I’ve taken to frequenting brick and mortar book stores more often since beginning this column. I find myself needing to peruse the stacks, to see what catches my eye and what’s being stocked. It should come as no surprise that few of the presses I’ll be covering find themselves en masse on the shelves at Barnes & Noble, but some do. ChiZine Publications is one of them.
When I first came across ChiZine, two years ago or so, I wrote them off to some degree. I’ve never been one for weird for its own sake and covers like David Nickle’s Monstrous Affections coded that way for me. Many of their early titles also seemed to trend closer to horror than fantasy or science fiction and, of the three, horror has long been my least favorite. More accurately, I don’t really like pissing myself while reading. ChiZine claims they want “Horror that isn’t just gross or going for a cheap scare, but fundamentally disturbing, instilling a sense of true dread.” To put it another way, be warned, you may piss yourself.
So it came as some surprise when combing the stacks during a work trip, I found myself picking up ChiZine titles again and again. From David Nickle’s newest work, Rasputin’s Bastards, to Nick Mamatas’s Bullettime, to Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Ison of the Isles, I was interested. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Their mission statement seems to echo much of my own feelings about the direction of New York publishing.
Larger presses are sometimes forced to play it safe: plots and stories we’ve seen before, because that’s what the public seems to crave. . .Sometimes it can feel like we’re all just reading the same stories, over and over, just in slightly different settings.
It goes on to say that they aspire to be better.
Fantasy that doesn’t necessarily need spells or wizards to create a world far removed from ours, but that imbues the story with an otherworldly sense by knocking tropes on their heads. Science fiction that isn’t just about space travel and gadgets, but about what it means to be human—or what it means not to be.
Are they succeeding? I was compelled to find out. I began with Nick Mamatas’s Bullettime. Truth be told I’ve long had a fascination for him as an artist. He has a strong reputation in the field, and writers I’ve come to respect hold him in high esteem. It’s a novel about a school shooter (sort of) following David Holbrook’s life as a disturbed teenager, bullied and ostracized with no support at home. The narrative itself is all over the place, jumping through time and space. Not unlike the Peter Howitt film Sliding Doors, taking the reader to different decision points, Mamatas shows the branches that could take David anywhere, except where they can’t.
The jumping around, and a narrator who’s often tripping on a cough syrup cocktail, could have led to a mess of a narrative. Mamatas often moves from first person to third within a paragraph, and David himself, although ostensibly a single person, often becomes someone new entirely depending on his point of reference. Instead, Mamatas’s strong voice shines, and he never seems out of control of his material.
I don’t know how many prototypical genre readers would pick Bullettime up. There’s far more Don DeLillo in it than Gene Wolfe. Perhaps the closest approximation to another genre writer might be Kurt Vonnegut who did so well in blending fantastic elements with satire. And yet, despite Mamatas’s history of satire in Under My Roof (2007) and Sensation (2011), Bullettime is not.
Another writer, albeit of the mainstream variety, who made a very similar journey away from satire is Douglas Coupeland in Hey Nostradamus!. An obvious touchstone for a reader of Mamatas’s latest, it’s also about a school shooter. Rather than telling the story from one person’s perspective, it’s told from four, each a different person impacted by the shooting. But, a touchstone is all it is, a novel with a similar premise, but different approach, making some of the same points and just as many different. Either way, Bullettime is an equal novel to Coupeland’s, and certainly more relatable to ChiZine’s audience in its choice of literary device.
I found it interesting that just a few weeks ago ChiZine announced they would be launching a Young Adult list in 2014. Bullettime for all its craftsmanship has a point of view that would not be out of place on such a list. It’s far edgier, darker, and denser than a typical YA editor might risk alongside The Hunger Games. Perhaps Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls is a more fair comparison, but even that falls short. Young readers might not tolerate Mamatas’s style, but his relevance to a younger audience is without question. Had ChiZine wanted to launch their new list with a statement about the direction and purpose of young adult fiction, Bullettime would have been apropos.
Lest this become a Bullettime lovefest, something I’m tempted to do, I’d like to talk a little bit about ChiZine’s commitment to short fiction, a medium that seems to be only thriving among the small presses. According to co-publisher Brett Savory, ChiZine “accepted a lot of collections early on. . . [and will] always want to publish really great collections ’cause we personally love them. . .” Savory, and his wife and publishing partner Sandra Kasturi are often “frustrated and astonished us that more people don’t dig collections. It seems to us the best way to sample a new writer’s work to see if they’re you’re kind of thing.”
This summer and fall ChiZine will publish three collections, and one anthology. The latter, Imaginarium 2012, I’ve begun to read. Where Bullettime feels like it could have been published anywhere an editor had the guts to buy it, the stories contained with Imaginarium 2012 feel perfectly suited, and somehow exclusive, to the ChiZine manifesto. It’s a reprint anthology, so each of the stories was published elsewhere, but it shows a sense of purpose that the collection feels so authentically theirs.
The opening story, Look by David Nickle, is quintessentially odd, as a troubled man finds solace in a woman who isn’t alone inside her own skin. It’s erotic, but not sexually, playing on themes of intimacy and acceptance and the things easily given up to feel that connection. An exceptional story, it’s a great entry into the book which, excepting a boring Kelley Armstrong story that feels included more for her name than the quality of her writing, hits the mark time and again with eerie and textured tales.
More important perhaps than any of the stories contained in Imaginarium 2012, is Steven Erikson’s introduction. He makes a compelling case about the importance of genre fiction as a literary art form. I mention it here, not to further highlight the anthology, but to point out the fact that Savory and Kasturi are publishing just the kinds of things that Erikson discusses.
‘Embrace the Odd’ their slogan says. No doubt it’s a niche, but I think it has the potential to be a very large one. The reading public should be so lucky. I would encourage more readers to pay attention what ChiZine Publications is doing in Toronto. I will be.