Literary Homes Away From Home | TIFA & Malta Book Festival

The life of the freelance writer can be nasty, brutish and long… at least it certainly feels that way as the deadline trenches continue to spew up new nasties and your trusted friends and allies get lost on the way, or are thrown into their own mix of churny nastiness.

All of this is to say that I haven’t quite been able to keep this blog up and updated as often as I’d wished (a perennial excuse/complaint by those of my ilk), which this time was particularly regretful given the awesome stuff that lies ahead.

Namely…

The Toronto International Festival of Authors 

Thanks to the kind collaboration/collusion between Merlin Publishers and the Consulate General of the Republic of Malta, I was able to say “yes” to the kind offer by the organisers behind the Toronto International Festival of Authors, a truly prestigious literary event that this year will feature guests like Angela Davis, John Irving, Adam Foulds, Adam Gopnik, Emma Donoghue and a plethora of intimidating-sounding others for what will be its 40th anniversary edition.

It still feels a little bit unreal to me, and I’m sure it’ll remain so right until we actually land in the beautiful-seeming city after what will be my first trip outside of Europe.

The grounding factor are of course the events I will be participating in, which are the following:

Reading & Conversation: Karen McBride, Teodor Reljić and Drew Hayden Taylor

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Saturday, October 26, 2019 – 4:00 PM
Lakeside Terrace, Harbourfront Centre

These three authors examine the hidden secrets with which we live, in family life and in our hometowns. Karen McBride presents her first novel, Crow Winter. She is an Algonquin Anishinaabe writer from the Timiskaming First Nation in the territory that is now Quebec. Drew Hayden Taylor presents Chasing Painted Horses. He is a playwright, short story writer, novelist, journalist, activist for Indigenous rights and TV scriptwriter. Teodor Relijić presents Two. He is a writer of fiction, a freelance feature writer, and culture editor and film critic at MaltaToday. The conversation will be moderated by Wendy O’Brien. Hosted by Tunchai Redvers.

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Europe On Tour: Reading & Reception

Sunday, October 27, 2019 – 7:00 PM
Lakeside Terrace, Harbourfront Centre

No passport needed to meet, hear and learn from the European Union’s leaders in contemporary literature at this special event. For the second year running, the Festival is thrilled to present this rare chance to hear acclaimed works recited live in the languages in which they were originally written and in the authors’ own voices.

Spotlighted countries include Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain. This event is presented in conjunction with the European Union National Institutes for Culture. Written English translations will be available. Readings will be followed by a licensed reception and the event will be hosted by Laetitia Delemarre.

Featured authors include:

Kai Aareleid (Burning Cities),

Esad Babačić (Every Child is Beautiful When Born),

Helena Janeczek (The Girl with the Leica),

Frido Mann,

Wilfried N’Sondé (Concrete Flowers),

Inês Pedrosa (Still I Miss You),

Rein Raud (The Death of a Perfect Sentence),

Teodor Reljić (Two),

Teresa Solana (The First Prehistoric Serial Killer),

Benedek Totth (Dead Heat),

and Gabriela Ybarra (The Dinner Guest).

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Authors on Tour at Union Station – Day 3

Monday, October 28, 2019 – 12 PM – 2 PM

The Toronto International Festival of Authors has partnered with Toronto’s Union Station once again to bring spirited author readings to Toronto’s busiest commuter interchange.
Hosted by Antanas Sileika, the events will spotlight a select lineup of authors, as well as a “Books On Tour” Library of favourite Festival titles of the past 40 years, which passersby are welcome to take home with them free of charge. Each author will present from their latest book on the topic of “travel” or “journeys” and interact with the audience. The event will take place in the West Wing of Union Station, immediately off the Great Hall at street level.

Next… 

The Malta Book Festival  

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A beloved event that is only growing from strength to strength with each passing year (much like Malta Comic Con, whose second day I’ll be attending pretty much after my Toronto-via-Rome plane back home lands on the Luqa gravel), this year’s edition of the Malta Book Festival is especially exciting for me.

Its chosen theme of speculative fiction is obviously close to my heart, and it is for this reason that its organising body, the National Book Council, kindly allowed me to pitch a couple of names into the ring of their then-burgeoning programme.

