Valentine Horror at the KGB Bar

By Mark L. Blackman: On the evening of Wednesday, February 15, the monthly Fantastic Fiction Readings Series presented horror authors Michael Cisco and Nicholas Kaufmann at its longtime venue, the Red Room of the second-floor KGB Bar in Manhattan’s East Village. (In honor of Valentine’s Day, said Kaufmann, he and Cisco would be “reading our most romantic stories.” Don’t believe it.)

Series co-host Matthew Kressel greeted the crowd, reminded all that readings are always free and there’s no cover charge, and exhorted us to thank the Bar by buying drinks. To cover the Series’ costs (including treating the readers to dinner afterward), he announced that there would likely be a Kickstarter campaign in the spring, so that the Series, which began in the late 1990s, could continue “maybe into the 2090s, when we’re all cyborgs” … or radioactive. He next reported on upcoming readings:

March 15 — Nova Ren Suma and Kiini Ibura Salaam;
April 19 — Seth Dickinson and Laura Anne Gilman
May 17 — Sam J. Miller and E.C. Myers
June 21 –– Catherynne M. Valente and Sunny Moraine

(Further details are available at http://www.kgbfantasticfiction.org/.) All dates are the third Wednesday of the month. He concluded by introducing the first reader of the evening.

Nicholas Kaufmann’s work has been nominated for a Bram Stoker Award, a Thriller Award, and a Shirley Jackson Award. His novels include Dying is My Business and the sequel, Die and Stay Dead, and his latest, from which he read, In the Shadow of the Axe. The story is set in 1826, in a German mountain village, where a necromancer has been abducting villagers. In the scene offered, a raiding party, armed with muskets, blades, Bibles and crosses, has invaded his castle to put an end to his reign of terror. There they face shadows, the spirits of the dead, and learn the horror that has befallen the necromancer’s victims, their neighbors and loved ones.

(With profuse apologies to Kaufmann, perversely, given the chilling tone of his excerpt, lines from an old filksong ran through my mind:

In a castle, on a mountain,
In a village oh so fine,
Lived a doctor off his rocker,
And his name was Frankenstein.

… And he murdered eight or nine,
So the villagers got angry,
Dreadful sore at Frankenstein.”)

After an intermission, co-host Ellen Datlow opened the second half of the evening by introducing the next reader.

Michael Cisco is the author of several novels, including The Divinity Student, The Narrator, The Great Lover, Animal Money, The Wretch of the Sun, and a short story collection, Secret Hours., as well as shorter fiction that has appeared in The Weird, Lovecraft Unbound and Black Wings (among other places). Wearing a loud 1940s Swing Era necktie, he apologized for the slight frog in his throat which, he thought (or hoped) gave him “a sort of Barry White baritone.” After a shout-out to Hippocampus Press’s Derrick Hussey, Cisco described The Wretch of the Sun as a “Shirley-Jacksonesque haunted house novel” with secret police. In the “smart-ass” Preface, from which he read, he considers and examines the (sub)genre of haunted house stories. They are, he said, linked to ghost stories, but are distinct. Ghosts, he observed, may be laid to rest and the disturbances then cease, but a house, once haunted, is always haunted.

The novel itself, he said, weaves through several narratives. He read from scenes in which a policeman “with a rotating name” – it cycles through the letters of the alphabet, making him a sort of Everyman – has been grabbed by the secret police, who interrogate, humiliate and torture him, demanding to know why he is a liar and a traitor. (Secret police, like ghosts, see us, but are themselves unseen.) In another narrative thread, from which he also read, a college student with migraines gets visions which he thinks are fantasies, but which are real. In a final selection, the migraine is given voice! Barry White voice or not, the audience was captivated.

At the back of the room, copies of Kaufmann’s Dying is My Business and Die and Stay Dead, and Cisco’s The Wretch of the Sun were for sale by the Word Bookstores of Greenpoint, Brooklyn (and Jersey City). (In the Shadow of the Axe, said Kaufmann, currently is only available as an e-book from Amazon and Barnes & Noble; the print edition has been delayed.)

Prior to the reading, as usual, Datlow whirled through the audience, taking pictures. Her photos of the event may be seen on her Flickr page, linked to the Series’ website.

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