Review: The Filing Cabinet of Doom, by Madeleine Swann

You could design an hors d’oeuvre for each story in Madeleine Swann’s The Filing Cabinet of Doom, and most of them would involve sweet pickles. Like hors d’oeuvres, the entries in this anthology leave you with a burst of flavor and feeling, free of filler or distraction. They’re short enough to binge in one or two sittings, and mysterious enough to justify a re-read. You can turn each one over carefully in your mind, or gobble down the lot of them for a rush of sheer novelty. Swann achieves this by glossing over the unnecessary details that can bog down speculative fiction- the whats, hows and whens- to leap right into the struggles her characters are living.

There’s a light satirical element to most of the anthology, gentle enough to avoid being didactic but too familiar to ignore. Swann doesn’t editorialize. She finds the fault-lines in daily life- shitty boyfriends, jobs that consume your life, the inexplicable urge to be destroyed- and then lets these struggles speak for themselves. She doesn’t seem to diagnose the world’s ills so much as present the symptoms in their full complexity and mystery.

Swann’s characters are frequently inhuman but never dehumanized. In just a few short pages she makes it feel entirely natural that a Frankenstein’d mermaid would subject herself to experimental surgeries to be with her boyfriend. One barely pauses to wonder why anyone would want to fuck the douchebag Marzipan King, because he’s familiar the moment you see him. Her depiction of the grotesque is enchanting rather than lurid. Her monsters are beautiful the way a gas slick is beautiful: distantly entropic but alive with color. At the same time a healthy sense of the mundane grounds most of the stories, moments both cozy and embarrassingly familiar bringing the monstrosity closer to home.

At times her aesthetic reads as if Lewis Carrol had grown up reading EC Comics and Sylvia Plath. Swann’s stories are painted with equal parts dissolving bodies, fairy tale whimsy and Hammer-style monstrosities. With some creators (like, say, American McGee or Tim ‘some of my favorite movies are Black’ Burton) this kind of mash-up can quickly turn into self-conscious gothic diarrhea. Swann comes by it more honestly. In The Filing Cabinet of Doom, the subversive and the sweet feel less as if they’ve been crudely laced together, and more as if they’ve sprung naturally from a mutual source.

You can pick up a Kindle copy of The Filing Cabinet of Doom for one measly dollar on Amazon.