The Gone World, by Tom Sweterlitsch

The Gone World, Tom SweterlitschSometimes the best way to experience a novel is going in completely blind. I found The Gone World at my local library bookshop and had no idea what I was getting myself into, in the best way. Reading it split my head clean open. From the first page to the last, I was enthralled. After finishing the novel, it left me in this kind of fugue state that I haven’t been able to escape. It completely blindsided me. Usually I dislike the phrase “compulsively readable” but it definitely applies here. I couldn’t put it down, I had to know what was going on in this story.

The Gone World is a bit of a genre-bender, so I’m going to back up and talk about genre a little. Several years ago the visual artist Ward Shelley created a piece chronicling the history of science fiction. He began with the roots of the genre: Fear and Wonder, Speculation and Observation, and traced them down through Philosophy and Cultural Criticism all the way to our current moment, marking notable works along the way. Forgive my oversimplification of this magnificent piece of art (you really should check it out for yourself, it’s quite a thing), but there’s a moment along the visual line where a branch occurs, Science and eventually Science Fiction coming through The Enlightenment, the Gothic Novel and eventually Horror following from the Counter-Enlightenment/Anti-Rational thread. These disparate lineages, one born of Fear, the other of Wonder, branch out into genres and sub-genres, staying mostly separate. What The Gone World does so expertly is marry the pre-horror Gothic novel “fear” back together with Science Fiction’s “wonder” in perfectly equal measure.

War Shelley's History of Science Fiction

Usually I’ve found Science fiction suspense thrillers to be a little ham fisted. There’s often a solid idea but the execution is clumsy, or the SF aspects are merely genre tropes. Sometimes the mystery is a little too obvious, or the characters are as translucent as the paper in a cheap paperback. Worst of all is when the story gets bogged down by the science and it becomes more of a textbook than a novel. This isn’t to say that I’m not a fan of “hard” sci-fi, but story and character need to come first. The Gone World doesn’t succumb to any of these traps. It works surprisingly well as both science fiction and a modern mainstream suspense thriller. The SF aspects help the story to avoid the tropes of suspense thrillers and vice versa, each genre serving to make up for the possible shortcomings of the other.

“The totality of human endeavor is nothing when set against the stars.”

Tom SweterlitschThe Gone World’s prologue begins with a hell of a hook. I haven’t been hooked like this in the first few pages of a novel in a long time. This is a disturbing and unique take on time travel and alternate worlds that’s unlike anything I’ve read. Think the horrific existential dread of Lovecraft or Robert Chambers, that so obviously inspired the first season of True Detective, filtered through Arthur C. Clarke’s grand ideas, all told as an incredibly tight mainstream suspense thriller with a terrific protagonist. Throw in a dash of Minority Report, and a pinch of the complexity of Primer and you’ve got a good idea what you’re getting yourself into. Mysteries in mysteries in mysteries, and they all resolve pretty well.

Neill BlomkampI little googling revealed that both of Tom Sweterlitsch’s novels have been optioned for film adaptations, and that The Gone World is set to be written/directed by Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium). In addition to this, Sweterlitsch co-wrote several of those incredible Oats Studios short films that Blomkamp directed last year. If you haven’t seen them yet, check them out. They’re terrific. It’s been recently announced that Blomkamp’s next film will be a direct sequel to the original Robocop, which makes me worried his adaptation of The Gone World may be on the back burner for now. Only time will tell.

The Gone World gut-punched my head over and over again, which is enough to solidify my interest in everything that Sweterlitsch does from here on out.

House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski

House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski

“Passion has little to do with euphoria and everything to do with patience. It is not about feeling good. It is about endurance. Like patience, passion comes from the same Latin root: pati. It does not mean to flow with exuberance. It means to suffer.”


If you’ve ever wanted to read a novel about a group of editors who have re-compiled a second edition of a book, that was originally found (and edited) by a slowly mentally unraveling tattoo artist apprentice junkie, and was originally written in a mixed media form by his junkie friend’s neighbor (found when he died under mysterious circumstances), that is a written description, history and analysis of a “found footage” documentary (that doesn’t exist) about a family inhabiting and exploring a house that is (much, much) larger on the inside than the outside, and is told in such a nonlinear and disorienting fashion to the point of inducing trepidation, extreme boredom, claustrophobia, anxiety, and general unease, then I’ve got some great news for you! House of Leaves is all of these things and tells all of these stories. It’s also kind of fun if you’re into weird mental puzzles.


mark z. danielewskiI enjoyed it. Going into it, it was hard to deny the thematic similarities it shares with Infinite Jest, but as it progressed it started to diverge quite a bit from the direction I expected it to travel toward. Unfortunately, it doesn’t contain any of the amazingly beautiful prose or “new sincerity” of David Foster Wallace’s writing, but it has other qualities that make it very interesting. Mainly, the form of the novel mirrors the story. When characters are crawling through ever shrinking passageways, the margins on the outside edges of the text start to crawl inward. When characters are falling into ever deepening chasms, the text will angle or fall down the page, etc. It’s a very visual novel, and in that way I don’t think it could ever be an eBook. It’s a piece of art that is reliant on the exact physical specifications of the book containing it.

