Storyville: Ten Awesome Authors You've Never Heard Of Before
For this column, I thought I’d try something a little different as we get towards the end of the year. There will be all kinds of “top ten” lists coming out in November and December, so I’m going to cobble together some of my favorite authors, the ones that I’m betting most of you have never heard of before. If you were over at The Cult when we were busy with the workshop, and if you’ve taken any classes here, you’ve probably heard of Stephen Graham Jones, Craig Clevenger and Will Christopher Baer, so I won’t list them here. If somehow you haven’t heard of them, pick up All the Beautiful Sinners and The Ones That Got Away (SGJ), The Contortionist’s Handbook and Dermaphoria (CC), and the entire Baer trilogy, Kiss Me Judas, Penny Dreadful, and Hell’s Half Acre. These are mandatory titles. I’ll also assume you know who Paul Tremblay is, since he has also taught here, so pick up In the Mean Time if you haven’t yet. These are authors and titles that I assume you know.
My top ten list will certainly not surprise all of you, and I don’t expect that every name on this list will be new to you all, since you’re intelligent readers with an appetite for compelling fiction, but I do hope that I can turn you on to a few voices in this week’s column. Many of these authors are voices that I reviewed at The Nervous Breakdown, so be sure to head over there if you want more information.
In no particular order, here are ten voices that I think are some of the most powerful, unique and captivating storytellers out there. Enjoy.
1. Matt Bell
Books: Cataclysm Baby and How They Were Found
Compare to: Cormac McCarthy, Denis Johnson
I’ve known about Matt Bell for a number of years. I probably first discovered his work in connection with Dzanc Books (he works there), but it wasn’t until Cataclysm Baby that I really became a die-hard fan. This collection of post-apocalyptic stories, all focusing on family, children, and deformity, is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Matt is able to write literary fiction that uses language and depth to hypnotize his audience while at the same time creating familiar worlds that could be the backdrop for a horror, fantasy or science fiction story. He isn’t afraid to take risks, a theme and ability you’ll probably hear me mention quite often on this list. If you are looking for dark fiction that has a lyrical voice, something that will challenge you, but not in a boring, dry, academic way, pick up his work, especially Cataclysm Baby. Here is an excerpt from “Kidd, Kier, Kimball,”:
“At dawn, we extinguish the ﬂames so the candles will be there to relight tomorrow, and then again we pray: Oh lord, just once. Just once, deliver us a child not wrecked from the beginning. Grant us a son not lousy with fur, not ruined with scales or feathers. Give us a daughter made for the old world instead of this new one, this waste of weather and wild.”
2. Tina May Hall
Books: The Physics of Imaginary Objects
Compare to: Kelly Link, Aimee Bender
The winner of the Drue Heinz prize, Tina’s collection of stories, The Physics of Imaginary Objects, was one of my favorite books of 2010. It was so good that it caused me to get up off my ass and go review it, reaching out to several websites, ultimately landing at TNB. I’d heard a lot of talk about this title from various sources, such as Dan Wickett at Dzanc Books and Roxane Gay at PANK, and I was not disappointed. These stories are dark fables in a contemporary setting. I was constantly blown away by the settings, her authoritative voice, and the way that she made me uncomfortable. And yet, at the same time, Tina created a sense of nostalgia and longing for a better time, a safe and simple place. Here are two lines from my favorite story in the collection, “Skinny Girls’ Constitution and Bylaws”:
“We will gestate plump happy babies in the bone cages of our pelvis. When we lift our arms to the moon, there is a sound like branches scraping.”
“We will not stick our heads in ovens. We will not throw ourselves from bridges, nor weight our pockets, nor disturb our veins.”
