Jack O’Connell Week: Ellen Datlow on His Novels

I’ve been a fan of Jack O’Connell’s novels since reading Box Nine, his first, introducing the fictional town of Quinsigamond. Each subsequent novel is very different despite the locale: Box Nine verged onto sf/horror territory by introducing a new street drug that works on the language center of the brain, causing the user to process thoughts hundreds of times quicker than normal and in the case of an overdose, pushing the user into violence and insanity. In Wireless, the “Wireless” of the title is a retro hangout for jammers, the radio wave equivalent of computer hackers who evade the law while wreaking chaos on the official system. It is antic, volatile, clever, and entertaining.

The Skin Palace starts out with the seemingly straightforward story about the film obsessed teenage son of an eastern European gangster émigré to the U.S. and an aimless young woman with a yen for taking photographs and their connection to the “skin palace,” a huge, ornate picture palace now showing pornography. But….about halfway through, slowly and subtly, the landscape alters and we’re in Jonathan Carroll territory, complete with a cult honoring a mysterious photographer and a “suppressed version” of Judy Garland’s Wizard of Oz here, the Scarecrow and Dorothy dance far more erotically than in the version widely released. Highly recommended for the adventurous and those not easily offended by an outré take on classic movie.

Word Made Flesh is his darkest and possibly most complex novel. The grisly opening scene brutally lays out the stakes in a mystery that engulfs an ex-cop, whose wife, a fellow officer, was killed while working in secret for the mysterious, mystical former police chief, a man obsessed with a methodology of free associative interrogation as a way of extracting confessions. Thrown into the mix is Wormland, an experimental farm whose creator slaughtered his entire family a century before. And finally, running throughout the book is the story of the monstrous destruction of Meisel, an eastern European ghetto, told by a man being driven mad by his own memory and guilt. Amazingly, it all works, and the book is an elegant and savage story of atrocity and remembrance—the power of stories to preserve the past.

And now comes The Resurrectionist(admittedly I’m only halfway through the book), about a man crazed with grief for his son who lays in a coma in a suspiciously odd rehabilitation center. To entertain himself and his boy, the man reads from a comic book series about a group of freaks who are trying to make their way when thrown out by the traveling circus which is the only family many of them have ever known. How these two diverse threads of story come together I have no idea, but I trust O’Connell to tie it all up in an un-neat bow. And hope he finishes another book sooner than it took him this last time.

Multiple World Fantasy Award winner Ellen Datlow is an endangered species: an editor who works primarily with short fiction. She lives in New York City with doll heads, animal skulls, two cats, and too many books.

4 comments on “Jack O’Connell Week: Ellen Datlow on His Novels

  1. Laird says:


    One of the best horror stories (or horrific, perhaps) I’ve read in several years is “The Swag from Doc Hawthorne’s”. It appeared in the February 2003 issue of F&SF. Elliptical and creepy. Had to read it several times to appreciate the nuances.

  2. H.P. Albarelli Jr. says:

    Ellen Datlow’s comments about Jack O’Connell’s books are right on the mark. O’Connell’s work is to be treasured. There is no other writer alive that comes close to his talent and gift for story-telling.

  3. Ellen Datlow says:

    I read that story and liked it a LOT!

  4. Judi Rohrig says:

    I’ve only just discovered Mr. O’Connell’s fine writing. Of course every piece of writing should braid itself with the history and experience each reader brings with him/her, but O’Connell’s THE RESURRECTIONIST reached inside and yanked things left and right and sideways, inside out. Not since James Michener’s THE SOURCE have I enjoyed such a unique storytelling method. I’m bobbling around in WIRELESS just now, mulling some way I could be incarcerated so I wouldn’t have to interrupt the engaging storylines.

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