Book: Bleak Holiday
Author: Hank Kirton
Type of Book: Fiction, short story collection
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because one of the stories ends with the following line:
And that guy turned out to be an asshole.
Availability: Published by Apophenia in 2014, you can get a copy here:
Comments: Hank Kirton may be the best odd short story writer you’ve never heard of, and that sucks because he is rapidly becoming one of my favorite writers. This is a near-flawless collection of short stories. Of course, since it is a small press release it could be better edited, but even with that caveat this is still an excellent book. Kirton has a style that is immediately identifiable as being Hank-like, yet his stories cover a lot of intellectual and literary ground. He handles magical realism in a manner that I generally don’t expect from male authors, and some of his stories reminded me a bit of the sort of work Amelia Gray puts out – a sort of amusing, fey and ultimately good-spirited weirdness. Then at other times he manages the dark, nasty, post-modern flatness I associate with the mundane horror of A.M. Homes. His stories evoke some of the best work done by some of the best odd writers, infused with the uneasy strangeness and overall noir I’ve come to associate with Kirton’s work. I fancy I can see the veins Kirton mines for inspiration – one story even reminded me so much of an old R. Crumb comic that I had to scour the Internet to make sure I was remembering it correctly – but who knows? That’s the danger of writing – you never know what a demented Pflugervillian housewife will think of when she reads your stories.
Kirton’s voice remains very strong, even as he reminds me of other artists, and with one exception, every story in this collection soars because the eclectic nature of these stories definitely works in its favor. And the one story I didn’t particularly care for was because of my own deep distaste for the old Nancy Drew books. The story, “Janet Pepper, Girl Detective: The Mystery of the Kitchen Cabinet,” is a parody of those tiresome books with a very adult twist and I can see how it’s amusing and how others would find it very funny. I just remember all those gormless books being foisted upon me in grade school and how awful I found them, how boring they were, like chewing microwaved oatmeal, so this parody wasn’t that subversive to me given how little I could tolerate the original source.
So with that criticism out of the way, let me discuss the stories that I liked best in this 21-story collection.
“Jelly” is the story of two friends who discover a bizarre, dead creature and undergo a transformative experience. It’s a very simple story but the transformation is unusual and open to a lot of interpretation.
He looked at the pine tree in front of him, suddenly seized with an overriding impulse to touch the rough bark. He reached out and his fingertips stretched like upspearing tendrils until they circled the tree. He felt the whorls and arches of his fingertips merge with the grains of the wood and experienced a spiraling wave of pure pleasure so intense he was rendered blind with bliss.
Music and light. He was becoming music and light.
This story brought to mind a song from Ulver’s album, Perdition City. “Nowhere/Catastrophe” is a celebratory death song, a song of final transformation.
You fly, or rather float, drift
Through an enormous dark room
A room of noises
No planets, no meteorites
If anything, perhaps fine dust clouds of exploded music
You float there, somewhere between pleasure and fear
And your last thought is that you have become a noise
A thin, nameless noise among all the others
Howling in the empty dark room.
There is a sense, when one is reading well-crafted fiction or listening to well-composed music, that there is a confluence of ideas that run their course in writers and artists, and you find them all drawing from the same well, that their works are trees growing from the same roots. There’s even an ee cummings element to this story, with word creation (“upspearing”) that generally causes me despair when others do it, but it worked really well in this piece. In a story wherein people disintegrate into music, this neologism ensured a melodic meter in the sentence.
“Sweetie-Pie Begonia Babyhead” was the stuff of nightmares. Sweetie-Pie suffers from a bizarre birth defect – her head and brain didn’t grow along with her body. She keeps a head shape and mentality of an infant even as she blossoms into womanhood. She lives with her neglectful grandparents who leave her alone, tied in a large playpen, when they want to go out. Sweetie-Pie falls victim to several teenage boys in a Richard Laymon-esque gang rape. One of the boys doesn’t participate in the goings-on and regrets what happens to Sweetie-Pie, but his bland, self-serving guilt doesn’t soften the imagery and disgusting implications in this story.
Sweetie-Pie reminded me of an R. Crumb strip and it took me a while to track it down but I persevered because I just needed to see if I really was remembering the drawings accurately. Turns out I was – there is an R. Crumb strip wherein the character known as “Devil Girl” has her head shoved down into her neck, leaving her visually headless even as her body moves around. A recurring Crumb character, “Mr Natural” arranges the head-neck-cram and delivers Devil Girl to another recurring character named “Foont.” Foont then violates Devil Girl’s headless body, and she’s not too happy about it when her head pops back out. Evidently this was shown in depth in the film Crumb, which I had seen in the theater a couple of decades ago, and I suspect that is where I recall it from. Devil Girl’s galloping, robust, headless body was my mental stand-in for Sweetie-Pie, and if you can find scans online (I didn’t but frankly didn’t spend much time investigating), it’s a seriously disturbing comic of the id, as is this story.
My favorite story in the collection is “The Story of Cilantro-Rose.” It’s a price-of-admission story so I won’t discuss it in depth so I don’t spoil it. It’s a soft-fantasy story about a midwife who finds herself pregnant with an otherworldly child. It’s a story that explores maternal fear and love, and it subverts the Garden of Eden myth, showing a world wherein only the woman alone eats the apple and it doesn’t result in sin or damnation, but rather a renewed sense of positive purpose in her world. I’m generally not one for this sort of fantasy but this story was remarkable in how much it affected me.
“The Fear Detector©” is one of the shorter pieces in this book – some of the stories are very short, nearing flash-fiction length – and is the source of “why I think this book is odd.” Mr Oddbooks, a good-natured man who is also a complete misanthrope, needs to read this story. This piece was excellent because Kirton manages to subvert his own flow. Much of this collection is very intense, even with outre and outrageous content, but this story rips the tablecloth out from under the dishes abruptly and with humor.
