Books

{Book Review} Velocities by Kathe Koja

If there’s one symbol of horror’s growth in the modern era, it’s that it no longer needs to be horror to gain readers in the genre. Authors are no longer tied to the ground, they’ve spread their wings and have chosen to be called, more broadly, speculative fiction writers or fantasists. We’re at a place in time now, where an author can fill a short story collection with magical realism, horror, weird fiction, and straight literary pieces—and the sinew holding them together is no longer tropes, but voice.

Kathe Koja’s Velocities, a comeback album of sorts, is a collection very much in this vein, and Meerkat Press knows it. On the release blurb, the collection is described as: “Thirteen stories, two never before published, all flying at the speed of strange.” Strange is, of course, another signifier that this is not your average horror collection, instead, it’s a showcase not of the genre but of Koja’s gobsmacking talent as a stylist. For fans of The Cipher (and if I were pressed, I might call it my favorite novel, ever), this is a welcome return for Koja who hasn’t had a new book out since 2010’s Under the Poppy.

Velocities stories run the gamut from overt horror to gentle weirdness to straight literary—but they’re pulled together by the familiar Koja-isms we’ve come to recognize as distinctively hers. Many of the stories are first-person. Several are directly addressing the reader. Semicolons and punctuation run amok——sculpting her prose into the stop and start patterns of natural speech. Koja’s characters are down-to-earth and conversational, often times working-class artists, authentic even in their strangest moments. And under all this confessional, hyper-punctuated grime is an under-current of the sensual, the erotic. Koja’s prose is a feast, and at its best, it’s a pleasure to gorge upon it.

One of the more typically genre stories, “Baby,” is the closest we come to outright horror. It involves a young woman telling us the story of Baby, a doll with which she has a supernatural and co-dependent relationship. It’s one of the hardest-hitting stories in the collection, because of how well the character’s voice resonates. There’s a strong sense of recognition between her and the audience, as I’m sure most of us have been young and working a shitty job, exploring our adulthood while being barely at its threshold. “Baby” is scary because of the amount of empathy Koja injects into it and as the final pages turn, I couldn’t escape a deep and affecting dread.

There’s also a sense of playful intertextuality at work in Velocities. A trio of stories in the latter half of the collection (“Toujours,” “Far and Wee,” and “The Marble Lily”) read like pastiches of Poe, a welcome and impressive voice-throwing display in a genre that seems overly-dependent on Lovecraft as its grandfather influence. These stories not only do well to show off the traits that made Poe’s writing so immortal, but also to craft a connection to Koja, today. In doing so, it’s hard to ignore the foundations of the genre (whichever that may be, in this case), and harder still to ignore that those same foundations work just as well today.

Kathe Koja is, for me, one of the great literary voices, period. And while it’d be too bold for me to say that Velocities is a new classic in its own right, when you get to Koja’s level of talent, even the stuff that’s just okay has a level of sophistication in its own right. Yes, there’s some misses (“La Reine D’Enfer” teetered very close to incomprehensibility for me) but the hits are a great reminder that the best of genre writers no longer need be pigeon-holed— that the best of us have a chance to be the best of everything.

1 comment

  1. Thank you for this – delighted to learn that VELOCITIES speaks to you so strongly.

    One addendum, UNDER THE POPPY is actually the first book of a trilogy – followed by THE MERCURY WALTZ and THE BASTARDS’ PARADISE – and was followed by my bio novel of Christopher Marlowe, one of my literary heroes, CHRISTOPHER WILD.

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