Book: The Membranous Lounge
Author: Hank Kirton
Type of Book: Fiction, strange fiction, short story collection
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Well, the content is different enough from bizarro and straight-forward horror that I have a hard time defining it. Moreover, Jim Rose wrote the intro, so that in and of itself was likely going to be enough to label this book odd.
Availability: Published by Paraphilia Press in 2010, you can get a copy here:
Comments: This book showed up in my post office box one day. No e-mail preceded it, no note accompanied it, and I threw away the envelope before I determined who exactly sent it. I looked at the chimp on the cover, found myself in a disturbing eye lock and then put it at the end of the umpteen books I needed to tackle before I could, in good conscience, read it. When I finally picked it up again, I sort of dreaded reading it.
It was completely irrational because by the second story, I was hooked. These stories have a gritty, dusty desperation. They evoke a smell redolent of smoke, from both cigarettes and raging fires. They are deceptively simple, several packing a punch in the gut using the most basic of prose. These stories are about situations that I have never experienced yet somehow they seemed familiar to me. They are stories about hallucinations achieved through illness and drugs, and in this book there is little peace even as the writing is hypnotic and calm.
Kirton really does seem familiar to me even though his writing is not like any particular style I have encountered. There is something about his stories that reminds me of the kids who used to hang around behind the house I used to live in near the University of Texas, the old drunks who told me stories outside the food co-op, the blunted headcases who would hang out in Half-Price Books when it used to be on The Drag. For whatever reason, these stories captured a part of my memory, a time in my life about ten years ago, triggering parts of my memories that weren’t actually present in the stories. I wonder how many other readers might be affected this strange way, having completely unrelated memories come to mind when reading these stories. Maybe not many, but it was quite interesting to me how Kirton’s words served as unlikely keys to certain locks in my brain.
Still, whether or not these stories resonate with other readers the way they did with me, most of the stories are good enough in and of themselves for me to think others would enjoy this collection. Some are little more than sketches and a couple fell a little flat with me, but this collection’s good far outweighed the bad (and there isn’t a bad story in the collection, really – just stories that weren’t as gripping). I plan to discuss only the stories I appreciated the most because if I discussed in depth all the superlative offerings in this collection, I would likely break my own review word-count record. Yes, I know I am wordy, and Kirton is able to do something I will likely never be able to do – use brevity to his advantage. In fact, Kirton’s stories are so compact, making sure every word counts, that it will be hard for me to discuss them without spoiling them. He is not a minimalist writer. Rather, he is gifted in giving the reader enough information to form our own images, never engaging in imagery overloads that I so often find annoying.
The intro, written by Jim Rose, was quite short but was completely baffling, which is as it should be. Here’s a piece of what he had to say:
In Biblical times there were miracles happening everywhere. I ate too many glass light bulbs one time in London, back in 1994. Then I ate bananas and did some yogi exercises, and the next day they say I shat a chandelier!
It’s time to get out of politics and back into showbusiness.
I was pretty sure I was just reading non sequiturs, that Rose was being daft or purposely strange. But maybe there is some meaning to his words: from carny geeks can come beauty and truth, and that magic has a better capacity for ensuring justice than politics. But I also should know better than to assign too much meaning here. Sometimes you just gotta take an intro written by a modern carnival sideshow auteur as it stands.
But this intro does allude to the magic one finds in many of the stories in this collection. Like the magic that forced a chandelier from Rose’s rectum, the sublime magic in Kirton’s stories is mixed with the ridiculous or the horrible. His magic is either dwarfed or fueled by violence or simply an inversion of what many would consider a happy ending – a truly horrible inversion, at times. But at the same time, if you are willing to engage in the sadness, the horror, and the nastiness, there is a glint of things being a little right, a little just, a little beautiful.
You can see this very well in the first story in the collection, “Dead Flies.” A young woman on an acid trip is sobbing over the dead flies she has found, driving those around her, one man in particular, crazy with her mourning. The man shouts at her as she tries to resuscitate the flies but she ignores him until he launches at her in a rage, trying to wrench the dead flies from her hands. She thwarts the man in a relatively gross way, and while I was gagging as I read the last line, which I cannot reveal lest I spoil the story, the young woman managed to revive the flies in a way she couldn’t have anticipated. Not even two pages long, Kirton manages to tell a intense story with a sound plot and characterization, and the bizarre and foul way the woman achieves her goal of bringing the flies back to life was clever yet prosaic.