Happily, this resulted in both Jon Courtenay Grimwood and Kali Wallace to be selected for participation in a few events at the festival, both of whom I’ve met and made friends with at Cons in the Scarborough and Helsinki, respectively. They round out a set of international guests which also include Dave Rudden and none other than Judge Rosemarie Aquilina. My contributions to the Malta Book Festival, which runs from November 6-10 at the Mediterranean Conference Centre, will be the following:

Kali Wallace at the National Book Festival 

I will be interviewing Kali Wallace on November 7th at 18:00 about her already-prolific and eclectic range of novels, which span from horror to sci-fi, YA to middle-grade to adult fiction, and the latest of which has just been optioned for a big-budget film adaptation.

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Official event description:

U.S. author Kali Wallace will be talking to Teodor Reljić about her already prolific output, which includes the Young Adult cult favourites ‘Shallow Graves’, ‘The Memory Trees’ and ‘City of Islands’. Their talk will touch upon the dynamics of genre fiction and publishing, the difference between writing for young adults and adults, the legacy of space-horror thrillers such the ‘Alien’ franchise and their influence on her most recent work and debut novel for adults, ‘Salvation Day’. Because it is only right, a portion of the conversation will also be dedicated to a consideration of both interlocutors’ undeniably adorable fluffy cats.

Official Facebook Event

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Literary Speed Dating

Prior to that, I will also be participating in the inaugural edition of the Literary Speed Dating event, which according to the National Book Council, “will take place at the Authors’ Hub, a space specifically designated for one-to-one meetings during the Malta Book Festival.

“The idea behind this initiative is to get individuals from the public to meet you as an exhibitor/participant/important stakeholder in the book industry at the Malta Book Festival, in a setting which is more private than the usual ‘from behind the counter at the stand in a festival attended by thousands”.

My own slot will be on Wednesday, 6 November from 17:30 to 18:30, right before the Festival’s annual conference, which will this year feature Loranne Vella, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Kali Wallace and Dave Rudden in a discussion of the ‘strange new worlds’ propsed by sci-fi and fantasy fiction, as moderated by author and translator Mark Anthony Fenech.

Okay, time to strap in, literally and metaphorically. Hope to meet a bunch of you in the flesh! 

Book Reviews | Ancient Gods, Fallen Angels and Other Dissolute Beings Awaiting the End of the World

I’ve stopped logging my reading into Goodreads, mainly because I felt it was gamifying the experience for me far too much, and this really not the kind of headspace I want to be in when considering what I Wish to Read, what I’m Currently Reading and what I’ve just Finished Reading.

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As with most pseudo-social and insidiously easy-to-use interfaces, the Goodreads model only appears to respect the fluid ebb and flow that characterises the reading experience for most people. But in actual fact, asking us to list and show off our reading is just another way of adding undue pressure and exhibitionism over something that should be experienced in the deep inner recesses of our mind.

So rather than ‘clocking in’ – an even better term than logging in, I think, implying an employee-like schedule/adherence to the gods of social media – I thought I’d chat a little bit about some of the books I’ve recently enjoyed, in a way that’s hopefully more germane to the intuitive and flowing pleasure that reading them implies.

Mythos by Stephen Fry

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Perhaps opting to go for the audio route with this one was the best decision I could possibly make, as Stephen Fry’s self-narrated jaunt across the annals of Greek mythology is delivered in the lilting, bordering-on-placid notes that make him such a becalming yet enriching presence for many.

As regards the content itself, the tales are of course unbeatable in their timelessness, though Fry’s expansive approach is friendly and accessible, even if it risks ending up on the wrong side of avuncluar some of the time.

Much has been made of Mythos being published roughly around the same time as Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, and the comparison illustrates precisely what I mean: where Gaiman retells key episodes from Nordic myth in lean, seductive cuts of self-contained story, Fry plays the encyclopedic know-it-all card. Not content to simply give us the stories, he will emphasise the linguistic and cultural strands that characterise the gods and personages that populate the myths.

It makes for a far ‘baggier’ affair than what Gaiman has to offer in his shoring up of the deities from up north, but it’s no less entertaining for it, and Fry made for an amiable companion during my self-administered work commute.

