Nonfiction

UK Book Tour: The Important Part, the Books Acquired!

Jeff VanderMeer • August 28th, 2014 • Book Reviews

I’ll do a blog post about two weeks spent on the road in the UK doing book and book-like events. But for now, the important thing: The report on the books bought while over there! I think you’ll find some intriguing titles here…

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–The new Murakami novel is written in a plain style probably reflecting the kind of everyman main character. I’m about seventy pages in and enjoying it for the unfolding story rather than any particular element of the prose.

–Philippe Claudel’s The Investigation I discovered at the very dangerous bookstore at the Edinburgh book festival, and the cover alone was enough to make me buy the novel. But the Kafkaesque situation of an Investigator sent to a provincial town to report on a series of mysterious deaths at The Firm certainly didn’t hurt!

–Antwerp by Robert Bolaño, discovered in a discount bookstore on the fringe of Dublin’s Temple Bar. It’s got the concision of prose poetry and that dreamy quality, too. The last Bolaño to be acquired.

–David Vann’s Caribou Island was pretty exceptional, so I didn’t hesitate to pick up his Legend of a Suicide at Mr. B’s Book Emporium in Bath. The novel’s about a man still struggling with the death of his father, but as with all of Vann’s work the unique qualities are in his characterization, situations, and prose more than the over-arching story being told.

–Picked up at the Blackwell’s in Edinburgh, Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and End of the World is one of two novels by this likely Nobel Prize winner I haven’t yet read. Blackwell’s in Edinburgh, btw, is a wonderful place to shop, with a collection of books in part curated by the awesome Ellie Wixon.

–My wife Ann selected The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson, also at Blackwell’s. A ruthless secret service. A woman run over by a drunken engineer. All of it apparently hilarious. (Speaking of novels with Girl in the title, Ann read The Girl With All the Gifts and liked it, although she said it started strong and got a bit weak by the end.)

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–Our friend Neil Williamson bought Kirsty Logan’s short story collection The Rental Heart for us, and, man, am I glad he did. I’m about half-way through and I love the stories. Quirky, sometimes fantastical. Strong, strong stuff–definitely seek it out.

–Since the Southern Reach trilogy started to come out, many readers have been recommending Jim Crace to me, so I finally picked up a couple of his early titles while on the road.

–Pascal Garnier is a dark, dark writer of gritty pseudo-noir and creepy kind of Decadent but realistic tales of down-and-out and downright strange people. Reminds me a little bit of the work of Derek Raymond, although in a slightly different register. All of these were picked up at Mr. B’s Book Emporium, recommended by the staff and by Peter Sutton and his wife Claire, who were our gracious hosts while in that part of the country. Mr B’s is a rather remarkable bookstore that I highly recommend. Lovely people work there, too.

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–Off the Map by Alastair Bonnett, picked up by Ann at the Edinburgh Book Festival bookstore, is an astonishing book. I’m about half-way through this collection of essays about lost spaces, invisible cities, forgotten islands, and feral places. Just stunning. The author is incredibly compelling in the tales he tells, and his central thesis about how the human imagination needs places off the map. Even just the bit about the US Navy sending out military vessels to expunge an imaginary island is surreal and fascinating. Other books on this theme have been published, but this is my favorite thus far. A 2014 release.

–It was my pleasure to blurb The Moon King, a first novel by Neil Williamson, and also a pleasure to receive a copy from him while in Glasgow. It’s a lovely hardcover edition.

–Owls by Mike Toms is one in a series of naturalist volumes by the imprint William Collins and it’s a fascinating book. A guide to owls, very comprehensive and well-structured. I picked it up in a lovely Waterstones store near Covent Garden.

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–I’ve heard good things about Ali Smith and this collection, Shire, with images by Sarah Wood, just begged to be bought. Stylish, nicely designed. I bought it at Topping & Company in Bath, along with the other books in that row. Topping, like Mr. B’s, is a rather amazing bookstore and I was delighted to be able to drop by and talk to their staff.

–Robin Sloan has a prequel to his famous Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, and it’s rather smartly designed too, so I couldn’t not pick it up.

