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Review: Shallow Creek by Storgy

It was Spring in a sleepy little town when I finished reading Storgy’s Shallow Creek. I sat back from the glaring digital screen, hollows where youthful eyes had once been. Youthful. I scorn the word. Younger than I am now. To read this collection is to step outside of time, to travel across something of indeterminable depth, to glimpse things in the crevasses and folds, the cracks and tears; things which are better left unseen.

I wax poetical, but I said that I would set pen to paper and review the collection, this testimony to all Shallow Creek is, was, and might be. Firstly, I should say it is more like a multi-authored novel than a collection, stories carefully placed to tell a single – if treacherous – narrative. The editors Tomek, Ross and Tony are to be commended for their Herculean effort in assembling and editing these tales to make them into a singular yet fragmented tale.

Each story is accompanied by dazzling artwork by Michael To. These pieces are truly exquisite dark illustrations that often bring the images and metaphors at the heart of these stories to life. Michael has a way of synthesising two dispirit images that brings new meaning: a home springing from the curve of anchor, a bleeding rollercoaster, a mouth fountaining liquid…

The stories have been arranged, like the studded gems of a crown, in specific order. Characters waltz into the story, only to vanish and re-appear like ghosts; some commit terrible sins but are never punished; some seem to suffer grandly but never lose their ever-too-wide smile. Each story focuses in on a moment, a shining jewel-like moment, but with the close of each story these moments fade as the focus shifts. It is like surveying the town through a microscope, the lens only able to focus on one microcosm at a time. As it moves, you yearn for it to linger, to spend more time unravelling the delicate story it burningly fixes on, but move on it must, revealing new insights.

Our story starts with Dave Danvers’ Last Foray Into All Things Woo Woo by Stuart Croskell. This brilliant introductory story has been well chosen, opening with a man driving into Shallow Creek, treating us to a panoramic view of its squalid infamy. The story’s premise is at once meta- and original: a paranormal TV show host arrives in Shallow Creek in order to write a story about the town. Over the years, his belief in the supernatural has waned: ‘No bigfoot, no spooks, no little green men. The bastards. Only us. Us. Jesus.’ The twist of horror in the final line, in realising we are only alone with ourselves, and that humans are perhaps the worst monster of all, is deftly and subtly done. Our protagonist, Dave Danver, must go to Devil’s Gorge to write his story. As we follow him on his strange journey to the Devil’s Gorge summit via immaculate prose, the story gains Stoker-esque qualities – introducing us to enigmatic characters galore, bated-breath conspiracy, and the horrifying motif of a forced smile. The ending is nothing short of cathartic and sets the tone for the whole collection as one that aims to not just scare us, but also make us weep with epiphany. It’s here we first meet Krinkles the Klown, but it sure as hell isn’t the last time we see him.

Throughout Shallow Creek, we see nods to the old masters of horror like Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley, and there is something jubilant in that. However, there is also something fresh here. In Behind These Eyes by Alice Noel, we see juxtapositions of old-school horror vibes, an almost Victorian macabre storytelling, with the modern and comical: ‘Gothic is so in this year.’ Shallow Creek is a commentary on how just because we make fun of the oldest horrors in the book, it doesn’t mean they aren’t still scary.

The Soil of Stonier Hearts by Erik Bergstrom is another masterful blend of the old and new. Employing a poetic style throughout much akin to the glorious and rich elegance of Edgar Allan Poe, with brilliantly controlled language, Erik effortlessly invokes the Gothic aesthetic. The story is loaded with intriguing turns of phrase, as twisted as the nature of the town: a ‘phantom drunkenness’ haunting characters, suggesting that the line between supernatural and psychological is thin. With such fine writing, the smallest details become potential portents: “Something’s wrong with our soil, Gordy.” Jed heard the short echo of his voice in Gordon Anderson’s answering machine.’ This story is part The Omen, photos revealing mysteries and prophecies, and part The Happening, with moments of shocking inevitability.

This is also the story, the fourth in the collection, where things begin to interconnect. The events of Devil’s Gorge resonate here with what is going on in St Mary’s Cemetery. But who can say if these things are all happening in the same universe? Even the inhabitants of Shallow Creek are not to be trusted on that front.

