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.
I just got done reading MP Johnson’s Berzerkoids anthology, and I feel like my brain is going to crawl out of my ears to get a hot girlfriend and a hip new job, like a barista for orphaned stars or maybe a fluffer for alien pornographers. Wowzers.
Berzerkoids is high-energy and wryly zany. Its plots are largely dream-like, often feeling improvisational until the details fall into place and a fuzzy outline of the story’s logic emerges. Like a good joke or serial killing, Berzerkoids is rarely predictable, yet each piece feels inevitable in the after math.
The prose is crisp, at times even melodic. Reading Berzerkoids out loud is a delightful experience, rhythmic and percussive, like Tae Bo for your lips and glottis. At times, I’d have to re-read silently after getting sucked into Berzerkoids’ phonetic fury, consciousness disappearing in the wet bellows of my mouth.
MP Johnson’s monsters are truly beautiful, in language if not in visuals. Bodies become their own kind of vocabulary. MP Johnson warps and wields the human body like a sommelier enabling winos. Maybe deep down you’re just a sadist with a loose grasp of reality- but when you read Berzerkoids, you see everything that can really be! The people of Berzerkoids are unlovable, doomed, misbegotten and messily mutated… yet even as they’re torn to bits by the jaws of reality, there’s a sense of triumph in hearing their stories.
Occasionally, through all the anus-faced action figures and otherworldly caterpillars, real melancholy bubbles through. Most of the perspective characters in Berzerkoids are bent inside, and Johnson pulls you into their viewpoint just enough to cringe in recognition. At times Berzerkoids goes along for several pages, crafting a character so sympathetic you actually just want them to get the boy/girl and settle down somewhere nice, as if you were reading one of those boring books where people are well-adjusted and nobody gnaws off any of their own appendages. At other times you’ll find yourself rooting for the characters even while their shortcomings rage around you. “Sure, he turns small mammals inside out,” you might find yourself saying, “but I want him to be the best at turning small mammals inside out.”
Berzerkoids is a taut, cleanly articulated hellscape of hideous beasts and heinous shitbirds. More than anything- more than gore-glee, sexy eyebrows, or refined appreciation for a well-realized demon, Berzerkoids sucks you into the space between nostalgia and promise. Its characters are haunted, hungry and trembling. The past is inaccessible, the future obscure, and guts pulsate in the middle.