–I hadn’t encountered Bloomsbury Classics before, in these miniature editions. A tiny collection of Will Self fiction? Sign me up! Now I’m in danger of wanting the entire series.

–To my abiding shame, I had fallen behind on my Margaret Atwood reading and hadn’t yet gotten around to reading her MaddAddam trilogy, although I’ve read most everything else. Then I encountered these amazing trade paperback versions in Blackwell’s and I just had to have them. I read Oryx & Crake on the plane home and thought it was brilliant and sad and awful and tragic and wonderful and all of those things that a great novel should be.

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–I know absolutely nothing about Eduardo Belgrano Rawson or his book Washing Dishes in Hotel Paradise but when I saw the following quote on the back of the book I had to buy it: “Suddenly he spotted Borges waiting to cross the road…” Another Mr B’s purchase.

–Another Pascal Garnier, The Panda Theory, which I also read on the plane back. I loved the first three-fourths and then felt it fell apart. But I loved that three-fourths enough to recommend the novel. Some amazing turns of phrase and observations about the human condition.

–The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya is just barking mad in the best possible way, a future dystopia that reads in part like fairy tale, full of towering feats of the imagination. An untamed whirlwind of a novel–and that’s just the first ten pages! Can’t wait to dive into more of it. Thanks again to Mr. B’s for this recommendation.

–The Murakami with the, ahem, stickers inside. (Yes, it is being sent to you, Mr. DB, very soon.)

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–Fat Years by Chan Koonchung was an impulse buy by Ann that looks very interesting. About a month that goes missing in the near future. Another Mr. B’s rec.

–Lee Rourke’s Vulgar Things was gifted to me by The Fourth Estate while I was signing over at HarperCollins UK’s central offices. The novel just looked fascinating. A quixotic week on an island after the death of a relative of the main character. With some linguistic trickeration, among other things.

–I couldn’t resist The Exploits of Moominpapa by Tove Jansson in a beautiful hardcover, found in the Moomin Shop in Covent Garden, London.

–Technically, I received the Bolano Last Interview book from Melville right before I left, but I read it on the plane over to the UK. Really a great book about a brilliant writer’s work. Well worth checking out.

–Independence An Argument for Home Rule I bought not just because I support Scotland achieving home rule, but also because I cannot resist, ever, any book that has art from Alasdair Gray on the cover.

–Ann finally picked up The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, a novel we’ve both wanted to read for a long time…but I think you all know what it’s about, so I won’t tarry here…

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–Two John Wyndham novels, Trouble with Lichen and The Day of the Triffids, bookend this photo. Again, readers have told me to check these out ever since the Southern Reach novels started being published in February. Ann picked them up in a cool used bookstore on the edge of the Trinity College area in Dublin.

–In Bath, Tom Abba was kind enough to gift us with an amazing hand-made book with two chapbooks saddle-stapled to the interior of the amazingly supple single piece of worked wood that folds across both as a kind of hard dustjacket. It’s difficult to describe the intricacies of this project, so I’ll just guide you over here for more information. Just a stunning piece of conceptual art and also concrete book-making.

–Having just been brutally disappointed by Edward St. Aubyn’s lackluster Lost For Words (tip: if you’re going to do book culture satire, go for the jugular vein unless you want to up in some lukewarm purgatory of not-interesting-enough), it’s brave of me (yay me?) to dip back into another satire, but this title by Filippo Bologna looked very interesting. Another Blackwell’s purchase, Bologna’s The Parrots concerns three men preparing to do battle over a prestigious literary prize.

–Finally, another Philippe Claudel title, Brodeck’s Report. I’m a sucker for novels about reports, apparently. A stranger is murdered. The title character then files a report. Honestly, I think this will be great. Your mileage may vary depending on your love of reports in fiction….

Books Read and in Progess: Smith Henderson, Evie Wyld, and More

Jeff VanderMeer • July 14th, 2014 • Book Reviews

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So far this year I’ve had a chance to read and review a handful of novels for the NYTBR, LA Times, and the Guardian—here are some links and info, along with, first, my current reading—very excited about everything I’m reading now.