3. Craig Davidson
Books: Sarah Court, The Fighter, and Rust and Bone
Compare to: Dennis Lehane, George Saunders
I’m sure that there are plenty of people here at LR that have heard of Craig, but just in case, I wanted to make sure that I included him on this list. At the same time that I was discovering Palahniuk, SGJ, CC and WCB, I ran across Craig Davison. He is another gritty voice, comfortable in the neo-noir sub-genre, but also with an eye for the literary. There is a theme of boxing and fighting that runs throughout his first collection and novel, but what I find most compelling in his work is his desire to focus on fractured, damaged characters, something I enjoy doing in my own writing. Craig does a great job of giving you all of the physical details to picture what is happening, while also sharing the emotion and frailty that rests behind the destruction. Here is a little bit from Sarah Court, setting up the interlinked stories that read as a novel, showing us the world we are about to discover:
“Sarah Court: a ring of homes erected by the Mountainview Holdings Corporation. Cookie-cutter houses put up quick. Residents digging gardens will encounter broken bricks and wiring bales haphazardly strewn and covered with sod. In a town twenty minutes north of Niagara Falls. Grape and wine country. Crops harvested by itinerant Caribbean field hands who ride bicycles bundled in toques and fingerless gloves even in summertime. A town unfurling along Lake Ontario. Once so polluted, salmon developed pearlescent lesions on their skin. Ducks, pustules on their webbed feet. They seizured from contagions in their blood.”
4. Holly Goddard Jones
Books: Girl Trouble
Compare to: Flannery O’Connor, Dorothy Allison
I first met Holly when she was teaching down at Murray State University where I got my MFA. She was on her way out and I was just getting started. I heard rumors of how good she was, that she was destined for great things. I picked up her collection of stories, Girl Trouble, and read it. The next semester my professor there, the Pulitzer nominated Dale Ray Phillips, assigned it for class. So I got to know this collection pretty well. I shared a few stories with my wife, to see how she would react, and much like the way that I fell apart reading them I’d look over and see my wife in tears, sobbing. There is that much power in her work. She has a strong grasp of language, so you feel that this is literary work that you are reading, but she takes great risks; she isn’t afraid to talk about rape, murder, incest or death. Her first novel, The Next Time You See Me, will be out in early 2013. Here are the opening lines from “Good Girl”:
“A year before Jacob’s son, Tommy, was arrested for raping a fifteen-year-old girl, the police chief came to his shop about the dog. Tommy’s dog—a pit bull bitch.”
5. Kyle Minor
Books: The Truth and All Its Ugly and In the Devil’s Territory
Compare to: Jim Thompson, Donald Ray Pollock
Beautiful, tragic and gut wrenching—these are the kind of stories Kyle writes. He is the kind of author that can turn the spotlight on a dysfunctional family and make it feel as if it is your own. He can preach religion, convert you to his cause, and then pull the rug out from under you. He is equally comfortable writing neo-noir, southern gothic, crime, mystery, and literary stories; usually all mashed up into one ball of glorious pain and suffering, dotted with enlightenment. He’s just that good. Here is an excerpt from “The Truth and All Its Ugly”:
“So that’s what he did. He sat down in front of Kelly’s front door, and put the muzzle to his right temple, and turned his head so his left temple was to the door, and when Penny came home that night, what she found was the worst thing you can ever find, and when I heard about it, I couldn’t hate her the way I wanted to anymore.”
6. Roxane Gay
Compare to: Mary Gaitskill, Toni Morrison
If you’ve heard of Roxane it may be because of her work at PANK, a fantastic magazine that is at the forefront of independent, edgy, literary fiction—and not just because they published one of my stories. For a long time I only knew Roxane as a publisher and editor, and what a mistake that was. She is one of the most brutally honest and powerful authors writing today. She just got a story into the Best American Short Stories anthology, which is one hell of an honor and accomplishment. I pretty much devour everything she publishes, and I suggest you do the same thing. She is not afraid of sex or violence, but it rarely comes to you in the expected ways. She will lure you in and then shatter your world. She has plenty of work out there online, but she also just released a collection. Here is an excerpt from “Girls With Eating Disorders”:
“Peter loved to date girls with eating disorders—anorexics, but not the ones on death’s door who had to be fed through a tube in their stomach. The sight of that sort of thing upset him. He preferred the tall girls who hovered around 105 and spent most of their time sucking their bodies toward their spines. Those girls were generally hot and so busy counting calories and exercising they largely left him to his own devices. Bulimics were a little more trouble but they gave great head. Neither the anorexics nor the bulimics minded when Peter affirmed their worst fears about themselves by telling them the horrible things they wanted to hear. He was giving them exactly what they needed and that made him feel good about himself.”
