort-of-twist that makes me scratch my head. It’s like the end of “In the Cellar,” but not as extreme or as abrupt. For that reason, I don’t find myself feeling as polarized, so what the hell, let’s recommend that, too.
Dreams and Narratives
None of this to say that I think that those stories I’ve come to think of as the “dream stories” are bad. Rather, I think that if I were to read only one of these at a time, spaced out between other stories by other authors, they would be great little bursts of weirdness. In those cases, I think their open-ended weirdness would be a refreshing burst of the “other” and they would haunt me.
However, reading several of them back to back is slightly frustrating. There are great spaces left open for the reader’s mind to play out in a fill with terrors or, at least, uneasiness. But when there’s another story to get to, another narrative hopefully starting on the next page, these odd little dreams tend to slip away . . .
Where I think these forms marry up almost perfectly are “Back Home” and “The Animator’s House.” Oddly enough, these both straddle the dream/narrative fence but on opposite ends.
I won’t say too much more about it, but “Back Home” is a perfect little frozen gem — a snowflake — of oddity, horror, and nostalgia. When you read what the protagonist thinks of nostalgia, you’ll know she hit the nail on the head. It’s a dream story, but with enough narrative through-line that I felt there was a complete journey.
“The Animator’s House,” on the other hand, is a narrative story that erupts into dream story. It has its own “dream/narrative” hybrid in the middle and even though the end is full blown dream story, the momentum of the narrative carries the reader sailing through and to the needle skip as his or her heart stops.
It’s a little thing called style . . .
Overall, I think Golaski’s writing is spot on. The words and voice are dark but crystal clear. I can’t recall giggling at any of the descriptions or turns of phrase, which can sometimes plague horror stories. In fact, I remember being struck when he used the word “ebon” in “What Water Reveals” because he had done a great job of conjuring up chthonic horrors without descending into Lovecraft-ese or other strained diction. (Not that ebon is an odd word or it was an improper choice, it just goes to show how great Golaski is a being clear and concise).
He also does a really great job of weaving in character moments, in thoughts and actions. I wouldn’t necessarily call his characters realistic, but like the horrors that invade his stories, these are recognizable abstractions. “The Animator’s House” might be the exception, but otherwise these people operate in a dark mirror of our world and they are recognizable reflections.
That’s particularly impressive, given that Golaski’s writing is mostly devoid of those rambly, boring digressions that sometimes plague horror writers. So much is packed into each sentence and done so well that the stories carry on at a nice clip and only very rarely did I ever think, “Yeah, yeah, let’s go.”
However, there are some moments of stylistic flourish that I don’t much care for and I think detract from some of the stories. I weighed in earlier on my thoughts re: the framing device for “The Demon.” There’s a similar trick of fast, stream-of-conscious intro to “A String of White Lights” that I found distracting and, if anything, built up a speed that just rushed me to the end of the story without giving it time to sink in. It wasn’t until going back and looking at certain passages out of context that I warmed to the story.
Finally, the most off-putting one to me was the replacement of the narrator’s name in “Back Home” with the designation of “K[ ]” (and her cousin “J[ ]”). I understand that there’s a thematic reason (having to do with a loss or fragmentation of self) and maybe a throwback to ye olde stories where people had names like “Mme S_____”, but I didn’t care for it. Especially when someone says “her name” or she recognizes an anagram of J[ ]’s name, it draws attention back to the gimmick just when I’d acclimated to it.
Anyway, though, that’s really nit-picking. Overall, I’m hard-pressed to think of another horror author (esp. in his or her first collection) that has the clear and concise prose that Golaski does. (Maybe Kaaron Warren, but we’ll get to her later.)
Overall, I highly recommend “Worse than Myself” by Adam Golaski. Its well-written, very creepy, and contains some of my favorite stories that I read in the last year.
Just do yourself a favor and space it out. Nothing ruins the otherworldly faster than familiarity.