A brief excursion into horror, a form with which I am mostly neither familiar nor comfortable. This review of the collection Extremities by Kathe Koja was first published in The New York Review of Science Fiction 155, July 2001.

extremitiesIn ‘Bird Superior’, John Kidler survives a plane crash, and finds himself learning, as some sort of consequence, how to fly like a bird. It is a rare moment of joy in this collection of stories by Kathe Koja, an isolated instance in which epiphany, the revelation of the supernatural around which so many of these stories turn, is not equated with agony or terror. Not that agony and terror are necessarily bad things; in Koja’s tenebrous world they are, at worst, accepted without comment, at best, and in the vast majority of cases, they are to be positively embraced. This is most clearly illustrated in ‘The Neglected Garden’: a husband, calm and reasonable, is trying to separate from his wife, but she won’t go. He loads her things into the car, then leaves for work, but when he gets home the car is still there and he finds his wife crucified excruciatingly upon the back garden fence. At this eruption of the irrational into his life he does not behave as anyone outside fiction might behave, his calm, his reasonableness, are replaced by inaction. Instead of doing something, or getting someone else to do something, he simply watches, day after day, week after week, as his wife, still alive, slowly turns into a plant. Only at the end does he shake off his inertia to attempt an act of cruelty which is thwarted and turned against him by the garden itself.

What exactly is his fate? That would be telling, which is something that Koja practically never does. Her prose is loaded with sensual images (within modern dark fantasy only Tanith Lee’s adjective-heavy language comes close to the same sensual affect), but rarely with crisp, unequivocal descriptions. We are plunged straight into the milieu and usually into the mind of her characters, but as they struggle towards some sort of understanding of what is happening, or at least an accommodation with it, their moment of revelation is not shared directly with the reader. Thus, in ‘The Company of Storms’, we never see exactly what creature it is that the four young people capture in the lake, and when, as the story ends, one of their number remains on the lake shore we do not see what it is that happens to him. Things do happen in the majority of these stories (one or two seem to be no more than concatenations of sensual imagery that never quite cohere into an actual, identifiable event, but these are very much the minority), but it happens in the shadows, on the edges of our sight, they are things we don’t quite know and perhaps were never meant to know. As with any incursion of madness into our rational existence, the easiest course is to pretend it isn’t happening and assume that some sane explanation could be found, even if we cannot quite put our finger upon it.

This, at least, is the approach of most of the characters in these stories (only Kidler in ‘Bird Superior’ embraces the madness with full, unequivocal and joyous acceptance, and he has good reason to do so) and it is the only guide to action we are ever given. It is there, for instance, in ‘Arrangement for Invisible Voices’ where the protagonist is driven mad by hearing the wail of murdered pigs, but though he tries everything possible not to hear, he never once stops to ask why he and no-one else can hear them. Again, in ‘Reckoning’, Drew never really questions why his dead wife has been resurrected in a remote village in the middle of nowhere. That is the point, of course: these things happen, the supernatural impinges upon our lives without explanation or sense, all we can do, if we ever find ourselves caught in the mire of a Kathe Koja story, is accept what is happening and await with whatever equanimity is within us the probably dire consequences. Koja’s protagonists are forever struggling against their fate and coming to a nasty end, or accepting it and still coming to a nasty end – but, like the unnamed but instantly recognisable Lorca in ‘Ballad of the Spanish Civil Guard’, at least there is some dignity in the fate. Koja’s skill lies in the fact that we, the readers, rarely ask why this is happening. We are so thoroughly immersed in the sensory impressions of the story that we don’t have time to puzzle over the sense of it (and these are, with few exceptions, short, tightly constructed stories, sixteen of then crowded into just 200 pages). Where they fail, as in the Lorca story or ‘Lady Lazarus’ which only makes sense if you are familiar with the life and work of Sylvia Plath but which then adds nothing to what is already known, is where they move away from the fantastic towards the real. Curiously, the less extravagant they are with their invention, the less believable they become. Fortunately, lack of extravagance is not a charge that can be laid against the overwhelming majority of Koja’s stories, wild, rich, foetid excursions into insanity that they are.