A History of Heavy Metal by Andrew O’Neill

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While I did not go for the audiobook route when it came to this hilarious and unputdownable trip across a music genre that defined me as a young man (it was a chance find at a local bookstore — quite rare, given that Malta is rapidly becoming swallowed up by a giant chain on that front), O’Neill’s voice quickly burrowed its way into my brain.

Unapologetically subjective (“Whitesnake can fuck off”) and in no way a conventionally authoritative, sober historical tome, it nonetheless reads like an impassioned and thoroughly lived-in love letter to an expansive, beguiling and often problematic musical genre whose intensity is often impossible to recapture in any other medium.

And that’s just it: a sober analysis would not have passed muster — it would have failed to capture the knotted, abrasive wall of sound that characterises that amorphous term, ‘metal’*. O’Neill is our man for the job. A black magic-practicing stand-up comedian who is also the vocalist and guitarist for the Victorian-themed hardcore punk band The Men That Will Not Be Blamed for Nothing. Can you really think of anyone else able to take up that mantle with the requisite amount of jagged style and grace?

The book made me ‘LOL irl’ in a way that only the likes of Terry Pratchett have done for me in the past, and it was also a contributing factor to me saying ‘fuck yeah!’ when a couple of friends suggested we go see Slayer in Glasgow on a month’s notice. Never underestimate the power of literature to influence impressionable young minds, folks.

Lucifer: Princeps by Peter Grey

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While Lucifer may feature heavily in all things (or at least, most things) metal, Peter Grey’s careful and thorough exploration of the evolution of the figure we’ve come to know as Lucifer sternly discourages any such shallow appropriation. Published in a gorgeous edition from Scarlet Imprint (which Grey runs with his partner Alkistis Dimech), Lucifer: Princeps is a beguiling and not-easy read, cleaving close to Biblical sources in an attempt to closely trace the most significant instances of the Lucifer figure, in what also serves as a preamble volume for Grey’s upcoming, Lucifer: Praxis.

With scholarly precision and an impatience for romanticised reimaginings of Lucifer and all he stands for, neither is Grey dismissive of the figure he considers to be the repository of Western witchcraft. Instead, as he writes in the introductory chapter (aptly titled ‘A History of Error), “My aim is to be effective in sorcery, rather than be ensorcelled”.

Long John Silver by Björn Larsson

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A life of itinerant freedom has always held a fascination for me, mainly because it represented a brighter flip-side to the many limitations otherwise imposed on a former ‘third country national’ such as myself. So of course, I will be magnetically drawn towards pirate narratives, and Larsson’s novel, which I found in a gorgeous bookstore in Rome after having Googled it as Black Sails withdrawal kicked in, provided that… and more.

Indeed, this novel may have been published in the early nineties, but its gritty revisionism is closer to the spirit of something like Black Sails — and the plethora of unapologetically violent anti-hero narratives that populate the crates of contemporary ‘prestige TV’ — while also using a seductive first-person narration to draw us into the story of Long John Silver, both before and after the events of Treasure Island.

In fact, the true genius of Larsson’s book is not its apt emulation of old-school adventure literature, and neither is it his evocative and often disturbing ‘maturation’ of the same (the slave ship segments don’t make for an easy read, for one thing, but this only helps Silver rise in our estimation: he is a no-bullshit narrator, at the very least). It is that Larsson’s Silver plays the same trick he played on young Jim Hawkins. He gets you on his side.

The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay

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Ever since his twisty, layered, rich and creepily satisfying fourth novel A Head Full of Ghosts, Paul Tremblay has been on top of the list of writers to read for horror fans of all stripes, down from little old me and up to the likes of Stephen King himself.

The Cabin at the End of the World strips down his approach from the formally ambitious acrobatics of ‘Ghosts’ and is even more close-hewn and minimal than its immediate predecessor, The Disappearance at Devil’s Creek (which shows up in a sneaky cameo, an Easter Egg for true Tremblay fans).

Telling the increasingly harrowing story of a small family whose vacation at a remote rural cabin is cut short by a group of seemingly ‘well-meaning’ cultists, Tremblay’s latest initially reads like a screenplay, with his present-tense sentences flitting perspective from one character to another while maintaining a fluid third-person narration throughout.