Janet’s Vision of Love by Tom Heaton pushes the boundaries of what we will believe, offering us a story that is surreal and Twin Peaks-esque. It’s in every detail down to the inept law enforcement, the slightly off-kilter banter, and the characters that intentionally don’t seem to fit. The story is peppered with threatening and psychedelic imagery: ‘the occasional prophylactic wrapped around a fern like some species of woodland jellyfish’ This tale is truly a vision: of horror, consumerism, with a repeated line that genuinely sent chills along my arms. It transitions from a Lynchian creepy-town mystery to full-fledged Night Shift Stephen King horror. A triumph, to say the least.

Anchor by Marion Coleman offers us something a little different, a strong first person voice that seems meek at first but actually proves to be quite cunning and determined. Throughout this story I could not help but think this entire collection feels like it is building up to Krinkles the Klown. Storgy set up the dominoes oh so long ago with their character sheets and essays of one Mallum Colt, sparking the imagination in writers. They are at once homaging Stephen King’s Pennywise in Krinkles, but also taking him on, showing a modern and complex character that is his own unique brand of horror. This story ends with a brilliant subversion of desire, where our ‘hero’ gets what they want, but not in the way they think.

I met myself in Silverpine Forest. And I’ll never forget his grin.’ Some lines grab you by the throat, and this is one of them. It is the opening sentence of Backwards by Adrian J. Walker. This story almost has a True Detective feeling: A quest for a missing girl; A sheriff lost in his own failings; The sense of a secret about the town, and aid found in unlikely places, such as Mallum Colt himself. This line reminded me of a nonsense rhyme that has long haunted my dreams: As I was going up the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there. Backwards proves a convergence point for many stories and people in the world of Shallow Creek: Chelsea, Janet Lopez, the secrets of the forest… It introduces us to a Gothic trope as old as sin and also recently explored in Jordan Peele’s much anticipated Us: that of doppelgängers and parallel worlds.

The whole collection has the feel of a paranormal documentary gone wrong and off the rails, a documentary about the making of a documentary in which the paranormal activity suddenly becomes real and the presenters look sideways at the camera wondering whether a terrible, terrible practical joke has just been played. Some of the horror here hits hard, unflinchingly hard, but it is done not for shock value but to reality-check us to the world. We are told: ‘Her daughter couldn’t sleep… not because of memories or nightmares, but because she couldn’t expel the taste from her mouth.’ All of this culminates in a surprisingly redemptive and hopeful ending. Shallow Creek, bleak as it is, still harbours the human spirit. It is in every page of writing in this tome.

My mind boggles at the complexity of the interwoven plots. It isn’t just ordering the events into a logical continuum. There are subtle thematic and internal threads that are drawn throughout, such as Janet Lopez’s repressed sexuality, and the repeated and weird motif that Sister Augustine has not aged, which at some point starts to become sinister. We slowly unearth more details about Sister Augustine in Heather Cuthbertson’s Secret Ingredient which are alarming to say the least.

Shallow Creek is not just horror. Nor is it mystery. It is a hybrid that slips into whatever genre it feels will best unnerve you. So, with Brian Wilson’s Distraction, it slides into neo-noir. A midnight meeting at a pier with a dark becomes transcendentally significant. There are shades of Christopher Nolan’s cinematic masterpiece Memento here as Brian Wilson elegantly explores the things we do for peace of mind through the motif of a needle and nightdress. He describes a ‘seven eyed beast’ that is actually the light of seven cigarettes in the dark. It becomes like a biblical allusion to the Beast of Revelations. The cigarette butts light the gloom, but they are not hopeful. The narrator counts them again and again as one by one they are extinguished. What are we counting down to? Suspense and terror meet here. We are told by the narrator: ‘I had no intention of putting my family’s life in the hands of a man who professed to hear voices.’ Yet the narrator himself seems semi-delusional, unreliable, not quite honest with himself. We all hear voices, in fact. We’re all insane.

This is as much a commentary on the stories we tell ourselves as it is on religion. Wilson weaves a masterful tapestry here, tying the cigarettes directly into the tragedy at the heart of the story, the ‘filthy habit’. Now, our narrator Maurice has a new filthy habit, his addiction to a syringe filled with a nameless substance. This story is a flawless dovetailing of ideas. Just as the cigarettes remind our Maurice of his flaw, so too do they literally resurrect that which he has lost. The final two cigarettes become the eyes of someone we might just know… As they haunted Maurice, so they will haunt us in the future.