CURRENT READING (in progress)

Right now, I’m on the road and am reading the following, all of which I’m really enjoying thus far. I don’t know why, but I’ve been going back and forth between them without it destroying my immersion in any of them.

–After the Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld (magnificent author—such a sharp, sharp writer)

–McGlue by Ottessa Moshfegh (out in October; profane, ‘orrible in the best way, and brilliant style for the protagonist)

–Idiopathy by Sam Byers (so far a spot-on critique of every aspect of our modern post-industrial existence)

–Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words by Boel Westin (most excellent biography of the wonderful writer and artist, lovingly written and with copious illos and photographs)

–The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948—2013 (the best from the Nobel Prize-winner; I’m making this one last, reading a couple of poems every day)

THE BEST

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson: “Early in the story, Pete observes that “We’re all animals. Just dancing bears in tutus and monkeys with cigarettes. Painted up and stuffed into clown cars.” Henderson is committed to showing us unhappy and unstable people existing at the edges of any safety net. But they’re also people struggling to find a kind of truth, and they’re portrayed with compassion and humanity, in a voice that crackles and lurches with the intensity of a Tom Waits song.”

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld: “Wyld’s also not afraid to just give the reader the blunt, brutal truth. There are aspects of Whyte’s past—because of what’s been done to her and what she herself has done—that you get full-on, in detail…some level the rest of All the Birds, Singing is nothing but exploration of her character, a kind of clear-seeing that creates empathy even through the most disturbing sequences.” (Granted, this one’s a cheat—I posted this review on my blog, but it’s a favorite read of the year so far and if I’d found it earlier would’ve pitched it for review.)

The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil: “Yet Weil’s earnest, deep commitment to a portrait of brothers in crisis means that these issues recede into the backdrop. There’s pathos and tension in how Yarik becomes trapped in his relationship with Bazarov. There’s breathtaking brilliance in Weil’s portrayal of Dima as an outcast estranged from society, especially in one astonishing scene in which Dima walks around in a reverie of dissolution.” (Note: I had some negative things to say about this novel, but it’s the kind of book that I think a good many readers will enjoy a lot and a fair number of reviewers may not have the same caveats I did. I’ve now ordered his story collection and awaiting it eagerly.)

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Review: All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

Jeff VanderMeer • July 2nd, 2014 • Book Reviews

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I picked up Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing on a whim, because I liked the cover design and the tone of the review quotes on the back. I didn’t know anything about the author, and it wasn’t until I was about three-fourths of the way through that I discovered she’d won a lot of literary prizes for the novel. All I knew by then is that Wyld deserved all of those prizes.

I can count on one hand the number of novels I’ve read in the last couple of years where the prose is truly exceptional and the author’s vision has both clarity and substance. In All the Birds, Singing Wyld creates an unforgettable character in Jake Whyte, a woman with a troubled past who, in the present, lives on a farm she owns on a remote British island. The story of her encounters with a strange beast and neighbors she wants nothing to do with is interwoven with a narrative about the past that gradually delves farther and farther back in time.

We learn that Whyte knows a lot about how to shear and care for sheep, a job she’s taken up again by choice in her isolation on the island. We learn that she grew up in Australia and in fleeing her past she got a job at a sheep station in Australia. The scenes in which she is navigating a landscape full of men, many of whom don’t trust her, are riveting and contain brilliant moments of character insight. All of the secondary characters come to life with deft, economical precision, and the bustling sheep station provides a great early contrast to the isolation of Whyte’s life on the island.

But the contrast between these scenes and the ones in the present isn’t just expressed through a shift in tense—the past cleverly presented in present tense—it’s also in the atmosphere. Whyte’s subtle but adept in how the island scenes are slowed by cold and mud while those in Australia are alive with heat; the syntax shifts and adjusts to fit the setting. This is in part a function of conscious thought about style by the author and in part due to first-hand knowledge of both landscapes…or at least this is my impression; perhaps Wyld’s just a really good liar about details of setting.