It’s a shrewd formal choice that fits both the apocalyptic ticking clock that characterises the story — a looming axe that’s about to drop  (or is it?) — that generates both basic suspense while providing a rich fount of thematically-relevant ambiguity. But what really impressed me is that in the end, it actually feels less like a film than a harrowing stage play: something Sarah Kane or Philip Ridley could have written.

The limited setting and cast of characters makes it so: there’s something classically Greek about how this all pans out — all in real time, and forcing us to ask hard questions to ourselves, and our culture at large.

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If you enjoyed these mini book reviews, please consider buying my own novel, Two. It’s a coming-of-age story set in Malta that blends realism and fantasy, and it has been described as “dreamy, and poetic and often exquisite“. Find out more about it here.

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*Though I humbly put forward the ‘Thor vs Surtur‘ scene at the beginning of Thor: Ragnarok (2017), set to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’, as a pretty apposite distillation of what metal at its best should be all about.  

Short and Bittersweet | Pick of the Novellas | Neil Williamson, Immanuel Mifsud, Jonathan Ames

I like novellas. There’s something about their in-between state which really speaks to me, and makes me feel as though I can forge a more intimate connection with them than other genres and formats on either side of the word-count spectrum.

‘Full’ novels demand a commitment and immersion by proxy. They are to be consumed across various intervals, and the stops and starts make them more of an organising principle than something to be savoured — just like the prestige (or not-so-prestige) TV series a lot of them are ending up as these days, they need to be scheduled into your day until you finally complete them, before moving on to the next one.

And while the membrane separating short stories and novellas can be quite thin at times — a couple of thousand odd words here and there can land the tale in either one category or the other — there’s still something different in the experience of either.

Short fiction has the punch of the impressionistic moment in its favour — the sketch, the instant of revelation (or put another way, epiphany — as exemplified so often in that landmark short story collection, James Joyce’s Dubliners).

The novella, on the other hand, allows for the core ideas to unspool just enough to give them breathing room — at its best, it can be the perfect, attention-grabbing marriage between ‘thought experiment and narrative.

IMG_20180506_163237I thought a lot about this particular facility of the novella as I dug into The Memoirist by Neil Williamson (NewCon Press, 2017). Set in a world where surveillance is paramount, the story focuses on Rhian Fitzgerald, a wordsmith for hire currently charged with ghost-writing the biography of Eloide Eagles, former lead singer of the subversive punk band The HitMEBritneys.

I was familiar with the Scottish writer’s short fiction prior to diving into The Memoirist, his first novella, and I found the same penchant for quirky ideas and sensitive portrayals of human beings — specifically, how they deal with situations that might feel off-kilter.

The Memoirist is also a masterwork in building up a near-future science fictional world without any recourse to crude info-dumping, all the while keeping the narrative threads working towards a fine, crystalline target.

This is also very much evident in his short fiction, and his amusing, politically sensitive story ‘Fish on Friday’, from the collection Secret Language, is one of my favourite examples of this… and a close thematic fit to The Memoirist, which offers a similarly low-key take on what would otherwise be considered technological dystopias.

While her subject — an aging punk rocker famous for her anti-surveillance stance — would slot in comfortably as the protagonist in more cookie-cutter cyber-noir stories, here Williamson has the far more laissez-faire Rhian experience that journey.

After watching a historical live performance by Eagles — in which she angrily denounces the new surveillance status quo — Rhian confesses to finding it “difficult to sympathise with her anger”.

“No one had ever been going to strip the public completely of their privacy. If anything, now, your private things were more private. There were clear lines. As long as you observed them, you were fine. So what if we all had to be on all the time these days? To pay more attention to our appearance and watch our P’s and Q’s a bit more, under the gaze of family, friends, schools, bosses, colleagues, clients […] It was all about being a better public person. A small price to pay for a safer world.”

Such a cloyingly ‘neutral’ position is a perfect vantage point through which we can be introduced to this not-so-brave, not-so-new world, and Williamson deftly calibrates both the necessary exposition and our sympathies for the protagonist.

This is a character-driven slice of cyberpunk, with a clear idea at its centre and a satisfying structure that perfectly fits the novella format.

