A Hidden Gem: Richard A. Kirk’s The Lost Machine

Jeff VanderMeer • June 11th, 2011 @ 10:58 am • Book Reviews

In a wasteland ravaged by plague, Lumsden Moss steps out of a decaying prison. Armed with a satchel of yellowed notebooks containing the fragile memories of five murdered children, he is determined to track down and confront their killer. Lumsden, accompanied by a stranger, begins a long journey to the vast City of Steps where he is forced to confront the horrors of the past and present.

Richard A. Kirk is best known as a rather mind-blowing artist whose commissioned work has accompanied the fiction of masters like Clive Barker and Caitlin R. Kiernan. His art demonstrates a knowledge of the Grotesque wedded to his own unique aesthetic. That aesthetic is texturally complex and uses precision of detail to create marvelously outlandish art. Kirk strikes me as the kind of creator whose devotion to discipline provides structure within which he can unleash a wild imagination. The composition of his images often evokes a misleading sense of stillness. Action has either just occurred or is about to occur. But these images aren’t actually static—the movement is simply occuring at the micro-level as a form of acute seeing. As part of this intensity of vision, the environment around the subject matter is rendered in as complex a way—a living way—as the people or creatures foregrounded.

The fiction of Kirk, as exemplified by his first book The Lost Machine, shares many of these virtues, translated craft-wise for the demands of text.

The protagonist Lumsden Moss, a former school teacher, outlives a prison and sets out on a quest to track down the person he believes really committed the crimes. Along the way, he encounters an odd man named Irridis. Irridis has a halo of floating glass around his head—a deadly halo that functions as a weapon.

On their journey to the city where Moss believes he will pick up the trail, they bond despite Irridis’ sometime merciless qualities. A scene in which they are attacked by feral boys is rendered in a clear-eyed, economic way that exemplifies Kirk’s overall approach. When one boy fires at Irridis “Moss watched with horror as a plume of dust exploded up from Irridis’s shoulder. Incredibly, the shot did not seem to faze him….The glass objects whirled in a circle around his covered head like a deadly crown…The boys raced off down the the trail, but Moss heard the ripping of sticks as Irridis’ glass disks flew after them. Within seconds the disks returned and resumed their positions. Speechless, Moss could only stare down the empty, quiet trail.”

A lesser writer, lacking the necessary discipline, would have shown Irridis’s attack on the boys. Instead, Kirk evokes the “empty, quiet trail” to show they’ve been killed, and then cuts to these sentences: “Moss could not bring himself to look at the boy’s face. Leaving Irridis in the clearing, he carried the child to the beach and buried him.” The action itself is unimportant: what matters is how it came to occur and what happens after.

On a more macro level, the economy of the text impresses, in that Kirk isn’t afraid to skip days here and there in the journey to get to the important points. There are few wasted words here, and as a result the text holds the reader’s attention much more easily. This is especially important because at the novella length each exchange between Moss and Irridis must carry weight and establish character. In an odd way, there’s a luminous quality to their journey created by what’s been left out.

Similarly, Kirk brings his artist’s eye to The Lost Machine. Details have clarity because he knows better than to clutter up the text with more than the one or two compelling images that matter, before moving on to the next scene. For example, in the prison Moss comes across a dead fellow inmate: “Mr. Box had arranged the songbirds’ eggshells in a mandala pattern on the flor…Dead now, he sat in the passage with his back to his cell door, head bowed to his spread fingers where the latin names of innumerable songbirds were written in ballpoint pen. The eggshells crunched beneath Moss’s boots. Even though Mr. Box was in no condition to lecture him, Moss felt shame redden his ears.”

As their quest moves to the city of their destination, pleasing complications occur, as when Moss visits his sister, nicknamed Strange Buttons, to get “buttons” as offerings to three other sisters who may have information about the real murderer. What are the buttons? “They were indeed button-shaped but comprised of a spiral arrangement of seeds…In the center of each was a dehydrated spider with its legs folded inward. The spiders were stitched to the buttons with the same red thread she used for her labels.” The purpose of these buttons is as interesting as the description, and just one of the ways in which Kirk brings freshness to weird fiction. These scenes evoke pleasant, non-derivative echoes of a Decadent literature updated to the modern era.

Another delight for the reader is Kirk’s Gene Wolfe-ish approach to the milieu, which is possibly a post-collapse (or fantasy) Earth in which some people are called witches but there are also mechanical men. Folk cures side-by-side with science. In one great description Kirk writes, “At dawn, moss saw three women dropping loads of crumbling asbestos into the sea…On the strand the hulking remains of a great ship loomed in the fog, covered in the oxyacetylene scribbles of the shipbreaker’s dissection.” Such details might be thought to rest uneasily with talk of the supernatural and even with the rotting walls of the Kafkaesque prison Moss emerged from, but through some alchemy of the prose it all fits together to create a unique setting.

The unique resolution of Moss’s quest carries emotional resonance in part because of the tension at the level of craft between Kirk’s imagination and his restraint—the careful composition of Moss’s character throughout The Lost Machine wedded to original imagery and situations. It’s on the whole a masterful performance, even if there’s a predictability to one particular plot element. The novella is highly recommended and I am looking forward to Kirk’s future fiction with great anticipation. He’s definitely bringing a fresh voice to weird fiction.

Also including five illustrations by Kirk and featuring an introduction by Mike Mignola.

3 Responses to “A Hidden Gem: Richard A. Kirk’s The Lost Machine”

  1. Samuel S says:

    Just ordered a copy – thanks for the review!

  2. PhilRM says:

    Likewise. Sounds awesome – thanks Jeff!

  3. zoe says:

    fantastic review…definitely ordering it now. thanks!

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