Wyld’s also not afraid to just give the reader the blunt, brutal truth. There are aspects of Whyte’s past—because of what’s been done to her and what she herself has done—that you get full-on, in detail. To describe them here would be spoilery, in that the life of the novel is in the moment and in the particulars of sometimes fairly brief scenes. But my point is that we begin the novel with a mystery about Whyte—who she is and why she’s now on the island— and on some level the rest of All the Birds, Singing is nothing but exploration of her character, a kind of clear-seeing that creates empathy even through the most disturbing sequences.

The writing in the novel is muscular without being lush or overly descriptive; Wyld knows how to pick her spots so that everything we get counts. A bicep on a scrawny man bulges like “a new potato” during an arm-wrestling contest. Recalling a horrible encounter, Whyte feels like “wax is coating me from the inside.” Trees in a moment of tension “appeared to swell and shrink with the rhythm of breath,” which is perfectly placed after a description of birds rising out of the trees and then settling back in that reinforces the illusion.

As All the Birds, Singing progresses, it’s true that the evocations of the past aren’t always as fresh or new as at the novel’s start—and the conclusion feels much more like stopping than ending, perhaps in part because no matter whether a mystery is about a dead body or a living one the reveal can’t be as compelling as the set-up.

But the clear-eyed self-appraisal present throughout, the evocations of island life and Whyte’s interactions with a mysterious man who shows up at her farm, the utterly stunning set-piece involving her home town and a tragedy…all of these elements have softened my slight disappointment at the end to the point where all I remember are the brilliant things about this novel. Especially in a context where Wyld gives the reader such a memorable, unique, strong-yet-flawed woman as her viewpoint character.

In short, All the Birds, Singing now makes me want to read everything Wyld has ever written.

Southern Reach Spanish Book Covers: An Interview with Pablo Delcán

Jeff VanderMeer • June 9th, 2014 • Culture, Uncategorized

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(Finished covers)

One of the great pleasures of seeing the Southern Reach trilogy in print has been the ingenuity and sophistication of the foreign language editions. Among the absolute best of the many versions are Destino’s covers for the Spanish editions. Destino commissioned artist and designer Pablo Delcan to create these covers, which capture the surreal vibe of the novels as well as the theme of transformation running through the narrative.

I caught up with Delcan via email this month to ask him about how he created these striking images, and to share with readers some early versions. You can experience more of his amazing work at his website. Spanish readers can also check out the Destino Southern Reach webpage and also check out updates on twitter @_SouthernReach.

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Finnish Weird: It’s the Hot New Thing from the Cold Place

Jeff VanderMeer • May 28th, 2014 • Book Reviews, Culture

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(Oh–there it is. Finnish Weird. Popping up amongst the ‘shrooms.)

Finnish Weird now has a fruiting body: a one-off magazine that allows you to sample some of the best examples of this delectably strange Nordic truffle. Download these infectious spores or enjoy them right there online.

In addition to iconic Finnish writer Johanna Sinisalo’s editorial, “Rare Exports,” Finnish Weird includes an essay “Finnish Weird From the Land of the North” by Jussi K. Niemela and features Emmi Itaranta, Jenny Kangasvuo, and Tiina Raevaara. Fiction and interviews and essays all come with a great visual presentation, too.

Mentioned in the nonfiction is It Came From the North, an anthology of the Finnish fantastic edited by Desirina Boskovich from our own Cheeky Frawg Books. In honor of Finnish weird, we’ve discounted it for Kindle to $2.99 for one week only. If you’d prefer a different seller, we recommend Weightless (although we can’t discount that version).

So go read Finnish Weird and check out It Came From the North if you’re so inclined.

It Came from the North--Finnish Fiction

Annihilation: The Questions a Translator Asks

Jeff VanderMeer • May 25th, 2014 • Writing Tips

Having been involved as a publisher and as an editor in commissioning translations, I know what a difficult job it can be—and how the best translators are seeking a kind of truth about the words and the work so that they can convey it properly.

Every once in a while I’ll get questions about my novels from a translator commissioned by a foreign language publisher. I value these interactions because translators have to be careful readers. I tend to learn something about my own work. Sometimes, too, a translator will find an error, which I can then correct in the English-language editions.