The next story, “Sick,” is a near-masterpiece, creating mixed emotions and tugging hard at my tendency to feel sympathy for the devil. A lesbian couple, deeply in love, have killed a person and disposed of the corpse in a dumpster outside their house. Of course this is a bad idea in all regards but becomes a crisis when the weather becomes unseasonably warm, causing the smell of decay to become apparent. Then one of the women becomes very ill, far too ill to help her girlfriend move the body, so the two of them are trapped in their apartment as the smell becomes worse and worse. The sick woman begins to hallucinate, believing the ghost of the person they killed is in the house, shouting words that lead me in one direction as I followed my first impulse, the impulse I suspect many other readers would follow when reading about women who kill. The last line of the book disabused me of that impulse, however, and at first I thought the hallucination scene was a red herring. But as I re-read it, I was wrong. Kirton handled the sick woman’s fevered reaction perfectly. He did not lead me down the wrong path. My innate reaction to what I assumed would be the reason behind two women killing lead me down the wrong path. It’s as if Kirton writes with the natures of his readers in mind as much as he does the natures of his characters. This tale was the story that made me realize this strange book was going to be far better than I could have hoped when I found it in my mail box.
“The Girl Who Forgot” deals with justice cloaked in a roughneck mysticism. The story begins:
The girl was found wandering around the deserted fair-grounds at dawn. She appeared out of the fog, a dazed, niveous apparition. Her bare feet were muddy, her porcelain skin cross-hatched with angry scratches; the deeper cuts mottled with black scabs.
She was around seventeen, nude, and had been badly beaten.
Having read “Sick” I knew this was not going to be a pleasant story of a young woman rescued. The girl, a part of a carnival sideshow, had disappeared for a week when the carnival arrived into town. Her follow carnies assumed she had run off and it doesn’t appear that anyone particularly searched for her. Three men working for a clean-up crew find her and when they give her shelter and a shot of booze to warm her up, nothing goes the way it should. In this story there is magic – the girl can conjure fire – and there is chaos in the natural order of how humans should behave that only violent magic can set to order. And when order comes, it comes fast, bringing the fires of hell to Earth and even after witnessing the worst that can happen, hell on Earth still seems like a price worth paying in order to continue doing terrible things. That was an interesting lesson to learn: some men will do evil even when they see Hell right in front of them.
“Lydia’s Daydream” was the only story I understood my immediate connection to. This tale of a young woman who encounters a strong feminine magic that threatens to destroy her reminded me of the female-centric cult, The Source, that formed around a guru called Father Yod. Isis Aquarian’s book about her time in the religious group was intoxicating to me, and while, of course, it bears little resemblance to the supernatural weirdness in this story, at least I had a frame of reference, a strong connection to explain to me why this story pinged my memory so strongly. In this tale a beautiful woman named Lydia, called Gossamer in her 1969 commune, is driven into near catatonia due to her interactions with a mystic and actively occult woman called Joni Nobody. This story was my favorite in the collection.
Lydia had heard stories of Joni Nobody before she showed up at the commune:
CHERRY BOP: “She can hypnotize cats and pose them like dolls. Once she created The Last Supper with a litter of kittens. People came from all over to see it. Allen Ginsberg and a couple of the Fugs even showed up to take pictures! It’s supposed to be their next album cover…”
DR. TOPHAT: “I heard she raises bees on acid. Like gets the acid to mix with the apotoxin venom in their stingers, y’dig? They hone-in on her pheromones and lay stings right into her veins. She tripped on bee-sting acid for, like, a month. Really got inside the insect mind-set, y’dig? A real bee-hive high.”
CHEMICAL JITTERS: “She has a two-year-old daughter named Isabel. Man, Isabel took more acid in the womb than Leary could take for the rest of his life, man. The kid has black, anti-matter eyes. You can see your deepest, most primal nightmares in her gaze. One guy stared at her for too long and went insane, man. Couldn’t deal with the black cosmic UTTER she laid on him with those far-out peepers of hers.”
Despite hearing all of this, Lydia, would not have needed to know these things to form an opinion of Joni Nobody because she sensed immediately what was what with this otherworldly woman:
Lydia was not a skeptic. She believed in signs, omens, visions, whatever. They were secret messages woven into the fabric of life by invisible hands. This vision may have been borne of a mud-puddle, but its meaning was crystal clear: Joni Nobody was bringing bad magic into Briarpatch. An ill-wind had just blown into their home.
I won’t share much more of this tale lest I spoil it, but suffice to say that the cosmically sensitive Lydia witnesses a scene she cannot handle. I never could tell if Joni Nobody and her daughter were really using bad magic. I felt she was a primal female spirit, able to control animals and insects, mind blown on acid, for whom there was no good or bad any more. There was just a bizarre, neutral, naturalness. The natural world is violent, cruel and saddening, but it would be hard to call it bad. That was the sense I got from Joni Nobody, but I also think I could very easily be wrong. If you read this book, please come back to tell me what you think of this story.
