The Church of Fakes Reproduces Fakes: Review of Stories of the Eye
Stories of the Eye. Edited by Sam Richard & Joe Koch. Weirdpunk Books, October 2022.
In 1816, seven and a half decades before H. P. Lovecraft was born, E.T.A. Hoffmann published “The Sandman”, a nightmarish story of confused identities and unsettling automatons in which the word “eye(s)” recurs 64 times in 17 pages. A century later, in 1919, Freud published the essay “The Uncanny”, centrally concerned with “the ‘Sand-Man’ who tears out children’s eyes.” In 1928, Georges Bataille published his intensely transgressive novella “Story of the Eye”. And now, a further century later, Weirdpunk Books have published Stories of the Eye, a weird horror anthology edited by Joe Koch and Sam Richard.
I say this to emphasize the centrality of perception and uncanny creation in weird fiction, and to push against the common misconception that it’s a mode invented by Lovecraft to write about academics finding tentacles in unexpected places. The genre preceded him, and while his formulation might have taken the fore in the American field in particular, there have always been counter-hegemonic tendencies, stories more interested in subtlety and abstraction than in new twists on Cthulhu and his cults.
A collection of thirteen horror stories about artists and their creations, Stories of the Eye is an excellent reminder that this tendency is as alive as ever. To weird fiction’s longstanding emphasis on perception and the uncanny, these stories add another layer of abstraction and representation: what happens in between the artist’s vision and the expression of their muse, their representation of reality? In addition to this explicit theme, isolation, loneliness, precarity, and queerness (particularly in terms of dysphoria and gender roles) also reverberate. As the editors put it in their intro, “In the process of making art, we change,” and here one finds many artists (and, one might imagine, authors) using the self as canvas.
Joe Koch’s own “All The Rapes in the Museum”, which is just as foreboding as the title suggests, is a standout (as his stories tend to be), a psychedelic prose poem of survival and rebirth in a hellish prison. It takes an oblique approach to the anthology’s theme (and to prose, and to structure, and to metaphor…), expanding on the artist + muse = creation formula to enact a kind of gnostic creation myth, with the titular museum also a repository of everyday objects, also a prison, also a cocoon, with patriarchal demiurges imprisoning the narrator and their beloved. Koch’s story relies on a more primordial form of creation than the representation central to most of the other stories here. Sam Richard’s story, for example, is a blunter take, jettisoning subtlety (again, the title is perfectly apt: “Jizz Christ”) in favor of an acidic clarity regarding transgression, both artistic and societal, in the act of creation. Both stories, though, emphasize art and togetherness/acceptance and the authentic self.
This theme of authenticity runs throughout the collection—“The church of fakes reproduces fakes”, Koch’s narrator reminds us. Matt Neil Hill’s “In Thrall To Your Cathode Star” is about art created in privacy and isolation, outside of the bounds of the marketplace: “Creator, curator, custodian, consumer: I am all these, all at once, alone.” Like Koch’s, it’s a story of isolation and imprisonment, written in a similarly feverish, intense register, spiky and difficult; it tends to run-on sentences off-set by semicolons, and includes a similar mysterious imprisonment, this time in a hybrid hospital asylum prison. It’s surgery (and/or butchery) as performance art in a Gnostic world, breaking down the barriers between body and canvas, artist and muse.
Similarly, Jeannine, the protagonist of LC von Hessen’s excellent “Efface”, “preferred artifice that acknowledged what it was,” the self-evidently unreal output of NYC’s art world as opposed to the dead-on-arrival simulacra of the suburbs that she had fled. The most obvious descendant of “The Sand-Man” here, “Efface” situates uncanny automatons in 1980s Manhattan to question the relationship between art, simulation, and life. Jeannine’s hunt for companionship drags her into the orbit of a mysterious choreographer whose doll-like automatons create an orgiastic performance art of undeath and/or non-life. The multivalent title—marking the protagonist’s self-imposed insignificance in her day job, the antagonist’s recusal from the public eye, and the uncanny birth of the story’s climax—is representative of the intelligent approach von Hessen brings to bear on their material, the link between artistic creation and sexual reproduction.
Where von Hessen’s bodies in motion are choreographed, Donyae Coles and Ira Rat’s stories star artists improvising, creating in the moment and channeling their own pregnant potential. Coles’ humanistic “The Dancer, The Dance” centers a painter breaking down; jagged, technicolor prose and the repeated mantra “(She hadn’t slept in days)” anchora tight focus on the protagonist’s interiority and frustrated potential. Ira Rat’s “I’m the Last Person I’d Want to Be” follows a perfect opening cadenza about the post-traumatic effects of abuse with the story of a photographer in an Iowa flophouse capturing his own stages of dissolution and bloom by means of daily Polaroid self-portraits. Like Coles, Rat uses repetition to highlight the daily practice of moment-to-moment creation, similarly breaking down the separation between art and artist, his protagonist “Gray” (not their real name, which is never given) wondering “But when this comes out, is Gray just the subject or also the creator? Who am I when I start to try to parcel out who gets credit? Or is there a separation at all? After all this, will ‘Gray’ become nothing, or will I?” Like Koch’s cocooned prisoner, like Richard’s outcast lovers, like Hill’s asylumned artist, the protagonists of all of these stories run up against the unreality of representation, the uncanniness of the real.
Typically, in reviewing anthologies, it’s clear which stories demand a close reading and discussion, but Stories of the Eye is so consistent in both theme and quality that I’ve had to select almost at random. Any reader with an interest in the uncanny, the dark, the transgressive and the avant garde will be well-served here. The descendents of Hoffmann and Bataille have just as much claim to weird fiction as do those of Lovecraft, and this anthology is a delightfully unsettling reminder of that.
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.
This review was commissioned from a hard pitch and was edited by Misha Grifka 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 Weirdpunk Books.
ARB is a BookShop.org affiliate and may receive a portion of book sales purchased through links on this page. Please visit our Support & Transparency page to learn more.