The Local Voice

Book Reviews by Conor Hultman: “Antisocieties,” by Michael Cisco


by Michael Cisco
Grimscribe Press ($20)

When thinking of the concept of horror in art, one is more likely to think of it as a reaction to a change in condition. A healthy body into a mutilated body, a stable environment into an unstable environment, the known world into the unknown (or unknowable) universe. However, there is a vital line of horror running through the arts that defines horror in our natural, static condition. If unaware of this literature of alienation, there may be no better entry point than Michael Cisco.

What is brilliant about a story like “Intentionally Left Blank” is that it brings out a derangement into your own life permanently after reading. It has all the trappings of a classical pulp weird story: protagonist’s entry into seemingly neutral neighborhood; kooky yet pleasant neighbors; unexplained masked person whom everyone ignores. The inversion comes when the protagonist buys his own mask, flattening the climactic encounter with the masked man into some sort of auto-initiation. But, in both a further inversion and traditional observance of these kinds of stories, the last line is the nauseating stinger: “I don’t know anybody. I never will.” Nausea in the philosophical sense, of course, although this sentiment should sicken. The story becomes less of something that is intended to make you afraid, and more of something that is infecting your perspective with doubt.

Other stories in Antisocieties are closer in content to regular horror fare, but Cisco writes with an original sense of suggestion. “Milking” is a cannibal family story from the point-of-view of a child, but the reader never quite sees the preparation, nor the consumption, due to the limited intelligence of the POV. It’s a shadow play with the reader, where at the same time tension and imagination are played on, tautened and relieved at the slowly drawn curtain of the word-by-word. The title story is an absurdist institutional micro-dystopia, where a man is “corrected” by an “administrator” anytime one of his actions is deemed wrong. The punishment routinely involves the loss of a limb. The writing is more Beckett than blood and gore, and the conclusions to be drawn about the reality of authority are of the sort to keep any adult up at night. Or out of society.

Antisocieties is an unconventional gallery of perturbations. Cisco achieves much while revealing little. This is horror you can’t kill or wake up from.

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