There are so many gems in this collection, I can scarcely catalogue them all. And the World Fades to Black by Adam Lock gives us Groundhog Day but with a sinister twist. It made me realise that so many moments in Shallow Creek are defined by fixations on talismanic objects. Trapped in a moment. Trapped in a grave mistake. This is where horror is so profound, it reflects out self-inflicted psychological punishment.

The Lurid Trance by Gregg Williard, as well as offering us some of the most disturbing artwork in the whole collection, gives us something different. It is about the betrayal of memory. And tardigrades. The premise runs so: someone takes credit for an artist’s work from forty years ago and sends them the envelope. This is a fascinating narrative hook that quickly becomes an esoteric, surreal descent into lost identity. ‘Hard to say how many of the town are descendants of the pseudo psychos.’ Each part of Shallow Creek feels like an attempt to describe exactly what Shallow Creek is. As this story moves towards one of my favourite tropes, that of the ‘lost film’, we are treated to a list of insane movie titles, an exercise in Nate Crowley-esque catalogue, except when I typed the titles in Google, there were actual results. It’s as though Shallow Creek is coming alive. The research Gregg Williard has done to achieve this (or perhaps it is merely a field of study for him and he knows?) is staggering. The faux manifesto for the eponymous movie The Lurid Trance, which lies at the heart of this disturbing meta-story, is exquisitely observed: a satire of film critique as well as a disturbing portent of what’s to come.

Throughout the stories of Shallow Creek we encounter more and more of the mythos of Krinkles, as well as old VHS tapes and unanswered questions. In places the descriptions of Shallow Creek are Melville-esque, unbelievably lavish, such as in Knock, Knock, Knuckle Bone by Allyson Kersel. We are told of one Shallow Creek regular Angus Runt: ‘Runt will have an opinion and, whether informed or fabricated, it’s bound to be interesting.’ In a way, this reflects the entire meaning of Shallow Creek. We cannot verify any of these stories. They shift even as the townspeople shift, as we slip into one multi-verse and out of another. But regardless, it sure as hell is going to be interesting.

In places, Shallow Creek is downright experimental. David Hartley’s masterpiece Pentameter is one such example, the entire thing written in iambic pentameter stanzas rounded off with rhyming couplets. At first, I railed against this form, but the conceit for this device was too well thought out to ignore it. The Lighthouse Keeper thinks in pentameter because he finds comfort in Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, which have helped him cope with profound loss. This leads to moving moments of poetry amidst prose:

I sprawl back on our steps and think of you.

My Molly, who always knew what to do.

Arkady,” I say, “yes.” The asylum,

where old Jud was zapped into this shadow.

Jud, the Lighthouse Keeper, believes that Shakespeare is speaking to him through the walkie talkie. As we move towards the conclusion of this tale, we will see more and more evidence that someone may well be manipulating Jud. It all ends with a terrible threat which is Shakespearean in itself, recalling the ending of Twelfth Night, where the shamed Malvolio claims he will be ‘revenged on the whole pack of you’. This was certainly one of the most unexpected and hair-raising stories in the collection.

There is something for everyone here in Shallow Creek, including black humour, which is expertly employed by Sarah Lotz in The Eyes Have It, the title a pun in and of itself. We’re told: ‘The town was the kind of place where you could get away with murder. He’d done it to free himself up to see his girlfriend at the time.’ It makes us laugh, but it’s also frightening, how casual people can be when referring to murder. Our journey through Shallow Creek desensitises us, but Sarah Lotz brings us back around again, ‘waking us up’ to the horror of what we’re seeing. Towards the end of the collection, a new theme emerges, that of forgiveness and whether we even can be forgiven, by human or divine. Lotz takes us on a rollercoaster ride: a bleak quest that is Dexter meets Frankenstein, an exploration of our deepest existential dreads and spiritual fears. It is a paedophile on mission from God, or rather, to cheat God’s will, and in doing so, kill a whole load of sinners in very satisfying ways. Interspersed with some very real theology are observations so darkly witty they make me a little crazy: The notes were signed ‘Dr Ruth Usiskin’, the facility’s psychologist, who clearly wasn’t averse to doodling on her reports. In the margin, next to ‘sexual deviant’, she’d drawn a smiley face.’

Shallow Creek is a celebration of genre fiction, but it also proves that the distinctions between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ are not only arbitrary but unnecessary. In Aliya Whiteley’s The Alteration we see a staggering portrait of what it is like to have a relationship with someone who is a compulsive liar and losing their mind. Madeleine, bound to a wheelchair, confesses to murders which Ruth, her carer, does not believe, but slowly but surely, we sense the terrible coming of ‘the change’. We’re told ‘Books had stories in them, and my mother said all stories were lies.’ – I think this includes the stories we tell ourselves.