(It occurs to me as I write this that many of these stories are acid-drenched, containing people who willingly inhabit a chemically-altered mindspace and sometimes suffer for it. I suspect the reason some of these stories seemed so familiar to me is because I am a person whose mind does not do well when tampered with and I sense things would go terribly wrong. Acid was horrifying to me and my constitution is such that I am easily overwhelmed by and become easily addicted to drugs. I cannot even drink alcohol any more. I wonder if the excesses of the altered mind hit my subconscious a little too hard. It’s hard to say. I am not in recovery as such – I just quit all the things that hurt me – so that level of awareness eludes me, but my attraction to these stories may well have been that part of my brain that felt at home with the chemically-fucked waking up and seeing its kindred on paper. Who knows? All I know is any book that forces me to think this much is well worth the experience.)
Later in the book, there is a story called “The Green Glade,” which tells of a meeting between an adolescent girl and a man who means her harm. The girl is named Isabel and it cannot be the Isabel of the previous story grown older, but then again, maybe it can. I think not because the tone of this story reminds me of a fairy tale, set in the middle ages. This story has echoes of Snow White and her poisoned apple and Red Riding Hood encountering a human evil that is disguised well. The third person narrative switches back and forth, revealing the perceived reality of each character. Only Isabel’s cloudy inability to see the man as he is saves her, but given how hallucinatory her mind seems, and given that the story ends with a view into Ezra’s mind, it’s hard to say if Isabel is really going to be okay, living with a very bad man in a place full of terrifying trophies. Isabel’s mind perceives all kinds of unlikely things, much like a girl who had been raised on acid would think. Even if Kirton only recycled the name, it was a thought-provoking reuse.
In other stories that were interesting but didn’t club my id the way the rest did, we have a simple vignette about a man whose annoying girlfriend won’t leave his house as quickly as he would like (followed by a bit of meta from the author wherein he spews out an even shorter vignette that he had to get on paper so it would stop rattling around in his head); a man whose wife and child had been kidnapped by a corporation that does nothing but seize loved ones and holds them hostage finds the same infuriating incompetence that dogs most corporations has infected KidnapUSA; a disgruntled dairy worker takes petty but satisfying revenge when his boss leaves town; a sadsack college student in 1986 sneezes and then gets a nosebleed all over a research paper written by the girl he has pined after for months; a creepy man finds a suicide note written on a pubic hair; a man obsessed with the smell of mustard goes off the deep end; a young shy girl whose parents kill her not-so-imaginary friend takes what will likely be ineffective revenge; a man interviews for a job analyzing pornography at a company run entirely by physical freaks of nature.
There are recurring themes and details in this collection: nosebleeds, puddles of mud, suicide obsessions, LSD use, revenge via supernatural powers, revenge that likely will not result in catharsis, mystic women and obsessed men, strange eyes, strange bodies. They are all elements of a minor mythology that Kirton is creating that consists of of blue-collar men who miss their chances, of exploited women who evade the worst, of freaks being the only people anyone can trust, of love existing where it shouldn’t, of gritty, dimly-lit places inhabited by people balancing on a razor’s edge of sanity, be it by organic illness or drug use. Magic exists here, but so do very bad people, people without hope, people who cannot win and people who win only when the worst impulses we have come into play. And yet I did not finish reading this book with relief nor did I feel oppressed as I was reading. Rather, in the midst of some of these stories, there is an uneasy justice that makes the darkness easier experienced. In some there is humor that varies between dry and vulgar that lightens the story. In others the characters were not bad, or frightening, but merely thwarted and struggling.
Kirton has a style that is quite unique. It’s almost as if someone had run through a blender short stories from Raymond Carver and Charles Bukowski, then added some Diane Arbus photos and a splash of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and then garnished the final product with stills from Tod Browning’s Freaks. But even that does not really come close to explaining this style that is so evocative of other voices yet never comes close to being a pastiche. My reaction to this collection was so incredibly personal that I almost hesitate recommending it wholeheartedly but I think most people who read here would find something in this book that would be to their tastes. So I do recommend this book. I should mention that some of the editing issues that often plague small publishers came up in this book, with homophone substitutions and a less than stellar use of semicolons. However, compared to some other small presses and even some large press books I have discussed here, these problems are minor and seldom interfere with the flow of the story. Beyond that, I think this book has such an unusual voice that even if it does not pull from the reader the same sense of belonging that it did in me, Kirton’s imagination and prose will be enough reason to read it.