The Memoirist takes advantage of the narrative economy offered up by the novella, operating on satisfying narrative beats that hearken back to the noir genre that’s always lying nested in any cyberpunk work worth its salt. But while the slim, ‘movie-length’ page count can give us a certain satisfaction as the mystery unfolds, the ability to depart from narrative convention without taxing the readers’ attention all that much is another advantage of the novella, I find.

IMG_20180506_163200I certainly found this to be the case with Immanuel Mifsud’s Fl-Isem Tal-Missier (u Tal-Iben) (‘In the Name of the Father (and Of the Son’)). Nestled as it is somewhere between novella and memoir — with frequent and appropriately-footnoted recourse to literary theorists like Helene Cixous — Mifsud’s landmark work of contemporary Maltese literature, now translated into several languages, packs both an emotional and intellectual punch.

“On the 21st Dec 1939 I joined the British army and was enlisted in the 2nd Battalion. The King’s Own Malta Regiment, this regiment was stationed at St. Andrews barracks and we were instructed by the NCOs of different units. The first day that I spent at the barracks I was very happy, my comrades used to teach me how I must fowled the blankits and how to mount the equipment and how to clean the Rifle.”

So Mifsud introduces us to the voice of his late father, soon after his death, and just as Mifsud has become a father himself. He plucks the entry verbatim from an old diary, and prompted by that same fount, Mifsud applies an impressive intellectual rigour to what is, clearly, also a richly emotional landscape.

Scholar, poet, prose writer… the amorphous format of the novella allows Mifsud to tap into all of his varied talents. Some of the passages in the book build precisely with the musical crescendo of a poem, but then Mifsud also dips into a rich found of contemporary philosophy and psychoanalytic theory to explore the implications of his father’s legacy on his own psyche.

It’s a profound and utterly honest work that bears revisiting, and fortunately, the novella format makes repeat readings an all the more palatable experience.

IMG_20180506_163054But the final novella I’m going to look into is so ringed with bleakness that repeat readings may not exactly be the thing you end up craving as you put it down… however, that’s not to say that Jonathan Ames’ You Were Never Really Here doesn’t encourage you to keep those pages turning… thus ensuring that you’ll likely have it done and dusted in roughly the same amount of time it’ll take you to finish its superlative film adaptation by Lynne Ramsay.

Mining a furrow of contemporary noir so dark you’d be forgiven in assuming that Ames was really just arranging the genre’s grisly puzzle pieces to get a rise from the readership (a pinprick-accuracy that is reflected in the book’s sparse style), the book finds former FBI agent and Marine, Joe, take on a case that leads him into a spiraling underworld of corruption and sexual depravity.

Though Ames certainly does get mileage out of Joe’s effectiveness at meting out calculated violence, this isn’t a book that’s dripping in machismo — which, again, gave Ramsay an excellent entry point from which to construct a tonally rich though no less harrowing thriller — but rather, in a legacy of fatherhood that’s far more toxic than anything we see explored in Mifsud’s volume.

Left to care for his sickly mother, Joe is in turn hollowed out by years of abuse at the hands of his father. His attempts to find redemption leave him stuck on a loop; he rescues girls from sex trafficking rings, but this rarely salves any of the pain left by his father — pain inflicted even by implements such as hammers. And in what becomes a clear-as-crystal illustration of the cyclical nature of abuse, hammers end up being Joe’s favourite tool of the trade because, “He was his father’s son after all.”

“Also, a hammer left very little evidence, was excellent in close quarters, and seemed to frighten everyone. It held some universal place of terror in the human mind. The unexpected sight of it raised in Joe’s hand would always momentarily paralyze his enemies, and those few seconds of paralysis were usually all he needed.”

Made up of perfectly pruned sentences that move the narrative along as if it were a film just unfolding in front of you, the adaptation feels like something of a foregone conclusion. But leaving that aside for a minute, Ames’ slim-and-grim story made me crave for more of this stuff. Because dark as it is, being able to slip into such a world in the full knowledge that the story will never drag, that its moments of violence and revelation will soon peak to a crescendo without the risk of getting lost along the way… these are the things that make me thankful for novellas.

Re-encountering the Weird: The Outer Dark & the continuing relevance of Weird Fiction

By now those interested in the literary form in question will have at least heard about the landmark episode of The Outer Dark podcast that came out not too long ago, where host and writer Scott Nicolay gathers together some highly significant players in the realm of weird fiction for a bumper-size — that is, two hour — discussion about what the ‘weird’ is and where it’s headed.

