{Book Review} A Season of Loathsome Miracles by Max D. Stanton

New authors excite me. New voices are the life of this living, breathing thing we call literature, and it’s with these new voices that our genre gains new relevance. Max D. Stanton is a new author and A Season of Loathsome Miracles is his debut collection—an exciting prospect to be sure, but doubly exciting if you first heard of his work through Vastarien—A Literary Journal, where Stanton dropped the mic with a notable, head-turning piece that promised a voice and perspective we’d hear again and again for years to come. A Season of Loathsome Miracles makes good on that ‘again and again,’ and while it suffers from some unevenness, it still shows the promise of an author with talent to spare. 

Stanton’s greatest attribute is undoubtedly his wit. What makes A Season of Loathsome Miracles a unique collection is the author’s merging of satire and the Weird. There is cosmic horror, body horror, space adventures, Miskatonic musings, and scary yoga (yes, really)—but at the heart of this is a wry, observational eye for humor. Case in point is the aforementioned “Hekati Yoga,” where a woman gets involved in some all-devouring self-help. Stanton mocks self-care culture, as well as its place within the privileged upper class while delving into Lovecraftian (or perhaps even Ito-ian) transformation. The story’s horror is gruesome, of course, but the gem of it is still its satire. “Following Bebe Astara” is another such story, also a highlight of the collection, that traces a paparazzo’s attendance at a famous-for-being-famous debutante’s party, where the titular’s Bebe’s ascendance is presented as both sinister and cataclysmic. Both of these represent Stanton at the top of his game, poking fun at pop culture while using the tools and language of cosmic horror—where reality television and yoga poses meet their predictive endings in melded flesh and Cronenebergian transgression. 

“Burn the Witch” further melds this cosmic sensibility with a classical horror archetype, this time without the focus on humor. I enjoy stories such as this precisely because of their devotion to cross-pollination, and Stanton takes it further than a mere genre exercise by implementing within it a strong feminist perspective. This lens is actually another one of Stanton’s key stylistic indicators, showing up most prominently in the collection’s most disturbing story—”Patent For An Artificial Uterus.” If you had heard of Stanton before this collection, it was probably for this story. 

It’s here that we see Stanton as the rising star he can be. It’s a perfect machine, from concept to voice to pacing—and it’s immediately recognizable as a contemporary product in reaction to the modern world’s most aberrant ideologies. Where this could have been a poorly aged treatise on the dangers of incels and Men Going Their Own Way subcultures, Stanton makes the story feel timeless by setting it in the mid-twentieth century. Framing it through letters further grounds it, but it’s the titular idea, that is both absurd, and most unsettlingly: not that absurd after all, that places the story in an uncomfortable liminal space between the realities of our world and the unrealities of fiction. 

But, for every of Stanton’s good stories (and unfortunately, even in a lot of his good ones), there are gripes to be had. Heavy handedness comes often and tends to spoil what could be some more nuanced messaging. This rears its head in a number of ways, from stories bashing their way through their endings with well-worn cliches, to dialog that functions as the most explicit of exposition. Too many times in this collection are there instances of characters saying too much. There’s a laborious intent here to write casual, naturalistic dialog that falls flat more often than it works and it’s largely due to characters so often saying exactly how they feel. If only the real world were so simple. It’s hard not to mention this collection’s issues with dialog and heavy-handedness, because they’re so pervasive, and while Stanton’s concepts and enthusiasm generally shine through, a certain suspension of disbelief is demanded of the reader along the way.

Still, even with that criticism, there’s plenty to enjoy in A Season of Loathsome Miracles. Even stories that more readily show their faults, like “Pigman,” still delight with their vivid ideas and forward momentum. This is a new voice, and like anything new, it deserves to be nurtured. Here is an adept writer who shows flashes of brilliance and an all-encompassing enthusiasm and it’s the latter that truly makes this collection worth reading. There’s the sense of awe and respect for the fundamentals of horror, the same open-mouthed gasps you’d have as a ten year old under the covers with a flashlight. This spirit is alive and well in Stanton’s fiction, even at its bleakest intervals. Stanton loves what he writes—and accordingly, his stories conjure the image of a runaway pen, scratching excitedly to get the next transformation, the next genre-hop, or the next punchline down on paper forever. He writes like he expects you under the sheet with him, eager to howl and scream along until the bloody end. 

A Season of Loathsome Miracles is available here