Review: Jo Quenell | The Mud Ballad

The sky opened up and rained for me during two of my sessions with The Mud Ballad by Jo Quenell.

We begin in a small, rundown town called Spudsville with Jonathan and Daniel, a set of twins conjoined at the head. We meet them in their tent at the circus they travel with discussing the imminent self-separation Jonathan has planned for the two of them. He performs the deed, and Dawes, the resident circus doctor finds them bleeding out, Daniel’s throat slashed. He is able to save Jonathan and amputate his brother’s corpse from his head, leaving a protrusion like a horn.

Jonathan goes on trial with the circus for the murder of Daniel. He is found guilty and exiled from his carnival community. 

The story continues years later when Dawes returns to Spudsville, surprised to see Jonathan working as a restroom attendant at a bar there. Dawes has quit the circus and travels back to Spudsville to try and settle down. Jonathan offers Dawes a place to stay, if only a moldy sofa in a tiny shed behind the bar. In exchange for his hospitality, Jonathan asks Dawes to help him dig up the bones of his twin because he didn’t have a chance to say goodbye before Daniel’s burial. After the exhumation, things get stranger and more bizarre until all hell breaks loose upon our protagonists and the denizens of Spudsville.

And hell breaking loose in Spudsville is quite the ride. We have children raised to be fierce and violent soldiers, taught to fight with bear hands and teeth, brutal, carnivorous pigs that cannot be satiated, murderous mimes, bloodthirsty demons summoned from the grave, botched slayings and surgeries, Satanic cults, and so much more.

The Mud Ballad oozes grime from its pages, never letting you get more than a few paragraphs before again making you feel ill and as oppressed as some of those living in the rain-soaked dirt fields of Spudsville felt. Jo Quenell’s first novella succeeds in creating a bizarro world rich with characters who operate based significantly on desire and regret. There’s an air of sadness and guilt that pervades The Mud Ballad from start to finish. It isn’t stifling, and there is enough comedy to provide levity, but it’s an undeniable feature of the story (I mention this less as criticism and more as an acknowledgement of well-established tone and mood).

Despite its darkness, The Mud Ballad was a quick and fun read, and I’m already looking forward to reading more stories by Quenell.

Review: Joe Koch | The Wingspan of Severed Hands

Shock and awe. Beautiful and grotesque. These are just a few of the words I could use to describe Joe Koch’s The Wingspan of Severed Hands.

The story takes the insidious concept of the yellow sign from Robert W. Chamber’s mythos he created for his short story collection The King in Yellow. The author uses such vivid imagery and lyrical prose to describe the most depraved and macabre scenes. I’m really into Koch’s writing style, and I learned several beautiful new words (fascia, instar, puerile) to add to my vocabulary.

It seems almost unnecessary to summarize the plot here, as the synopsis from the back of the book does that fine justice. What cannot be synopsized is the feeling and atmosphere created by the wordcraft employed here. There’s really not enough I can say about the fucking poetry in Wingspan. Please do yourself a goddamn favor and pick up this book. If you’re a fan of Robert W. Chambers, cosmic horror, body horror not unlike what you might find in the Saw franchise (but even saying that feels like a real disservice to the author—their prose is so much more amazing than any of the writing in any of those movies, but I couldn’t think of anything better to describe some of the more visceral scenes in the book, and goddamn it’s good), and just quality weird fiction, readdddd it. Now. It’s unlike anything else you’ll ever read. Also look at that cover art!

I’m writing…

If you had told me at the start of quarantine in March of this year that by December I would be reading and writing every day, I would most certainly have thought you’d lost your damn mind. Early this year was tough. For me and everyone in the world. I felt the rug get snatched out from under me and wandered directionless. As a joke I saw on Twitter said: “Planning for the future during COVID is speculative fiction.” Indeed, that’s how it feels.

So instead of planning for my own speculative future, I dove into the imaginations of authors far and wide. With help from a genetics test, I was finally able to start a medication that works well for my depression and anxiety disorders, and I’m able to focus long enough to read again. Reading has inspired writing.

So I write. I write a little every day. Sometimes, I write a lot a day. I don’t know if it’s good stuff that I’m writing, and I don’t care. I’ve started a good dozen of short stories, and I’m impressed with my own capacity for creativity. I truly didn’t know I had it in me. Thank you modern medicine.

I’m currently trying to hone my skills as a writer. Like I said in a previous post, I haven’t really written any creative fiction in over 10 years until a few months ago. I’m rusty. Actually, I don’t know if I was ever any good. The stories I wrote in high school sure sound terrible. Haha. So I’m reading books about writing, taking segments of writing courses as I can, watching a lot of Youtube videos about writing and publishing, befriending authors and trying to work up the nerve to ask them for advice. One sweet man, whose work I really enjoy, offered to read some stuff for me whenever I feel like sending it, but so far I’ve not gathered the confidence to do so more than once (thanks Luke, if you read this. I’ll send some more eventually).

I’ve found that, while it’s difficult for me to share my work with people I know, sending in submissions is not as nerve-wracking. For some reason. I’ve sent out four submissions over the past month, and that feels good. I don’t have high hopes for any of them getting back to me with positive news, but it doesn’t matter. It felt good to send something in. Like I could look in my email outbox and see something tangible that I finished. That’s a good fuckin’ feeling for someone who feels like they haven’t completed anything in over a decade.

So, I’m writing. It’s a journey already. Let’s see where I go.

What am I doing?

I started this blog to share written and visual works that are still mostly all in my head. I haven’t written creative fiction I wanted to share with anyone in at least ten years, and I’ve recently found myself compelled to write. More than that, I want to write and then show it to people.

a picture for reference of me not knowing what I’m doing

I think a big part of me has always been looking for a creative outlet that suits me. I’ve always believed that I have a lot inside that is screaming for expression, but I’ve never been able to find a medium that can encapsulate it. I’ve started six short stories over the past month, and they’re each coming along at their own pace.

I recently decided to do some writing exercises by choosing a prompt from a collection called Dog Doors to Outer Space (ed. Amy M. Vaughn) a couple times a week and just see what happens. I started and finished my first prompt tonight. What I had imagined ending up being sort of flash of micro fiction somehow turned into 1.2k words. I wrote a short story based on what would happen if you started receiving by mail all the trash you had thrown away in your life. It was fun, and something I probably would have never considered writing about myself.

I’ll post that story sometime in the next few days. I still have work to do on the site. I’m not sure what to do with it. It’s ugly, but I’m all out of design ideas. Oh well.

I might use this platform as a space for more traditional blogging as well. I recently told a friend it has been quite a while since I felt confident sharing my thoughts and feelings online, but now that I plan on sharing things that came from inside of me, I may as well share the feelings that swirl around my brain with all the weird ideas in there. We’ll see what happens.

It’s close to midnight when I’m writing this. I hope anyone who stumbles upon this is having an okay day. The world is shit, but we can overcome some of that horror by helping each other find joy with a little bit of art and a whole lot of heart.

Evan

PS: I don’t generally find myself to be as cheesy as I was in that last paragraph there. Forgive me. But there’s a fucking pandemic happening and the U.S. is in shambles. Let’s be cheesy.