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Something From Below by S. T. Joshi review – An unfortunate stumble

It goes without saying that the majority of S. T. Joshi’s critical work is of great value. His fictional output is also worthy of consideration. Joshi’s Assaults of Chaos (2013, Hippocampus Press) was quite a charming novel, I thought, even though Joshi allowed his authorial voice to be overwhelmed by realistic pseudo-quotes from his (usually historical) characters a bit too much. The stories collected in The Recurring Doom (2019, Sarnath Press) are also fine weird fare, with “Some Kind of Mistake” being a stand-out tale that deserves to be collected again elsewhere. I am, however, less impressed with Joshi’s Something from Below (2019, PS Publishing). This novella, while tightly plotted and, strictly speaking, mostly well-written, is nowhere near as satisfying as Joshi’s other fictional work.

Something from Below by S. T. Joshi book cover

Something from Below concerns Alison Mannering returning to her hometown of Dunsmuir after an extended time away at college. Her father has died and been buried while she was gone, and Alison comes back to the fading community to answer the simple question of how and why her father passed away. Naturally enough, a weird mystery ensues, and Alison soon finds herself swept up in the action of the plot (which could, I think, be well served by expansion into a full novel). On the level of the core idea, the novella is satisfying, if a bit simple, but the last few chapters of the book undermine the effort put into reading the whole, and this element is exacerbated by two overarching issues running throughout the text.

The first of the major problems with Something from Below is the narrative point of view. The majority of the book is told in the first person from Alison’s perspective. This would be fine, but Joshi has not succeeded at creating a convincing voice for a modern-day twenty-two-year-old woman. Alison’s narration sounds like Joshi’s writing in general – a quick comparison with the narrator of The Assaults of Chaos reveals unfortunate similarities (compare “a rambling three-story Victorian home – close to a mansion – where his wealthy and successful grandfather Whipple had become the centre of his universe” (Assaults, 12) with “This tiny house – one story and unfinished basement – was exactly the sort of place you’d expect a (now-deceased) coal miner and his suffering wife to own” (Something, 2)). This problem is compounded by the few interchapters that occur in Something from Below, which serve to give the reader a window into past events. These interchapters are told from the third person omniscient point of view, but they read as indistinguishable from Alison’s voice in the rest of the novella. If the novella had been written entirely in the third person, allowing Joshi’s narrative voice to speak in place of Alison’s, it would have been far more successful than it is in its current form.

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The second problem with Something from Below is the sex. There is far more sex in this novella than I had expected, and while that would be fine if it were handled with a defter touch, the rather frequent sex scenes come across as clunky at best. Alison’s sexual experiences simply do not read as convincing from her perspective, and I would have been far more satisfied with them if she had described herself as an asexual woman who is only going through the motions. She is not described in this manner, however (quite the opposite), and as a result, lines like “I’ll be honest and say that I did hunger for the male organ” (65) and “As I now threw my arms, woman-fashion, around his neck and clung to him, he continued to minister to me” (48) come across as almost parodic rather than moments of insight or tenderness. Indeed, I was forced to wonder what “woman-fashion” actually means. From his survey of bestsellers in Junk Fiction (2009, Wildside Press), it is clear that Joshi understands that unconvincing sexual events do more than harm a narrative – they can cripple its meaning and purpose. That is, unfortunately, what happens here, and again, with relatively simple alterations to narrative voice and style of presentation, this issue could have been largely solved.

The two problems I have outlined above dovetail into my aforementioned issue with the ending of the novella. The climax and denouement that Joshi has laid out for us are unpalatable at best. Be warned that spoilers do follow. Throughout the novella, women are presented more as objects than persons. Dutiful wives and mothers, secretaries, nurses to be waved away, and sexual props for the protagonist propagate Something from Below. They are almost never presented as characters with their own agency, ambitions, and lives; so much so that one character, when faced with the question as to why women miners did not work towards solving the weird mystery at the heart of the narrative, proclaims that “Women, as you know, have a bad habit of leaving employment for such escapades as marrying, having children, and so forth” (117). Alison is certainly defined as a character, but even she, as detailed, has the voice of a man of age rather than a young woman, and what occurs to her at the end of the novella – voluntarily entering into a life of sexual servitude after experiencing what can only be described as unearthly rape – leaves a distinctly bad taste in the mouth. I would not be so base as to suggest that Joshi is sexist, chauvinist, or misogynistic as a person (and his work on In Her Place (2006, Prometheus) suggests the opposite), but the text of the novella is sexist in its presentation of characters and action, and frankly I had hoped for better.

Something from Below is a horror story, certainly, and as a result, having an unhappy ending and tragic characters is par for the course in many ways. The means by which that ending is achieved and those characters brought to life, however, can either stand up to scrutiny or they cannot. In this case, I’m afraid to say that the conclusion does not justify the journey and, in fact, makes the whole effort of getting there unpleasant. Joshi is absolutely capable of better writing than this. The Assaults of Chaos has, as I recall, a rather tender sex scene, for example, and I thought that his short story “Personals” was a perceptive attempt at depicting female characters with interiority and agency. Something from Below fails in both of these aspects, and when combined with the overall unpalatable realities of the plot and certain niggling errors (why is Alison, who majored in chemistry, shocked to find chemists working at a mine? Why does a guard’s weapon change from a shotgun, to a rifle, and back again?), the whole becomes a disappointing mess. 

S. T. Joshi has produced great work both as a scholar and as an author of fiction. He has stumbled in both arenas, however, and in its current form, Something from Below is one of his most egregious mistakes. Were he to expand and heavily revise the novella, I would quite possibly recommend it, for the basic idea buried beneath the choice of narration, the unrealistic sex, and the frankly sexist overtones is a genuinely weird and interesting one. In this state, however, I simply cannot endorse it. 

Something from Below by S. T. Joshi is published by PS Publishing

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