Simulacrum and Other Possible Realities
Jason V. Brock.
June 2013, $20.00, Trade paper
Reviewed by Michael R. Collings
It sometimes seems that stories—often much like their authors—have shapes and textures. Some feel warm and fuzzy; others are free-form, open, unrestrained; still others are distanced, controlled and controlling.
After reading the stories and poems that comprise Jason V. Brock’s Simulacrum and Other Possible Realities, I realized that no one else could have written these pieces, brought the same sharpness of focus, the same intensity, the same crispness of intellect to bear on such a variety of subjects. I’ve only met Jason once, at the 2012 Horror Writers Association Conference, when he served as a mediator-of-sorts between Rocky Wood and me on a Stephen King panel. Rocky was having serious problems speaking, so as others on the panel contributed their ideas, he wrote his responses on his computer; when the time came, Jason read them aloud and commented on them. At the same time, he re-stated panelists’ comments and audience questions for me, since I could frequently neither hear nor understand them. I was impressed with his skill in handling several tasks simultaneously, in remaining true to the individuals’ intentions and at the same time bringing a unique perspective to them. I left the panel grateful to have had his help and to have met him.
The stories and poems in Simulacrum fit perfectly with my view of the author. They try to mediate, to transliterate as it were, from one mode of thinking to another. The headnote story, “What the Dead’s Eyes Behold” is rather like a 21st-century version of Robert Browning’s remarkable study of abnormal psychology, “Porphyria’s Lover.” In it, the narrator speaks of looking into his beloved’s eyes and, seeing there an instant of perfect, undiluted love for him, “found/A thing to do”—he wraps her hair three times around her throat and strangles her, thus encapsulating forever that single moment. “And yet,” he notes almost as an afterthought, “God has not said a word.”
In Brock’s story, the backgrounds are diametrically opposed to Browning’s. There is no quest for an eternal moment caught in an instant, for perfect love; instead, the character and his victim/sacrifice, Calliope, exist in a world without love, without eternals. And instead of searching for a phantom togetherness in a fraction of time, they deny that any such togetherness can exist. All that exists is death. And, for the narrator, the moment when living eyes look upon death. Hers…and his.
Browning’s lover found solace and comfort; Brock’s does not.
Near the end of the collection, Brock has included his stand-alone novella, “Milton’s Children.” In some ways it is the opposite of “What the Dead’s Eyes Behold.” It is external and objective, the report of an expedition to a cluster of previously unknown islands near the Antarctic. Yet, inexorably, what seems like an everyday mission rapidly shifts to a phantasmagoria of horror ultimately equally inexplicable and inconclusive. (For a longer review of the story, see http://michaelrcollings.blogspot.com/2013/01/jason-v-brocks-miltons-children.html or http://hellnotes.com/miltons-children-book-review).
In between, Brock has incorporated a wide range of stories that challenge the notions of normalcy, rationality, and acceptability. “The Central Coast” has at its core a haunted bottle of wine and the unforeseen consequences of a single drink. In “One for the Road,” there is clearly a serial killer and a victim; the quandary is determining which is which…and who is who—a leitmotif that recurs in story after story. “The Hex Factor” takes as a given a world in which hexes and magic not only work but are proprietor; what would the results be if someone stole another’s Grimoire? “Valor: A Fable” is, again, a story about choice and consequence, told in a just-so-slightly archaic diction that perfectly weds tale to meaning.
Throughout, Brock deals with questions of death and mortality (with a few glances at immortality), of consequence, of choice, of the nature of identity itself. He does not hesitate to incorporate politics, morality, and social causes into the fabric of the stories, but in each instance, what might be merely an authorial intrusion becomes welded to the story itself; to think about vegetarianism in “Milton’s Children,” for example—as the opening pages insist that readers do—is to prepare for the climax, for the realities that the characters discover on the island.
Intercut with the stories are poems that are as compressed and as trenchant as the tales themselves. Typically, Brock explores multiple approaches: line-length free verse; occasional spates of rhyme; typography and the visual effects of composition; even variations in fonts to suggest shifts in meaning.
Taken as a whole, Simulacrum and Other Possible Realities is echt-Jason V. Brock. Each story, each poem carries his unique imprint. Some might take longer than others to resolve, but I the act of considering each lies a significant portion of their power.