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For me, the conversation nudged a series of ideas and associations that I’ve allowed to become dormant for quite some time. Fact is — discovering weird fiction was an important landmark for me in many ways, but I’ve felt it wane from hungry obsession to doggedly pursued intellectual interest and now down to a fading interest of late, but the podcast in particular yielded some answers as to why that may have been the case.

Weird Fiction was the spur that led me to set up Schlock Magazine: a collective group exercise in creative writing for like-minded scribblers here in Malta that then blossomed into something of a bona-fide (though always ‘4dLuv’) online publication, and whose reins I’ve now handed over to my dear sister.

Around the same time, however, I also wrote my Master’s dissertation on ‘the New Weird’; by then already at least somewhat boxed away and shorn of any real new-ness, enabling me to study it as a bracing exercise in literary experimentation, if not an enduring literary tradition or even sub-genre in its own right.

Slippery and just about impossible to define — the brilliant and imposing tome that is Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s ‘The Weird’ anthology attests to that with girth and panache — the Weird is also, necessarily, alienating.

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And for the longest time, its deliberate alienation also signaled for me an invitation to fully embrace the uncanny and disturbing sides of our perception. It made the Weird a thing of endless, edgy possibility. Where other genres would skate towards tradition — or its degraded cousin, convention — the Weird would flourish in its unique fungus-growth of strangeness. And where the field of mainstream literature — so my reasoning went — would often spin compelling narratives in fine language, they would still not descend so deep into the rabbit hole of strangeness that the very best exemplars of the weird reveled in.

Of course, sweeping assumptions like these are largely borne out of laziness, which is why they don’t yield any critical rewards in the long run. But apart from the inaccuracy of such statements, the supposed undercurrent of the Weird — its commitment to evoke a sense of alienation in the reader without offering up any narrative explanation or even, really, any sense of catharsis — ceased to be engaging for me after a while.

Thing is, we’ve all been left bummed out, nervous and scrambling for answers these past couple of years and months. It’s safe to say that the world’s an uncertain place wherever you are right now, and even though an argument could be made for that always having been the case (again, depending where you are), we can all agree that we’ve reached something resembling Consensus Panic at this point, for reasons that I barely need to specify.

Coupled with my own natural tendency towards anxiety — which I tend to treat with a healthy and regular dose of Marcus Aurelius and journaling — it felt as though the Weird was becoming an indulgence too far. To wit: why would I want to actively pursue fiction whose primary and perhaps only priority is to jolt you out of any remaining peace of mind you may still be in possession of?

Partly because I wanted to give my own writing a keener sense of structure — in response to some very valid criticism I received for my debut novel, and because I’ve made it a point to try and craft MIBDUL to a more or less ‘classic’ framework — I’ve caught myself edging away from the Weird as I try to learn the rules first before breaking them, as it were.

But listening to the Outer Dark podcast reminded me not just of the variety that’s intrinsic to the weird — Han Kang’s blistering award-winner The Vegetarian was discussed as a truly Weird candidate, for one thing — but also that its main aim is not to disorient, but to cohere.

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Responding to some of Nicolay’s prompts, Ann VanderMeer in particular seized upon a characterisation of the Weird that I’ve often neglected, but that I now feel should have been a point of focus all along. Namely, that the Weird stems from a primordial desire to confront the Unknown.

And it’s not just limited to the verbiage and racism of someone like HP Lovecraft, or the less politically problematic but no less arch work of someone like Algernon Blackwood. It is found in Kafka, it is found in Calvino and it is found in any number of international literary traditions who don’t shy away from letting the true strangeness at the core of human life run amok.

The Weird is many things, yes. And one of these things happens to be the ability to look at the unknown in the face and to acknowledge it as such. Not to deny it, or to repurpose it within a more rationalised framework. But to let it sit just as it is, and bleed its beautiful spool into the work.

There might be a sense of fear or at least trepidation in leaping into that kind of aesthetic program. But as this great edition of the Outer Dark reminds us, it’s one filled with as much strange fruit as it is with disquieting vistas into the black hole of the indifferent universe.