7. Benjamin Percy
Books: The Wilding and Refresh, Refresh
Compare to: Tim O’Brien, Ron Rash
Ben is another of those authors that manages to take the best of genre fiction and the best of literary fiction and mash them together. He tends to write about the outdoors—scenic rural settings, but don’t let that fool you—in the end, the bear will gut you and scatter your innards over that meandering, dusty trail. He writes about war and family and betrayal with the eye of a prophet and the heart of a warrior. It’s easy to get lost in his expansive settings, such as the mountains of Oregon, but his stories have a way of making the world smaller, pulling you into his narratives by showing you the truth and misery and compassion in us all. And his next book, Red Moon, takes a run at a contemporary werewolf tale, and I cannot wait to read it. This excerpt is from The Wilding:
“For a long time he did not feel he was capable of continuing to live a normal life, of achieving any sort of sense of comfort. He felt that he had lost more than a section of his skull. He had lost himself as well.”
8. Lindsay Hunter
Compare to: Tawni O’Dell, Joyce Carol Oates
There is always a bit of the south in Lindsay’s writing, people on the edge of things, lost and falling apart, rural settings, or just fractured souls begging you to listen to their stories. There is humor in her work, but there is also tragedy. She isn’t afraid to tell it how it is, whether the subject is sex, violence or love, equally mixed together into stories that are unsettling and touching at the same time. She speaks the truth, whether it is ugly or freeing, with the same confidence and power. This little bit of “That Baby” just destroys me, every time:
“…and so getting up and walking to the car, Levis saying Honey? Levis standing up to see better, saying Honey…me getting into the car and locking the doors, key in the ignition, Levis just standing there, the late afternoon sunlight giving him a glow, just standing there with his fists at his sides, looking like a fat little man more than anybody’s baby, a little fat man beating his chest now, me pulling out onto the road, Levis wailing Honey, wailing Pickles, getting smaller and smaller in the rearview until I took a turn and he was gone, my heart like a fist to the door and my breasts empty and my nipples like lit matchheads.”
9. Alan Heathcock
Compare to: Daniel Woodrell, Richard Ford
Alan is another rural, southern gothic author, one that finds a way to relate the humble and brutal problems of farm life in ways that even city folk can understand. Loss and gain, tragedy and survival, these are stories that transcend small town life; shadows and echoes across Idaho and Missouri, resonating in the back alleys of Chicago and NYC alike, because we’ve all been there, we’ve all been betrayed and exposed. To give you a taste of his world, here is an excerpt from “Lazarus”:
“The streets were plowed and salted, filthy banks of snow climbing the poles of lit signs before strips of bright shops. The high walls of the city airport stretched for blocks, a plane lifting off, its lights fading as it passed into the clouds. A day-glo truck pulled beside Vernon, its music thumping. Stoplight after stoplight, so many cars. A line of cars smoked in a chicken restaurant’s drive-through. In what looked like an old department store, a church lay between an insurance agency and a florist.”
Books: Normally Special, He is Talking to the Fat Lady, and Nobody Trusts a Black Magician
Compare to: Lydia Davis, Amy Hempel
Now, I may compare xtx to Davis and Hempel because she tends toward a more minimalist setting and story, but she’s also the kind of author that isn’t afraid to push our buttons: the sexuality and dysfunction of Mary Gaitskill (think “Secretary”) paired with the brutality of A.M. Homes (think The End of Alice). I’ve never seen her work as shock simply for the sake of shocking, though some do. I see the honesty and suffering and history of her stories, spanning her lifetime, touching us all—and not always in a good way. There is a painful past, a sense of the abused and suffering, in her work. To fully understand the complexity of her work, sit with this excerpt from “The Importance of Folding Towels” for a moment and understand the dynamic of this life:
“Little Sam, still crying, now at my leg, it’s in his arms, his arms go up, my arms are folded, my fists are clenched.
‘Do it.’ Slam. He throws a towel. At my face.
‘Mommy has to fold a towel now, son.’ Slam.
Sammy doesn’t understand and neither do I. I decide to get this over with. I fold the towel. I fold the towel. I keep folding the towel. I fold all of the towels I can. I fold every towel in the world.”
PICK UP THE WORK OF THESE AUTHORS AND CHANGE YOUR LIFE FOREVER. I’M SO NOT KIDDING.
TO SEND A QUESTION TO RICHARD: drop him a line at Richard@litreactor.com. Who knows, it could be his next column.
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