So much of Shallow Creek revolves around the act of finding something that should not be found, whether it be as simple as a wedding ring, or as controversial as a licentious VHS tape. Shallow Creek is a library located in some near-unreachable place, some deep place, far from the crowds and sanitising technology. Within this library are forbidden stories. Profane tales. Tales that can scarcely be given credence, yet they ring true. Why are we so fascinated by darkness? It’s a question that keeps being asked in this collection, but never more potently than in Andrea Hardaker’s The Fulmar’s Cry: ‘She relocated to a small town out west, accepted a job in a store, re-built her life. But all that did was trigger a different unexpected issue. Despite everything—she missed the terror.’

While Shallow Creek feels eternal, all stories need an end. The final story, The Caged Bird Sings in a Darkness of Its Own Creation, by Richard Thomas, feels like the culmination of the entire collection. I am biased as a huge fan of Richard’s work, but he genuinely pulls out all the stops in this Lovecraftian tale. In it, he shows us Krinkles as an old man, staring out at us from his ramshackle hut in the heart of the woods, a figure of ague and remorse, of dark hilarity and mirthless terror. There are so many unsettling details here. Why is Krinkles vomiting up balloons, marbles, and other items? Why is he keeping what might be a child’s heart in a jar? Why do six figures – ‘tall shadows’ – pray outside his hut in the dark? And why is the time of his departure near? There is a religious reverence in the way Richard describes the scene, a kind of sacred wonder at the horror of it all. Like Krinkles’ audience, we await the dreaded punchline with what is tantamount to agony.

This tale is about sin too, and about the price we pay to get what we want: ‘Eventually, it was inverted. Not the death of one for the good of many, but the opposite—the death of many for the good of one. Or the few.’

It is a dark creation story, delving into the origin of all myths. Richard peels back the layers, gives us an almost glacial sequence of images that lead to revelation, like the atom-bomb episode of the third season of Twin Peaks, yet he condenses that extended form into something comparatively microscopic – the prose is so controlled. At the end, we are left with a sense of the entirety of what has happened, something bargained, something lost, something dark and terrible learned. He re-writes the entire script of what we think we know about Shallow Creek, and shows us a side of Krinkles we could not have ever anticipated. Richard may not be as prolific as Stephen King, but his work is just as memorable.

X

In all its horror, and all its glory, this collection has captured the spirit of my mucilaginous hometown.

Oh, didn’t I say?

I was born and raised in Shallow Creek. I live in the flat above Croskell’s pornography store. And before then, I lived in the caves that run deep beneath the old bones of the settlement. And before then… well. Not many in the town know me. I am something of a recluse. I have lived in Shallow Creek a long, long time as I’ve said. Too long, by any reckoning. I’ve thought many times about moving on to other cities, those teeming millions just so tempting, like a ripe fruit full of sugary, sweet juices. But if the people here loathe and distrust me, then elsewhere, I stand very little chance of going unnoticed.

But I grow tired of hiding. My kind are a dying kind. I might even be the last one. What would be the use of passing from ageless history unremembered? One last act of glory, then. I will draw them to us as moths to a flame! My light! My blinding true form!

Come then ye curious souls! Follow my light. Pour in your millions down to Shallow Creek. Follow my good friend Mallum Colt, whom I call the Pied Piper, down to the rancid streets and silver trees and stagnant waters – to the stones that smell of secrets – and I promise you shall see wonders like you have never seen before.

You can pre-order Shallow Creek here.

Follow Storgy on Twitter or visit their website www.storgy.com for a ton of free reviews, short stories, and feature pieces.

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Entering Carcosa Part 7 (Final): The Forgotten Epic

(Photo by Roland Neveu/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Hello, and welcome to what will be the final instalment in Entering Carcosa. It has been a fabulous and rewarding experience writing about these epics, and I hope that anyone reading these has found inspiration for their own work. I am going to post links to the six previous articles here for ease of navigation.