“He knows his voice will never heat this world”

Would I ever read it again? Nah, I don’t think there’s really much of a point. The story itself is overly soap operatic, the prose is good but it’s nothing amazing. The amount of cruft in this book is just mind-bogglingly excessive, and without the amazing prose or story to make that cruft serve a point, it’s just sort of there to make the experience disorienting, which I get is part of the form mirroring the story, but still, it’s the illusion of complexity rather than complexity itself. There are puzzles encoded into it that would probably be kind of fun to suss out, but I can pretty much guarantee that they aren’t going to provide some sort of satisfying answer to any questions left lingering. Reading it was an experience that I’m glad I had, and I have to admire the dedication and exacting nature it must’ve taken to bring something like this to life — it definitely rewards attention to detail — but, having read it, I have no desire to read it again.

The Grip of It, by Jac Jemc

The Grip of It, by Jac Jemc

This short novel thoroughly creeped me the hell out. It’s been a few years since I’ve read anything that maintains this level of unease throughout. It’s not intended to be outright scary, instead it maintains an eerie tone (think VanderMeer’s Annihilation) and punctuates it with some genuine goosebump moments that snuck up on me. The narrative plays the POV characters’ relationship woes (something we can relate to) against a supernatural backdrop (something we cannot). Juxtaposing the relatable with the unrelatable works so well here, and serves to pull the unrelatable closer until it feels solid, foundational, and within the realm of possibility.

This narrative tactic also got me heavily invested in the characters and their troubled relationship; rooting for them to find a way out of their situation together; to come out the other side a more entwined, singular team. They’re two people who in a misguided attempt to navigate up out of a downwardly spiraling situation, inadvertently ensnare themselves into another, accelerated, more deadly one. I love the way that these events escalated, and built on one another. The way that they dealt with that escalation also felt incredibly like actual human behavior.

Julie and James settle into a house in a small town outside the city where they met. The move—prompted by James’s penchant for gambling, his inability to keep his impulses in check—is quick and seamless; both Julie and James are happy to leave behind their usual haunts and start afresh. But this house, which sits between ocean and forest, has plans for the unsuspecting couple. As Julie and James try to settle into their home and their relationship, the house and its surrounding terrain become the locus of increasingly strange happenings. The architecture—claustrophobic, riddled with hidden rooms within rooms—becomes unrecognizable, decaying before their eyes. Stains are animated on the wall—contracting, expanding—and map themselves onto Julie’s body in the form of bruises; mold spores taint the water that James pours from the sink. Together the couple embark on a panicked search for the source of their mutual torment, a journey that mires them in the history of their peculiar neighbors and the mysterious residents who lived in the house before Julia and James.

Written in creepy, potent prose, The Grip of It is an enthralling, psychologically intense novel that deals in questions of home: how we make it and how it in turn makes us, mapping itself onto bodies and the relationships we cherish.

Jac JemcThe story found its way to a terrific resolution. I imagine it’s difficult to end a haunted house novel in a way that is satisfying to the reader, but doesn’t undercut the creepy tone — that built it in the first place — with too much clarity. Do you completely explain the haunting and lose all the mystery, or do you leave it entirely unknown by ending in an ambiguous manner? The finale of The Grip of It finds that perfect middle point between these two extremes, balancing resolution/irresolution to both fulfill my deeply rooted desire for closure as a reader, and keep the eeriness fully at play.

We’ve all got that old lizard brain resting below our rational one, nearly all that it understands is fear, and it love a good poking. Logically, I know none of these supernatural events are real or even remotely possible, but my lizard brain doesn’t care about logic, it likes being afraid. It wallows in the macabre, and thrives in the unknown terrors that might lurk in the shadows residing just at the periphery of my vision. I mostly read this right before going to bed, and I found myself double checking silhouettes in my bedroom as I lay there, imagining how the strange sensation of seeing my wife’s face, but not recognizing her, would feel; finding patterns where none exist, and missing patterns previously obvious. The whole affair put me on edge.

The prose is clean, the chapters short, and the pacing tight. You could even read it in a single sitting if you wanted, and it’s engaging enough that the decision to do so might end up outside your control. It might just happen, you looking at the clock afterward and wondering where the time disappeared to.

The Hidden Dimensions, by Alex Lanier

The Hidden Dimensions, by Alex Lanier

This one was a trip, like a flu induced fever dream. Storywise think early David Cronenberg body horror + Alice in Wonderland + Saga + The Boondocks + 70s Sexploitation. I’m very surprised this isn’t being published by Image Comics, who are currently in the middle of a creator-owned renaissance of adult themed, fantastic storytelling. This would fit right in over there.

The story starts out with some great Science Fiction intrigue and escalates as the characters learn the darker truth lurking beneath the surface of their hometown and their own personal past. They find themselves in stranger and stranger situations while journeying through realms of reality previously unknown to them. There are some cleverly subtle undertones that highlight the kind of marginalization / abuse of populations that can occur when there’s too much power in the hands of too few. I’d recommend this for fans of Saga, Sex Criminals, and adult themed cosmic horror narratives. I don’t want to be too specific with story details, because that would ruin half the fun of discovering this for yourselves. But be warned, it is definitely a Mature comic with a capital M.

The dialogue can be a little clunky at times, and the characters are fairly one dimensional (albeit, very imaginative and unique) but this does read like the first several issues of an ongoing story, so there’s room for them to grow and become more fully realized as the story continues.

Lanier’s artwork is the real standout here. It’s fantastic, grotesque and disturbing at times, and done in a truly unique style that I haven’t seen before. It modulates effortlessly between hyperreal and a colorful caricaturesque style. I really love it. He plays with the framing a lot, rendering scenes using angles that are so beautifully cinematic, they feel like they’re drawn through virtual camera lenses. There is also a lot of work here that emphasizes what can only be done so well in the graphic novel medium.

The Hidden Dimensions can be previewed / purchased on Alex Lanier’s site here.