January’s reads: Reflections on race, culture, and the supernatural

A book lies open in the foreground; a fireplace in the background near a window

Something I decided I wanted to do as part of the end-of-year/new-year reflection is to write a monthly blog post about what I read over the previous few weeks. There’s not really a theme, rhyme or reason to my interests or habits; at least half my new reads come from my husband’s discoveries and his sense for my reading tastes.

The first book of 2018 — which was also the last book of 2017, meaning I started it in December and finished it in January — was Fire in a Canebrake: The Story of the Last Mass Lynching in America. Written in 2003 by Laura Wexler, who is white, the book is remarkable not so much for its research — which appears to be meticulous — as it is for its buildups. Wexler writes in a way that just about convinces you that at last, justice will be served; then pulls that hope out from under you as it details some obstacle, or a situation that acted like one.

As I wrote additionally in my Goodreads review:

That this book was published in 2003 is all the more poignant for its coverage of issues affecting the United States even today: from Georgia’s voting system in 1946, in which rural counties carried more electoral weight than urban counties, to the tensions between black and white that persisted decades after the lynching, and were grounded in decades before.

Having additionally read Langston Hughes’ The Ways of White Folks (written in the early 20th century) and Thomas Mullen’s Darktown — set in the same general region in the same general period — it became notable how this book of nonfiction echoed those works of fiction. Perhaps the best way to sum this book up comes from Wexler’s note at the end:

“The segregated memories of the Moore’s Ford lynching are the precursors to the divisive reactions to the Rodney King beating and the O.J. trial and the dragging of James Byrd Jr. And the segregated memories of the Moore’s Ford lynching reveal something basic: The only way for blacks and whites to live together peacefully in America in the twenty-first century is if we begin struggling to understand and acknowledge the extent to which racism has destroyed — and continues to destroy — our ability to tell a common truth.”

Similar themes appear in Strange Weather, Joe Hill’s set of four novellas which are a nice mix of supernatural, surreal and more conventional horror. In spots it’s reminiscent of his father Stephen King’s writing, a nice homage to King’s best work, but what stands out most are the characters, the observations they make about the world and one another in particular.

Some of the pressing social issues of our time take shape against the backdrop of the most pressing social issue of all — climate change. The impact of that particular issue is the book’s throughline, connecting stories about mental health, bigotry, isolation, and grief. Hill’s writing makes his characters relatable for the most part, and understandable — though not always likeable — when they aren’t.

  • “Snapshot” is a story about Alzheimer’s and technology, and the question of our closest ideas’ and devices’ provenance; who we become with access to certain abilities, even with the best of intentions.
  • “Loaded” certainly is. It brings together racism and gun culture, narcissism and altruism (through public service); who we are or become depending on who we surround ourselves with, and when the entire landscape, as in a Florida wildfire, is aflame.
  • “Aloft” explores loneliness and what it takes for us to let go, to come to and to find ourselves. Literally the least grounded of the four, this story is about the way our ideals and fantasies tend to form us.
  • “Rain” (my personal favorite) builds on the idea of climate and weather patterns and terrorism, as well as neighborhood suspicions, prejudices and resentments and grudges — an update of King’s “The Mist” especially with a certain word likewise appearing in the story’s denouement.

My final read in January was Quiet Houses, Simon Kurt Unsworth’s third collection of short stories, which are interconnected. I’d read Lost Places and Strange Gateways last year, and one of the things I like best about Unsworth’s writing is the way he uses the places he knows — lives in, or has visited — as settings for his quietly unsettling horror fiction.

The unsettling ghost story in “The Elms, Morecambe” quickly gives way to visceral horror in “The Merry House, Scale Hall,” then to lurking dread (especially for those of us who enjoy hiking) “Beyond St. Patrick’s Chapel, Heysham Head.” “The Ocean Grand, North West Coast” has a nice Hell House feel to it, while “The Temple of Relief and Ease” is especially poignant given the experiences of returning veterans today and in the less distant past.

That Nakata, the main character, has his own ghostly experiences — not just those told to him — keeps the reader engaged and turns out to be integral to the entire portmanteau by the time “24 Glasshouse, Glasshouse Estate” shows just how personal his professional research really is.

By the time the book ends, Quiet Houses — what the TV show Supernatural might be if it focused on less lighthearted, scarier stories — makes you question, as all the best horror fiction does, what lurks behind the veneer of “ordinary” we like to console ourselves with.

What did you read — and enjoy — in January?

2 comments on “January’s reads: Reflections on race, culture, and the supernatural

  1. This sounds like a really interesting reading list! I was mainly on the crime fiction train in January, needing nice relaxing murdery books to keep me going 😉

  2. You know, I used to read a lot more crime fiction, but in recent years I’ve swung more towards straight up horror. Even the crime fiction I write needs to have speculative elements! I do want to read a Dennis Lehane historical series soon-ish, but there’s other things to get through first. Suffice to say I have way more to read than I possibly can… 😉

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