Grimscribe Press. 2021 ISBN: 978-0-578-83688-1. Pp., 140.
Despite his aversion to being pegged to a specific genre, Michael Cisco has become one of the premier writers of “weird fiction” today. As to whether this is a genre in its own right or simply a catch-all phrase for works that defy categorization is another matter. Yet if he is a doyen of the “new weird,” it is hardly to icons like Lovecraft that he looks. Cisco’s style and subject matter are unique. Much like Robert Aickman, his stories capture a pervasive sense of disquiet and psychological Angst. The environments and the landscapes may seem familiar, and yet there is something utterly wrong with the picture we are given.
In Antisocieties, a collection of ten short stories, Cisco offers readers a glimpse into a lonely and at times anhedonic world where human relationships tend toward the fetishistic, where intense desires are expressed through cold and analytical prose, and a disturbing sense of isolation looms over everything. Alienation is a constant theme throughout the book, as might be guessed from the title. In “Intentionally Left Blank” we are introduced to a guest who wears a Medusa mask that conceals his humanity. At the end of the story, the lead protagonist, a child who has been left in the care of an aging aunt, dons the same mask and hits the road, leaving us with the lines “I don’t know anybody. I never will.” In “The Starving of Saqqara” we encounter a man afflicted by automatonophilia who finds himself rejected by the very Egyptian statues he cannot live without. The book’s eponymous story is dystopian in its implications, as an individual attempts to prefigure what an administrator wants to hear and faces severe punishment for his inability to do so.
If Cisco’s characterizations and themes hint at an underlying philosophy in his work, it is ultimately a philosophy that defies generalization. Many of the stories in Antisocieties lack resolution, and it is precisely this lack of resolution that gives them their strange quality. In “Milking,” for example, we find a child who is given a fresh glass of milk to drink on a regular basis, yet what produces the milk is left up to the reader’s imagination. Nevertheless, we are told that the revelation of this secret is associated with “the first of many” wounds, suggesting that we are experiencing a traumatic event in a child’s life as the simplicity of childhood is contaminated by realities of which we would prefer to remain nescient.
Those who like stories with linear narratives and well-packaged conclusions may find Cisco distant. He challenges readers on a different level, asking a lot of them in the process. However, Cisco proves himself well adept at conjuring a sense of anxious dread found in the ordinary. Each story is a view into a distorted psyche where reality becomes soft around the edges and what we believe we know is never certain.