Recently, Cristiana Mennella, the translator for the Italian edition of Annihilation, emailed me a series of questions. She needed, she said, to “make sure that I got everything right to do justice” to the book. While completing translations “all sorts of doubts come to mind…I don’t know if other translators do the same as me (meaning: are a nuisance like me), but I really need to get attuned to your writing as much as I can, also in anticipation of Authority…”

It’s not a nuisance at all, but a blessing—as it is any time you get to correspond with someone immersed in something you’ve written.

But I did think it might be interesting to readers to have a sense of what questions translators ask. So, with Mennella’s permission, you’ll find the bulk of her questions and my replies set out below.

Mennella has previously translated works by Edgar Allan Poe, Kathy Acker, William Vollman, George Saunders, Doris Lessing, and many more, so I believe I’m in good hands.

Annihilation and the rest of the Southern Reach trilogy will be published by Einaudi in Italy.


(Mennella)

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Star Wars: The Crazed Gruntbark Nesting Dolls Version

Jeff VanderMeer • May 25th, 2014 • Nonfiction

Popular Mechanics asked a number of writers, including me, for our thoughts on what the next Stars Wars movie should be–and you can read their thoughts here.

Mine, on the other hand, were too revolutionary and way too subversive to make it into the feature. As a practicing curmudgeon, and someone fairly ambivalent about the Star Wars franchise in general, I wasn’t too surprised or at all concerned about this development. BUT the truth must be told. So, here’s my idea for the next Star Wars movie in all of its amazing glory…GRUNTBARK MUST HAVE HIS DAY!

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A worm-hole in time opens up and the actions of the resistance result in Ewoks never existing. Meanwhile, a resurrected Darth Vader, cloned from a ham hock and a piece of loose scrotal skin, becomes obsessed with mazes and builds a death star around another death star, and then puts a death star around the outside of that, replicating this action until it threatens to encompass the known universe. The resistance must stop Scrotal Ham Vader from surrounding them with a death star from which they can never get out. This leads to a huge battle that features dozens of Vader replicants that have been deployed on the various death stars in place of the ineffectual storm-troopers. Only Chewbacca’s great-great grandson Gruntbark can find the secret celestial sentient light saber foretold of old, the knowledge obtained from a message sent from the past by Yoda on an ancient un-hackable 8-track cassette. As a new horror concocted by Vader—mobile, roving garbage compacters—crushes rebels left and right as they try to delay the expansion of the death stars, the fate of the universe hangs in the balance.

Haunted by Rabbits: the Southern Reach and Authority–What’s the Big Idea?

Jeff VanderMeer • May 8th, 2014 • Writing Tips

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Over at John Scalzi’s blog, I’ve got a Big Idea post talking about how you haunt a novel. Apparently, it involves Stanley Kubrick, thousands of white rabbits, and you. You can also eyeball a great original piece commissioned for the feature: a bunny experiment diagram by Jeremy Zerfoss of Wonderbook fame.

The conspiracy theorists in Room 237 so firmly believed their version of the truth that I began to think at times that their ideas might have merit. But my own personal obsession with the documentary mostly concerned perception and technique. For example, in Kubrick’s slow fades as he cuts away to the next scene you often see characters and places coming into contact for a brief moment…hauntings created by juxtaposition. There’s also a scene in the movie with a television playing in the middle of a room…but the television has no cord, impossible for the time period. Watching The Shining, you may not consciously notice the lack of a cord, but your subconscious goes on red alert. Something is wrong, even if you can’t put your finger on it.

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Eric Nyquist and the Southern Reach Series

Jeff VanderMeer • May 2nd, 2014 • Nonfiction

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One of the great joys of having the Southern Reach novels out from FSG has been their commissioning art from Eric Nyquist, with great design work by Charlotte Strick. This week that joy was amplified by getting a kind gift from Eric of one of his original prints and a journal with the interior art from my novel Acceptance on the outside; I’ll be writing my next piece of fiction in this journal, for sure.

