Friday, December 1, 2017

Ideas I am Currently Stealing, Part Five: Persons Non Grata, by Cassandra Khaw

Persons Non Grata is currently two linked, but entirely stand-alone horror novellas by the delightful Cassandra Khaw, Hammers on Bone and A Song for Quiet. The books are beautifully short and driven, perfect for reading in a single sitting. I read Hammers on Bone in an hour on the train, and was extremely sad to have no more to read when I was done. These books are worth devouring, sharp and dangerous and richly sweet and broken glass made from honey and butter. They are my absolute favorite pieces of modern Lovecraftian horror, preserving the power of cosmic horror better than anything else I’ve read. I want to steal almost everything about these books, perhaps enough that I should consider simply consuming them whole, to absorb the entirety of their power. Until I work up the jaw strength and gastric fortitude for that, here are some of the pieces I think are most important.

There is vast terror, and there are small, personal hurts, and both are needed to sharpen the other. Cosmic horror, the horror of a vast and peopled universe filled with intelligences that waver between utter indifference and active malice towards the life of individuals and of humanity as a whole can, and in Persons Non Grata does, create a pall of dread that heightens the emotion of reading. But this play on the strings of anxiety cannot become proximate and sudden without a certain diminishment. In Khaw’s stories, the dread is sharpened by the pricks of smaller, more ordinary horrors, by neglect, loss, hunger, poverty, and the pain of lonely, frightened child. These small hurts twist the knife in skin that universal dread has sensitized, and the confluence is delicious and terrible. The dread too is made more with these little barbs to pull it closer. The end of the world is more real when you can see why someone would desire it, why the building of little pains could make the end of everything seem like a panacea.

Pain hurts, and you feel every second. Cassandra Khaw is the finest writer I have read for describing the experience of physical pain. She makes it hurt, but spins just enough art into the pain that I don’t white-out and stop imagining the whole sensation. That’s often how it goes for me. I note that pain is part of the scenario, but it drifts to the back of my imagination of the scene, because it’s quite unpleasant. Khaw keeps the pain close and real and hurting just the right amount. It works so well in these horrors, to make success cost enough. Even when the heroes win, you can feel the damage, and it keeps building up. That feeling of pain that stays, victory that costs for more than scene, is something I am trying hard to learn from Persons Non Grata.

Gorgeous prose can keep the sharpest edge. Very often, our reflex is to associate elaborate prose with distancing, with slowness or absurdity. The tortured thesaurus diving of Lovecraft and his imitators brings a jarring note of unintended humor to the horror. If purple prose is prose that jars or calls unnecessary attention to itself with its elaboration, then there is nothing purple about Khaw’s writing. Her language shines dark and rich and smooth as molasses pouring from the jar, cuts sharp and raw as a frozen knife breaking your skin. There is more than enough weight to take it between your teeth and grind the last drop of flavor out by slow savoring, but the pace of the story pulls you on faster than that, even through the luxury of language. Not a bit of Khaw’s prose erodes the horror of her narrative. If anything, it reinforces it. The lush, vibrant prose reveals more details to disturb, just enough to make your imagination form a more vivid picture than fainter brushstrokes could reveal. As you may be able to tell, I have a love for elegant and expansive writing, and perhaps aspirations to match Khaw’s command of such.

Even in the impossible darkness between uncaring stars, there is reason for hope. Both of these novellas are horror, unequivocally, and they deal with both the cosmic terror of a monstrous universe, and the smaller horror of monstrous societies, but both, in my reading, end with hope. Even in the face of flesh and teeth and huge inhuman hungers, the world does not end. Even in the face of pain and poverty and prejudice, the battered, broken heroes do not want it to. There is a delicate art to horror on the larger scale that does not lead to nihilism, but still preserves the balance of terror, and Khaw strikes a perfect note. I am taking notes on it. The power of hope prevailing, if only for a brief reprieve, after the touch of more than human darkness is worth all of our attention, and so is the strength of Khaw’s protagonists, especially in A Song for Quiet, to embrace hope after the smaller, sharper horrors of their lives.

I will make no secret here that this entry in the Stolen Ideas series is particularly special for me. I have discovered Cassandra Khaw only recently, and she has risen already to be among my very favorite authors. Her prose is spectacular and engaging and very much like what I imagine my own best work to be. Of all the authors mentioned and to-be-mentioned here, she is the one I most imagine a collaboration with, because there is a harmony between her words and my dreams that I have found with nothing else. Her work, and her delightful twitter microfictions are well worth everyone’s attention.

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