Part 1: The Epic Isn’t Dead
Part 2: Metal Gear Solid
Part 3: The Horus Heresy
Part 4: True Detective
Part 5: The Book of the New Sun
Part 6: Seven Deadly Sins

For this last episode, I intend to write about an epic novel. Yes, I said I wouldn’t do it, but this novel is an exception because it is such an anomaly. Not only has the novel been largely forgotten, but the author too remains fringe even though they continue to write intriguing books today. It is a novel of incredible paradox and contradiction: as poetic as it is pornographic, as profound as it is problematic. The novel in question is Eric Van Lustbader’s Black Heart. It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of Lustbader, but what I find startling is how little credit he is given for his lyrical style. Whilst he is most famous, perhaps, to modern audiences, for continuing the late Robert Ludlum’s Bourne series, I find his personal projects far more remarkable, not simply for the stories he tells, but the way he tells them. Why is this epic poet neglected, then? I think, there are a number of reasons.

Firstly, let me tell you how I came to read this novel, because the process itself was something on an epic journey. This is a long book: some 800 pages, and easily over 240,000 words. I had picked up a battered old copy from a local second-hand bookshop around two years ago. I enjoyed Lustbader’s first book The Ninja greatly and wanted to read a standalone by him. I got to roughly 50% the way through the novel, when my duties as a fiction reviewer got in the way. I told myself I would finish up reading some of the new books I had to review, and then return to Black Heart. The problem was, the book was so complex, with so many characters and intersecting plot-lines, I couldn’t get back into it. I eventually had to abandon the attempt. For two years, this book kind of haunted my imagination. I rarely give up on books, and especially not books I was enjoying. Odd scenes that I could remember from it went round and round in my head.

Eventually, I realised I had to finish it, so I decided to once again attempt it. This time, I was able to easily blast through it. The feeling of deja vu and synchronicity reading it for the (sort of) second time only added to the mythical weight of the some of the scenes. This was made even more weird by the fact that the 1984 re-print that I had a copy of was littered with copy-editing mistakes. I mean, tonnes of mistakes. And not small ones, but full word-replacements and repeated lines and missing sentences. Reading it became a kind of scholastic activity rather than merely a leisurely one, like filling in the blank spaces left in Anglo Saxon poetry manuscripts. How could there be so much here but also there be so much missing? I became obsessed and fascinated to the point where I considered reaching out to Lustbader to work with him producing a cleanly edited version of the novel. I felt angered he had been so deeply let down by the publisher, I would hate to suffer such negligence myself.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, because I think it tells us something interesting about Black Heart. For many reasons – it’s action, sex, intensely passionate writing style – this book is considered pulp. Yet, how easily do we forget that the great Homeric epics are practically bursting with vicious combat scenes, sensuous affairs and sexual encounters, and written in a style that defies traditional writing conventions. In other words, I think it shows we have confined what was once epic to the pulp shelf, and now praise – well, whatever stuffiness stepped into its place.

Written in 1983 and subsequently republished, Black Heart is about the Cambodian genocide of the 1960s and a group of inter-connected special-operatives at once haunted by the past and struggling against sinister forces behind the scenes in the present. It is a strangely prescient book, predicting a rigged American election with Russian influence and corporate backing. The presidential candidate depicted in Black Heart, Atherton Gottschalk, is even a kind of Trump parallel, with an obsession with protecting the borders of American from ‘foreign invasion’ and deploying the military to safeguard American ideals. Gottschalk’s paranoia about terrorism, with frequent monologues about the nature of Islamic terrorist attacks, becomes frighteningly foreshadowing, in some ways predicting the fall of the Twin Towers in 2001, an event which would occur eighteen years after the book was published.

Gottschalk is being put into power via the machinations of several parties. At their heart is Delmar Davis Macomber, an elite American operative stationed in Cambodia who now runs a weapons manufacturing corporation called Metronics Incorporated. However, this company is but a front for a secretive organisation founded in the blood and atrocity of Cambodia, one that is prepared to kill to exert its influence over Western politics. Whilst Macomber may seem a villain, and even sports a villain’s moustache, Lustbader is never so simplistic, and offers compelling motivations for Macomber’s behaviour. At one point, roughly halfway through the book, our impression of Macomber shifts dramatically as new information comes to light and he transforms almost into the truly wronged party and one of the heroic figures of the narrative.

