Kathe Koja has been writing in multiple genres since the publication of her first novel, The Cipher, in 1991, but a consistent thread within her work – whether it’s in a dark fantasy vein, veering towards gothic historical fiction, or exploring the more surreal edges of horror – is its focus on characters who are fragmented, driven, and obsessive. In contrast to horror and weird fiction that involves fairly normal individuals being confronted with forms of the unknown, Koja’s characters frequently seem to harbour something strange and unsettling within themselves. The weird, in many of Koja’s tales, works from the inside out, not just the outside in. And her new book, Velocities: Stories (Meerkat Press), continues this theme.
From the rebellious young woman with the uncanny familiar in “Baby,” to the tormented performance artist attempting to escape his demonic father’s legacy in “Velocity,” to the janitor in the Paris Morgue whose fascination with death hovers uneasily between the sacred and morbid in “The Marble Lily,” Koja’s characters in Velocities are frequently misfits and outcasts. And if they don’t fit neatly into the mainstream world, they find ways of building worlds of their own.
One of the clearest examples is “Pas De Deux,” about a woman who leaves the material comforts of her unpleasant marriage to devote her life to a highly personal vision of what it means to be a dancer. Almost entirely indifferent to dance as a career, she pushes herself towards forms of expression so extreme – including self-starvation – that it approaches a danse macabre. And yet, in the final scenes, that very extremity is what gives her the power to fully confront her cruel patrician of a husband.
Related to this focus on outsiders, there has long been a punkish energy to Koja’s work, and that energy is very evident in these stories. With the exception of the off-the-grid aesthetic of “Urb Civ,” none of the stories actually involve punk culture per se (or contemporary echoes of punk culture in 2020), but stylistically the stories lean towards jagged edges and dissonance. “Velocity” opens with the lines, “Linden; aspen; maple; ash. A postcard setting, slant light and falling leaves, gravel switchback leading to a KEEP OUT gate, more sentry trees, a clustering clot of outbuildings – spare metal sheds, an emptied four-car garage.” The first sentence doesn’t tell us the property is crowded with the listed trees – rather, the image is condensed due to the semi-colons, syntactically resembling the “clustering clot” phrase used to describe the outbuildings. Koja’s style is to pack in each line, as seen here. She has a poet’s fascination with sound and rhythm (for example, the alliteration of “clustering clot” and “setting, slant”), and yet there’s nothing precious about the language either.
Velocities moves from one genre to the next, and those genres tend to be grouped together into different sections. “At Home,” which is the opening section, includes three stories that are the closest to outright horror. “At Eventide” might well be the most disturbing story in the collection, and it is also the one that introduces what will become a running motif throughout the book – the notion of art as a means of emotional and spiritual transcendence. “Baby” is a coming-of-age story that involves the complicated power dynamics between a young woman and her possibly possessed doll. And “Velocity,” which is one of my favourite stories from the book, is a brilliantly peculiar tale of a young man’s attempt to employ a dangerous form of performance art as a means of escape from his father’s malevolent influence (a man the son calls the “Prince of Darkness”). Told mostly in a Q&A format that heightens the narrative’s fragmented/glitchy quality, the story is cryptic in the best possible sense, challenging the reader to never settle on a definitive take.
One section of stories, titled “On the Way,” is more realist in tone, though they deal with emotional horror on different levels. I enjoyed the three stories included here, but my own tastes move towards the more surreal and gothic. The next section, “Over There,” is gothic in the extreme, and, as such, the section I liked best. “Far and Wee,” “The Marble Lily,” and “La Reine D’Enfer” are unsettling historical fictions that unfold within an ambience of otherworldly forces that are never entirely explained (and that might be only figments from the imaginations of the first-person narrators). Like much of the best gothic writing, these tales blur the psychological and the metaphysical, inner experience and outer atmosphere, human violence and occult undercurrents. As Pearlie in “La Reine D’Enfer” states, “Once, I said to Davy, I saw the Devil plain.” And as the story continues, it becomes clear that the devils here are both human (Pearlie’s sadistic pimp) and supernatural (a red-eyed raven).
If I have a complaint about the collection, it has less to do with the stories as they are, and more to do with how much potential some of the stories have for further development. “Urb Civ,” with its ornate sci-fi worldbuilding, could be a novella of its own, and “Toujours,” which takes place in the realm of avant-garde fashion, and explores all sorts of subtle intrigue, could also, I think, be a much longer story. But this is a minor complaint. These tales are gritty, constantly surprising on both the sentence and narrative level, and glimmer with intense, enigmatic characters. And over and over again, art-making, in all of its wild forms, is what helps the characters remake their lives in their own terms.
Velocities: Stories by Kathe Koja is published by Meerkat Press.