United in Pain and Fear: Review of We Are Happy, We Are Doomed by Kurt Fawver

United in Pain and Fear: Review of We Are Happy, We Are Doomed by Kurt Fawver

Zachary Gillan

Under Review:
We Are Happy, We Are Doomed. Kurt Fawver. Grimscribe Press, December 2021.

If, as Darko Suvin would have it, science fiction is rigidly defined by currently-understood science, we might think of weird fiction as the anti-science-fiction, fully focused on wending itself outside of what we think we know and fruiting into impossible-to-understand spaces, using the tools of the fantastic to fulfill the aims of the horrific (or, more literally, the terrific). Kurt Fawver’s We Are Happy, We Are Doomed is a paradigmatic example, 15 stories of terror and the uncanny that, at their best, emphasize the unknowability of the universe. Typically plotless, often devoid of much in the way of characterization, these are vignettes of communities marred and alienated by forces beyond their control or understanding. “Unknowable” is an adjective often over-used to describe the genre from Lovecraft on, but in Fawver’s hands the intimations of horror and weirdness that have afflicted his protagonists—often the plural, vague voice of a community—are literally so, immune to scrutiny even when one has the energy to try. And when life plods along as reality itself fractures around you, who has the energy?

“Preface to Mitchell D. Gatz’s Revelation of the Unpetting Hand: The Apocalyptic Visions of Domesticated Canidae” is an illustrative example. It takes a rather trite science fiction premise—the invention of a mind-reading machine, which is an unsurprising disaster when aimed at people but a pleasant diversion when used on dogs—and unsettles it: eventually it uncovers the fact that all dogs have vague, doom-filled precognitions of a human-free future. Presented as the preface to an academic monograph, complete with fictional reference list, it’s a description of an unsettling new eschatology, a failed utopian dream that instead de-centers humankind’s place in the universe, discovering that “our loyal canine companions were always already prophets of a darkening tomorrow.” That “always already” is a clue to Fawver’s general approach: rather than active uncoverings of weird apocalypses or horrors, his stories typically begin and end with characters and communities trapped in a liminal space between being and becoming, unhappily accepting their lack of understanding or agency in the unknowable cosmos. There’s no narrative tension-and-release, no active agent bringing about any kind of climax or denouement, just an unsettled world to go on living in. 

Stories in this mold—an academic/journalistic, faux-impartial voice, with depersonalized narrators dispassionately reporting on the disasters besetting their communities—are where Fawver shines. “The Bleeding Maze: A Visitor’s Guide” is about a town being slowly consumed by an incomprehensible maze that’s become the source of a liminal coming-of-age ritual. Three brief vignettes capture the variety of experiences that the town’s youth encounter while exploring the maze, an uneasy allegory for the lucky or luckless vagaries of life, dehumanizing or fulfilling as they may be. “Rules and Regulations of White Pines, Vermont” is similarly presented as a pamphlet for prospective residents, a willfully-cheerful set of rules that slowly undermine a promised utopia with the dark underpinnings that allow its “dread peace.” The final story in the collection, “Pwdre Ser,” the longest and perhaps also the best, is another collective account, a town beset by meteor-born jelly (“pwdre ser” being Welsh for “rot of the stars”) that fascinates and then terrifies its inhabitants. A “town of castaways” in an inhospitable clime, before the arrival of the star-jelly the residents live in “a world that countenances us with complete and utter apathy when it countenances us at all.” Eventually terrorized, harassed, driven to madess or disappeared entirely, at least the cosmos itself has validated the town’s existence with some sort of special notice, even as new routines and forms of worship reshape their lives. 

If the image of elongated, wobbly jelly people terrorizing a town strikes you as absurd, that was intentional. Thomas Ligotti’s shadow looms large over this collection (and modern weird fiction at large; the book’s publisher, Grimscribe, is named for one of his books), most particularly in a shared absurdist, jet-black humor, often presented as straight as possible but occasionally edging over into hysterical laughter. “The Man in the Highchair” is an entirely unsubtle satire of the childishness and seeming incomprehensibility of our immediate past president, with Trumpism as a cosmic horror cult dismissed for too long by the liberal subject of the story, but it ends with the closest thing to a call to heroic action in the collection. “A Plague of the Most Beautiful Finery” is a delightfully-similarly-unsubtle story of literal empty suits attacking the working class. “The Richview Massacre” and “Etch the Clown” capably explore the darker sides of pizza dough made from alien yeast and killer clowns, respectively (the latter a common theme of Ligotti’s as well). “Richview” is one of the more standard weird tale narratives here, wherein a forbidden object of study unleashes untold tragedy, while “Etch” uses uncontrollable laughter as an exit strategy from more prosaic suffering. 

Individual suffering suffuses the stories that I found less convincing; the more traditionally horrific examples of tortured protagonists, that reduce the sublime alienation of the other stories to bloody horror—a tactic that has its place, to be sure, but not Fawver’s strong suit. In “Opus Manuum Artificis,” torture as performance art for aliens brings the focus of torture and misery shared by communities in the stronger stories down to a single person, whose emotions and actions Fawver is weaker at conveying. “Apocalypse, Ignored” follows a prophet whose warnings about interdimensional monsters are ignored because of his homelessness and attendant lack of respectability. It has some interesting things to say about the left-behind areas of society, particularly in the collapsing suburbs of the precarious middle class, but it loses itself in bloody action and overly-literal virus monsters (which approach, but fail to reach, the pleasing absurdity of jelly monsters). 

In the stronger stories, though—the vast preponderance of what’s collected here—Fawver’s work is leading weird fiction for the 21st century, a necessary focus on collective perseverance through desperate, unknowable, absurd times. The “we” of the title is not an outlier, and while Fawver’s focus on community over the alienated individual is, ironically, a very individual development for weird fiction, it’s one that I hope takes root in the genre at large. They’re surprisingly hopeful for stories about the doomed. The world around us was always already weird, unknowable, vast, and destructive—but at least we’re stuck in it together.

Zachary Gillan is a critic residing in Durham, North Carolina. He blogs infrequently at https://doomsdayer.wordpress.com/ and tweets somewhat more frequently at @robop_style.

Transparency Statement

This review was commissioned from a hard pitch and was edited by Adam McLain and copyedited by Alex Skopic. The author is an editor with ARB but received no compensation for this review, beyond the review copy of the book, which was furnished by Grimscribe Press.

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