The true protagonist of this novel, however, is Khieu Sok. Khieu is an assassin in Macomber’s employ who began life as the son of a wealthy Cambodian family and a devout Buddhist. During the communist genocide, he joined the Khmer Rouge and turned on his own family and ideals in order to survive, committing atrocities to maintain his life. He was taught the art of stealth and hand-to-hand combat by the Khmer’s ‘secret weapon’, a Japanese martial arts master called Murano Musashi (a nod to the real Miyamoto Musashi, widely regarded as the most legendary swordsman in history). Macomber ‘rescued’ Khieu from his violent life in the communist regime only to manipulate him into carrying out high-profile assassinations on American soil. If you are thinking that this sounds vaguely like the plot of a Tarantino movie, you would not be far wrong. Lustbader’s love of unarmed combat is unabashed and he sees no problem delivering some of the most memorable and ultra-violent fight sequences in fiction. However, to say Black Heart is all action would be a gross miss-sell; it is just as concerned with introspection as it is with high-octane adrenaline, just as intrigued by the sundries of life and what deeper meaning they may hold, as it is with vividly described anal-play. It is full of life and willingly embraces all facets of life, whether they are palatable or not.

Lustbader’s introduction, exploring the complexity of Cambodian history.

 

Khieu is the heart of this novel all about heart. He is dichotomy personified, at once viewing himself as a Buddhist and therefore pacifist and holy, and also as a weapon of mass destruction and cold-blooded killer. Khieu has compartmentalised his life, and slowly throughout the course of the book the strain of holding these contradictory identities in mind tears him apart. The counterpart to Khieu is the seemingly ‘heroic’ Tracy Richter, another American who fought in Cambodia as part of a secret operation connected with Macomber. Tracy appears to be the classic ‘good guy’, a match for Khieu, having also been trained by a Japanese martial arts master Jinsoku-san. However, we slowly realise throughout the book, as we learn more about Tracy’s past, that in fact he enjoys killing. Like Khieu, he is victim of double think. He sees himself as a loving partner to his true love, the ballet dancer Lauren. A loyal son to his father, Louise Richter, who also plays a key role in the novel. But he also loves the power of ending a life. It’s a dark and morally grey portrayal that catches us off guard. Who do we really root for? The warrior who is trying to be a Buddhist, or the warrior who embraces what they are?

Just as Khieu and Tracy embody the juxtaposition of conflicting identities, Black Heart is similarly a book of incredible dichotomy. Double-think is present throughout the entirety of the novel. On the one hand, the most intelligent character in the novel is probably Kathleen Christian, a woman whom we initially believe is being used by Atherton as a ‘bit on the side’ but slowly realise is actually the one manipulating the presidential candidate. Her intelligence and cunning are an intriguing and complex counterpoint to the more directive schemes of men like Macomber. However, on the other hand, she is sexualised at every possible turn, as are all the female characters. That is, until they are murdered. Black Heart revels in its violence and explicit sex; you can tell by the language and the verbosity with which it is described. Yet, it is also about transcending both of those things, which is Khieu’s ultimate character arc. It simultaneously exhibits both positions without shame or fear.

Lustbader does not fall into the Madonna-Whore trap that so many male writers do. He manages to portray women who have complex sexual identities but also moral dimensions and intelligence. Lauren, Tracy’s partner, proves to be a key player at the end of the novel, and it is her act of astonishing courage at the novel’s denouement that saves Tracy’s life and redeems him. At the same time, Lustbader never misses an opportunity to tell us just how great her breasts are. Given how explicit and graphic some of the sex scenes in this book are (sex that makes D. H. Lawrence and Byron look like rank amateurs) one can kind of see why he zeroes in on these physical endowments. He sexualises the men, too, after all. Does this make it okay? Perhaps not, but it shows that Black Heart has its own kind of weird internal logic and consistency, and it is these through lines that I believe make it great and worthy of the epic. Khieu, as a subversion of the epic hero, has a unique weapon, which is his magnetism. His martial ability is secondary to his ability to lure people, men and women alike in fact, to him. Like a Gorgon, he often transfixes them with his eyes before striking the killing blow.

Thematically, Black Heart is mind-meltingly rich. The direct derivation of the title is an alternative name for the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, who refer to themselves as a Chet Khmau. It also becomes a kind of pseudonym for one of Khieu’s bifurcated personalities as his violent side emerges more strongly. In Western language, the word ‘heart’ is directly derived from ‘courage’. Corazón in Spanish means both. Le cœur in French is similarly synonymous. In Japanese, kokoro literally means heart or ‘inner mind’. However, we are given two deeper definitions of kokoro by the two different Japanese masters in the novel. Murano Musashi, Khieu’s master, defines it: ‘The killing spirit is here. Believe that if you believe nothing else.’ This echoes Stephen King’s world-famous line from The Dark Tower: ‘I kill with my heart’.