“White Napkins by Alfred Henry” is another piece that is ultimately good-natured, written in a style that is enchanting but damnably hard to define. He infuses that style with what can only be called “Cormac McCarthy-ist post-apocalyptic darkness.” My distaste for McCarthy may not be spelled out, as such, but he’s not my cup of tea and that Kirton evokes elements of his work and I still think the stories work well is remarkable. In “White Napkins” a bartender remembers a customer who came in four nights in a row, tossed back a few, and then would begin to write on bar napkins, filling them sometimes with lunatic ideas and drawings, but mostly with strange prose. The prose is disturbing, unexpected and at times absurdly funny. Here’s what was on the seventh napkin on the third day the man wrote at the bar:
A man has an erotic liaison with a beautiful blonde woman every day at two p.m. He stares up at her. She is wearing a red dress and holding a glass of wine. The billboard is worn and some of it is missing, but he ejaculates into the dirt every time.
An infant cries abandoned, skin blistered and peeling, dying of dehydration. If he hadn’t been abandoned, he would have become an inventory clerk.
A man who lives in a rusted tow-truck sees a badger.
Litmus test time: if you found the above passage appalling and humorous, you need to get this book.
“Reunion” was a sad, creepy, dark piece about a young porn star’s return home after many years. In retrospect, I should have known exactly where this story was going but I didn’t because Kirton’s manner of writing only seems predictable once he’s led you to the most obvious conclusion. This story is a slight inversion of the trope that all sex-workers have been sexually abused by some male authority figure, and the porn star achieves a small but very satisfying revenge at the end. Don’t want to discuss this one too much because otherwise I may spoil it. Not quite “price of admission” but its still very much worth preserving the tension in this story.
Oh my god, “The Grapeshot Buffet.” The protagonist in this story, Gaston Molyneux is an homage to the notorious and disgusting French Revolutionary soldier named Tarrare. Tarrare was an eating machine, capable of consuming unbelievable amounts of food and food-like substances in one sitting: entire sides of beef, litters of puppies, baskets of fruit, dung heaps, amputated limbs, and once was accused of eating a toddler who had gone missing. It is believed he died as a result of an infection caused from swallowing a fork. What caused his insatiable hunger is unknown but the condition of eating everything is called polyphagia. Tarrare was disgusting – evidently he reeked and his body odor alone was enough to repel even the filthiest French soldier – but Kirton tells the story of Tarrare through Gaston in a manner wherein one feels the horror of being trapped inside such a foul and insistent body, of being a monster during a time when cruelty and revenge and horrible death were the norm, of being considered a monster by the monstrous. Had this story been more disgusting in its detail, it would have been the perfect extreme horror story.
“The Man With the Big Pants” was a cruel, intense story of a man willing to do anything to keep his ex-wife from winning in the divorce settlement. It’s not a story with a lot of surprises, but the single-minded purpose of the man with the big pants, flat and almost emotionless, is compelling. It’s a story of a bad man doing bad things he didn’t plan out very well but his marginal luck sees him through.
“Black Eye Glue, Hobbies N’ Stuff by Beatrice Brown” was just vile and creepy and horrible and wonderful. It’s a hobby blog written by a woman who collects Norwegian children. Yeah…
I’m going to end this discussion with “Analysis,” a sweet and amusing story in the vein of something I would expect from Amelia Gray, one of the finer magical realists and absurdist writers working today. Bobo and Iko seek therapy from a certain Dr. Frichtenstille, who once dated Thelma Todd, and whose receptionist looks a lot like Margaret Dumont. His nurse looks like Snow White:
She led us to a small white empty room. She shut the door and faced us. She had a mole. It was peeking blindly from her front pocket. She did not speak. The mole did not speak.
We all looked at each other, except for the mole because it was blind. Or dead. There was a lot of white glare in the room. We thought the room needed a calendar.
And passed again.
The only sound was the hum of ventilation.
The time we spent in the room was a bowl of motionless red Jell-O. It was a broken fiddle string. It was a wet chipmunk freezing to a tree. It was a bloody tooth wrapped in a Kleenex.
Eventually the doctor arrives:
“Please be seated,” he said in an accent thicker than mud and toothpaste.
We sat down on a black leather couch. It squeaked in a way the mole hadn’t.
“Now then,” he said, “I understand that you are abnormal.”
“Eccentric,” we said.
“Ah yes, eccentricity. The last refuge of the inventory clerk.”
And as the good doctor asks Bobo and Iko to scrub down a naked woman, they make a miraculous breakthrough, one that will surely help Bobo and Iko even though we have no idea, other than eccentricity, what brought them to see a therapist.
It’s not often that you find a writer who can write the horrible, the sickening, the absurd, the sweet, the beautiful and the humorous. Kirton has mastered such eclecticism, and sometimes can manage all of it in a single story. Generally writers, the good ones, at least, focus on the part of the human condition they want to convey and concentration permits them to explore the world in great depth. Kirton seems unable to limit his focus, absorbing all that is maddening, stupid, grotesque, hilarious, evil, lovely and hopeful and distilling it all into brief explorations of life that ring utterly true even as he uses fantasy, science fiction and magical realism to tell his stories. Others might describe him as being all over the map – and not as an insult or criticism – and that may be the case. But even as he meanders from one horror to the next beauty to the next poignant sadness, there is a core of fascination with people and the worst and the best they do to each other and themselves that unites all these stories. I absolutely love this collection and hope Kirton comes out with more stories soon. Highly recommended.