Books

Hamantaschen’s Deep Horror: Indie and Idiosyncratic

Self-publishing, like the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot, is the subject of a thousand invalidating knocks—but in spite of subpar quality, low aims, and poor editing (and just like the cryptids in question) self-publishing is something in which I continuously want to believe. The idea at its core is to abandon the gatekeepers and embrace DIY—a place for weirdo, experimental works to be released without publisher intervention. It could be the coolest fucking thing in books, but in practice, it amounts to little more than a joke. Self-publishing doesn’t typically bring us interesting, original visions—more often than not, it’s a dumping ground for the deluded. But, as with anything, there are glimmers of hope, and one author I’ve read recently is doing exactly what I want so badly to see. J.R. Hamantaschen is an exciting talent, and his collection A Deep Horror That Was Very Nearly Awe makes good on the promise inherent in self-publishing—delivering a product that is weird, unique, and utterly captivating.  

Who is J.R. Hamantaschen? This is a central mystery when regarding his work, as he seems to deliberately obfuscate his identity. We know he’s young, we know he has a podcast, and we know he’s self published two prior fiction collections. A Deep Horror That Was Very Nearly Awe being his latest. Hamantaschen, whether he wants it or not, has set himself up in an important way that many horror authors have not and cannot. He has opened the doors for a cult of personality to flourish. His identity is mysterious, his writing is idiosyncratic, and he’s a self-publisher—these elements combine to give him the potential to be the most discussed cult author since Thomas Ligotti. And make no mistake, for all the great Ligotti stories out there, it was Ligotti, The Character that propelled the qualities of his fiction into the pervasive influence they are today. But, it’s important to note, that Hamantaschen’s secret identity is not a pretentious affectation of someone looking to cash-in, so to speak, on the pedestal with which we elevate our authors. In practice, through his podcast and in engagement with readers, he comes off as surprisingly down to earth—and by extension, avoids the trap of appearing calculated; or worse, manufactured. I don’t know who J.R. Hamantaschen is, but I get the distinct sense, that whatever he’s doing, he’s doing so honestly.

The first thing any reader is likely to notice in Hamantaschen’s writing is his voice. There’s a playfulness at works in his stories, a sort of ironic wink that runs parallel to an observational intensity. Hamantaschen paints pictures with words and they’re always of people—depicted as startling real and hopelessly flawed. He conjures up characters in vivid 3D, giving them the natural cadences of everyday speech. His observations of human behavior and emotion are stunning in their accuracy and intricacy, but the fact that it translates so well to the page, as well as informs the structure of his stories, is all the more impressive. “Bleecker and Bleaker; or, Gay for Muesli,” for example, brings us into the world of a midwest transplant living in New York City. We watch him engage in social faux pas, we see his insecurities and self-professed strengths laid out in an opening where he alienates a circle of would-be acquaintances. In genre fiction, this is sort of a rule breaker, as none of these people show up again and no element of horror or wrongness is present. Any amateur critic will tell you: the man is burying the lead. There’s a bit of winking even, as the narrator acknowledges this. But still, it’s an enrapturing scene, and it works, not just for the ripped-from-reality dialogue, but because it ends with another realization: that the pace is being set by our narrator, and predictability is not in the playbook. Where the story goes defies prediction, but the uncertainty creates a sort of breezy tension common in Hamantaschen’s fiction and it all begins with perspective.

The stories themselves can be categorized as horror, weird, or more broadly dark fiction. Absurdity is a key to Hamantaschen’s work, and it shows its head again and again throughout the collection. Many of his stories come together as flights of whimsy taken to their logical conclusion, grounded as they are. What happens if when we die, our worth is decided by who has loved us? What if a mad scientist was making mechanical monsters that sat idly in gas station bathrooms, waiting for someone to try the door? What if a small percent of the population died losing their virginity? These are all questions asked and explored throughout A Deep Horror That Was Very Nearly Awe. One of the early highlights of the collection, “No One Cares But I Tried,” is a Ligottian workplace horror story that feels like an anxiety dream. It’s based on one of those idle what-ifs—what if someone that hates me was telepathic? The story, using realistic office interactions, and skipping whys and hows, focuses on the fear of having someone else in your head, forcing you against your will to make choices you’d rather not make. It is, in spite of all of its natural sounding office banter, a terrifying read. It’s the type of thought you dwell on as a daydream, but Hamantaschen specializes in dragging these sorts of ideas out into the world, in the full festering glory of fluorescent lights and Starbucks coffee.

The closing novella, “I Will Soon Be Home And Never Need Anyone Ever Again,” has Hamantaschen careening toward the biggest blowout of a collection I’ve ever seen. If this were a rock n’ roll song, it’d be eight minutes long with cymbals crashing and trebly licks tremolo-picked to oblivion. Here, we have a kid at the mercy of bullies who finds his only solace in knowing that one day, he will be better—better than he is now, better than his attackers will be, someday. As his hazing gets worse, he meets a cool, older guy with special powers. Hamantaschen’s lack of predictability subverts outcomes at every turn, and to its credit, there were many times where I had no idea what box to put the story in. So often, when we read, we subconsciously fit stories into the frameworks we’re familiar with, and by doing so, we know them before we ever reach their end. “I Will Soon Be Home…” follows its own leisurely path to its conclusion and as we try and apply our own cultural messages about bullying, goodness, ethics, and revenge to try and suss out its end—it defies the reader with its own red-blooded intent.

 Not every book I read is good. And not every good book I read becomes a favorite. But sometimes, you get lucky. Sometimes, you find something that makes you wanna talk. A Deep Horror That Was Very Near Awe is the start of a conversation—and I have a feeling that as the readers grow, the chatter will roar. Buy A Deep Horror That Was Very Near Awe here and click here to listen to The Horror of Nachos and Hamantachen!

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