The same day, I received from FSG advance reader copies of Acceptance, with his wonderful art. The fresh, clean, crisp, and yet complex nature of this art and the interior front-back cover illustrations has, I think, played a major role in how readers perceive the series. It gives them an entry point that is intriguing and different, but not off-putting.

Two of the interior pieces, pictured below, have been chosen by the best-of anthology American Illustration, as well. And to my mind, the cover of Authority (here as animated gif) is a thing of inspired absurd beauty that perfectly undermines the title, as intended. Authority is out May 6, riding some momentum from being on best-of-month and week lists (like PW’s) and I’m glad that Eric’s art will help readers connect with the novel. While also having its own separate integrity.

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Michael Cisco Novels–Now Available as Cheeky Frawg Summer Reading E-Books

Jeff VanderMeer • September 10th, 2013 • Culture, News

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This month our Cheeky Frawg press released our 2013 Weird Summer Beach Reading E-books…all four of them by the American Kafka, Michael Cisco.

You can buy them at Amazon, or through either of these two preferred vendors (direct links):

Weightless Books

Wizard’s Tower (which is also offering all four at a special rate)

And if you go over to Weirdfictionreview.com, you’ll find we’re serializing The Divinity Student and generally having a celebration of Cisco. Part 1 of the Divinity Student and Ann VanderMeer’s appreciation as well as a general editorial.

The Divinity Student
The International Horror Guild Award-winning novel that launched the career of a writer sometimes described as “the American Kafka.” Struck by lightning, resurrected, cut open, and stuffed full of arcane documents, the Divinity Student is sent to the desert city of San Veneficio to reconstruct the Lost Catalog of Unknown Words. He learns to pick the brains of corpses and gradually sacrifices his sanity on the altar of a dubious mission of espionage. The divinity student’s strange adventures will haunt the reader long after finishing this unique and exciting novel. As Publishers Weekly wrote, “Cisco wields words in sweeping, sensual waves, skillfully evoking multiple layers of image and metaphor. Though his novel is brief, it is a gem of literate dark fantasy, concisely illustrating the power, both light and dark, of words and meaning.” Recommended for fans of Clive Barker, Thomas Ligotti, Gemma Files, Kafka, Leonora Carrington and other masters of weird fiction. With an introduction by Hugo and World Fantasy Award winner Ann VanderMeer.

The Golem
Struck by lightning, resurrected, cut open, and stuffed full of arcane documents, the Divinity Student constructs a golem replacement to pursue his love underground, with lyrical consequences. As Publishers Weekly wrote, “Cisco wields words in sweeping, sensual waves, skillfully evoking multiple layers of image and metaphor.” Recommended for fans of Clive Barker, Thomas Ligotti, Gemma Files, Kafka, Leonora Carrington and other masters of weird fiction. With an introduction by Paul Tremblay.

The Tyrant
From the author of the award-winning The Divinity Student comes an audacious dark novel detailing a battle in a phantasmagorical hell. Full of amazing scenes and images, The Tyrant has become a cult classic of weird fiction. Recommended for fans of Clive Barker, Thomas Ligotti, Kafka, Leonora Carrington and other surreal masters. “Michael Cisco’s works immerse the reader in worlds that are not simply dreamlike in the quality of their imagination but somehow manage to capture and convey the power of the dream itself. The Tyrant is his masterpiece.” — Thomas Ligotti. With an introduction by Rhys Hughes.

The Traitor
As Publishers Weekly writes, “Cisco (The Tyrant) ups the ante for provocative dark fantasy by giving this coming-of-age tale a subtle metaphysical edge. While still a boy, sensitive Nophtha realizes that he’s uncommonly empathetic and able to see the world from the perspective of others. Tutored by his uncle, Nophtha apprentices as an itinerant spirit eater, or someone who absorbs lingering ghosts that congest the surrounding atmosphere and converts their essence into formidable healing powers. One day, Nophtha crosses paths with his alter ego, Wite, a soul burner who hopes to evolve to a higher level of being by gorging himself on the souls of the living.” Things get worse from there. Recommended for fans of Clive Barker, Thomas Ligotti, Gemma Files, Kafka, Leonora Carrington and other masters of weird fiction. With an introduction by Jeffrey Ford.