Scenes from the Cambodian Genocide courtesy of https://discoverwithme.org/2016/08/24/the-cambodian-genocide/

The second definition we receive, however, is even more profound. Jinsoku, Tracy’s master, tells us that ‘To peer into this and survive is life’s only heroic act’. To look inwardly, to truly interrogate ourselves, in other words, is the only heroism. Interestingly, I think Black Heart itself asks for our heroism as readers, for us to look beneath the surface and work out what the real mystery is, and this book is full of mysteries right up until its final page. The deeper into the past it plunges, the more we hunger to learn and the more we realise we can never know. Tracy says ‘the past holds the key to everything’ (this becomes a segue-way for the first flashback in the book), and in the case of this story he is utterly right. All of the characters are connected by their traumatic past and are drawn back to it. As F. Scott Fitzgerald once said: ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, drawn ceaselessly back to the past.’

Each character in the novel, regardless of how major they are, is required to look inward, to ‘peer into kokoro’. Tracy refuses at first to look inward, unable to acknowledge the ‘vice of killing’. Lauren cannot admit how she really feels about Tracy. Her heart is literally in the wrong place. Khieu cannot order his binary identities. Macomber cannot interrogate his motivations and therefore transcend them and let them go. There is a kind of ironic touch in that one of the weapons Macomber’s company, Metronics Inc., is working on, is called the Vampire, a new type of AI-controlled fighter jet. Vampires, of course, can only be killed by putting a stake through the heart.

Atherton Gottschalk’s ‘black heart’ is semi-literal, a weak heart he is terrified will give out on him due to genetic defects running through his family. When Macomber stages an assassination attempt on his life to boost his popularity, he is shot in the heart. Even though he was wearing a bullet-proof vest, the experience unmans him. In the end, once Macomber’s plot and his artificially boosted bid to presidency is exposed, Atherton kills himself because he lacks the courage to face the press and shame.

Black Heart, of course, also evokes the Chinese philosophy of ‘Thick Face, Black Heart’, first postulated by Li Zongwu and later developed by Chin-Ning Chu. It is a sociological technique of concealing one’s true motivations in order not to be victimised by the world. This philosophy is so nuanced that to restate or summarise here would be to grossly bastardize and do it injustice. However, conceptually it marries with a lot of what Lustbader thematically explores in Black Heart. No one is who they seem. People who seem altruistic prove selfish, and people who seem selfish prove devotionally selfless.

One of the most fascinating characters in this regard is Kim, a Vietnamese master-torturer. It would be easy to hate Kim, especially in the hands of another writer, but Lustbader shows remarkable empathy in his portrayal of a (literally) tortured person. Kim has watched the genocide of his people and the decimation of his entire culture. His story, which proves more relevant to the main plot than we could ever imagine at first, is in some ways a ‘last human on Earth’ narrative – a man out of time and place who has nothing in common with the rest of humanity, who feels utterly alienated by Europe and America, where he is forced to survive. Kim is consumed by the flames of the past and a desire for revenge. Yet, his motives are not selfish as they first appear. He acts on behalf of his family, all of whom save his brother were killed by Cambodians. Kim’s interactions with his brother are some of the most fascinating in the novel. His brother, Thu, has embraced Western culture, marrying a blonde American woman who seems the epitome of American beauty and 50s domesticity. Kim, however, cannot let go of the past and who he is. It is about how the West has trampled on cultures and subsumed them.

Throughout, Lustbader invests massive time and energy making his characters, particularly his Asian cast, feel real and three-dimensional. I couldn’t stop myself asking how many major books, films, and games of the last ten years have over 50% of the main cast made up by Asians, and not only that, but a diverse range that pays subtle attention to the colossal cultural differences between Japanese and Chinese ways of life, Vietnamese and Cambodian, and more. Is Lustbader culturally appropriating, or is his work a Shakespearean achievement of sympathy and recognition in the vein of The Merchant of Venice? It is not for me to say, of course. Others more qualified will be the judge. I can see that if this novel were to be released tomorrow, it would be extremely divisive in this regard.

In fact, I’m not sure this kind of novel could get a major publishing deal nowadays, not because I do not think it is up to standard, but because it is too radically what it is. It is lavishly stylistic, borderline psycho-tropically sensual, and doggedly true to itself. No overzealous editor has paired down Lustbader’s ferocious prose, and that is entirely a good thing. There are so many vast droves of sterile, boring books these days that have been edited into oblivion and unmeaning. Black Heart is not one of them. It does what its blurb says: ‘Explodes with supernova intensity’. Is it a little much at times? Maybe for some readers, but I personally found myself riveted from word go.

Lustbader isn’t afraid of an extended metaphor, nor a mixed one for that matter. Just look at how he describes Khieu feeling once again the loss of his sister, for whom he had an incestuous infatuation: ‘His right hand would ache and he’d look around wildly, feeling the heated breath of the unknown furnace closing on him, brushing past him just a heartbeat away.’ That final line is transcendental, not only connecting to the title of the book but also transporting us with an auditory stimuli rather than a visual. Sound, of course, has far more of a capacity to transport in time than any other medium. Just think of hearing an old song and the way it puts you into that exact location in time. Similarly the ‘heated breath’ of the furnace is psycho-sexual, as is the use of the word ‘brushing’.

Not all of Lustbader’s sex is perverse either. Sometimes, he surprises you with something wholesome, or else deflates or interrupts the sexual congress with some startling revelation or observation. Let’s examine again Khieu’s obsession with Malis, which is in part an act of semi-religious devotion in which he describes her as ‘apsara’, an interpreter of the gods. In one traumatic flashback, a young Khieu watches his sister Malis masturbate in bed, a voyeurism he succumbs to nightly, only to then have his fantasy destroyed as Malis’ real lover climbs through the window in the dead of night. It’s a shocking moment, for us and Khieu. Khieu becomes aware of himself as an observer, and sees the baseness of what he is doing. It is a startling moment where we as readers are also jerked out of the passionate frenzy and come to see ourselves as slightly perverse voyeurs.

In Black Heart, the ultimate katabasis, the ultimate hell, is the past itself. Just as we drawn back to it, so too we are haunted by it. All of the heroes are literally drawn back to China and Cambodia, and their respective pasts, where they discover numerous horrifying revelations. However, in the final sequence, we return to the past in a spiritual and symbolic sense as Khieu finally sheds his guilt and once more returns to the beauty of Buddha which he glimpsed as a child. It is a hair-raising scene that caused me to profusely weep, a moment of divine revelation in which the entire meaning of the cosmos hinges on one profound image: ‘… at last he saw the eternal face of his Amidha Buddha…’ Black Heart, for all its love of action, ends on a note of spiritual re-awakening.

All of the characters are called to free themselves from the past and let go of old grudges, to purify their black hearts. Tracy Richter is utterly defeated; he does not triumph over the villain in physical combat. However, he learns that there are more important things that settling the score. Khieu, similarly, stops fighting and becomes one with the Buddha whom he adored as a child. Kim, however, is another story, eaten up by the flames and cast down into oblivion, all because he cannot let go of the wrong done to him. Black Heart is strangely a tale of redemption that offers the surprising revelation that it really is never too late, provided we do not allow ourselves to be conquered by our desires and temptations. It has been said that the Western story is characterised by the straight line, the journey, and the Eastern story is characterised by the returning circle. Whether this is true or not, Lustbader reflects this tradition by having his novel circle fully back to the profound opening line: ‘From within the eye of the Buddha, all things could be seen.’

Black Heart is honestly unlike anything I have read in the world of fiction or am likely to read again. It changed the way I think about narrative and prose in startling ways, and offered me a glimpse into an astonishing time period and historical event that in the West we still know very little about. I could not help but feel a profound sadness as I put down the book. It was the sense that something truly great, for all its flaws, had been lost from the world, was no longer remembered as it should be. But then, that is very fitting, as the very message of Black Heart is to let go of the past.

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This has been the final entry in the Entering Carcosa series. I hoped you have enjoyed investigating these modern epics with me. The only thing that remains is for you to write your own.

I will not be disappearing, however, far from it. I’m looking to transition these discussions about literature, films, movies, games, and more, to another medium, possibly a podcast, though I haven’t fully made my mind up yet! Keep your eye out, especially on my Twitter: @josephwordsmith. If you ever need help, advice, or simply someone to rage against the world with, feel free to message me there! Also, if you have any suggestions about the kind of content you would like me to produce, people get in touch via this website’s contact page or Twitter.

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