It's impossible to talk about this book without first referring to the product: in stark defiance of the old saw concerning books and their covers, the instant I got this item in my hands, I was amazed at how beautiful it is; a solid, weighty hard back, embossed titles down the lip of the cover, the images decorating its exterior a mass of absurdity and surrealism; inviting the eye to wander over every detail in the manner of carvings on temples, the statuary of cathedrals.
My first thought: I hope that the quality of writing is even half as impressive. Something so beautiful deserves to be good.
It's my earnest pleasure, then, to report that Bastards of the Absolute is one of the most impressive titles I've read for some time. It's increasingly rare these days that I come across a writer that makes me sit up and take notice; that engages me to the point that I want to know who they are, where they come from, what else they've done. Adam S. Cantwell is one of those rare beasts, his writing an exercise in utter precision; the prose so fine tuned, so technically apt it's impossible for the reader to not be impressed. Beyond the technical precision of the writing itself lie the stories; strange and surreal post-modern myths, explorations of the darkest existentialism in which worlds of mindless accumulation choke on their own redundancy, in which acquisitiveness has become more and less than religion; more and less than love, first hand accounts of societies and their vicissitudes from the perspectives of prisoners interred in their very walls, journals of commercial slavers afflicted with moth-like metamorphoses in the cultures they have come to preside over...stories as elegant in theme and conception as the are in their recording. Here, the banal and the concrete sifts into nightmare state with the natural ease of fire into smoke, lives of certainty, of pure assumption, splitting, sloughing away from themselves, the revelations they spill or give birth to universally disturbing, but rarely completely nihilistic; even in the most monstrous of transformations, Cantrell seems to find a glimmer of macabre beauty, to quietly celebrate what others might bemoan or lament. It's a rare quality in horror fiction at present, which is generally predominated by titles which follow highly proscribed and standardised moral codes and absolutisms or which are so saturated in irony, it's difficult to tell what occurs in earnest and what does not.
This is an entirely other species of fiction; one which is not concerned with having its tongue buried so deep in its cheek it could lick out its own ear from the inside; here are earnest and poetic examinations of humanity, of culture, of history; the vicissitudes and vacillations that both define and rob our lives of definition. Cantwell quietly acknowledges inconstancy as the only constant; of how powerless human beings generally find themselves against the factors of circumstances and idiot chance; of cultural pressure and political design. The result is fiction that could so easily be morbid or moribund in tone, and which is, to a certain degree, but which also finds beauty in abjection; in the breaking down and dissolution of lives, states; possibility where there might otherwise be only hopelessness.
In concert with the aching precision of the prose; its almost poetry like swells and rhythms, Bastards of the Absolute stands as a book that deserves to be read; a template or example of how the disturbing; the tropes and forms of what might ostensibly be considered horrific fiction, can be utilised to create and engender so much more than shock or repulsion; how even those states have a degree of potential within them.
On a personal note, it has been a sincere pleasure to experience this collection, as well as intimidating to find a product of such professionalism; as a reader, it stands as a rarity; something that the audience and market ache for. As a writer, it is simultaneously inspiring and intimidating; it demonstrates the extent of possibility, the degree of refinement that such prose can demonstrate, whilst maintaining weight and evocation. Reading something like this makes me up my own game; it stands as an example of the raw quality that can and should exist out there; that publishers should, quite frankly, be looking for.
These are stories that treat themselves and their readers with utmost respect; as entities of imagination and intellect; as though they have minds to make up. You will not find any story here insisting on its own interpretation or significance; they are often open ended, almost fragments that suggest wider narrative or mythology in the surrounding ether. This can fail quite spectacularly in less deft hands, but here, the suggestions are sufficient to set the reader's imagination racing, to puncture it and have it bleed out over the empty spaces. It is a subtle and brilliant technique, one that very few even attempt and so often fail when they do. The stories want to engage the reader; to weave them into themselves, becoming almost symbiotic; not to impose themselves. Also, these are stories of meaning; they resonate with significance, demanding that the reader think and feel; reflect on their imagery, their commentaries. In an age when so, so many collections have the air of being written or produced by committee, their contents contrived to meet particular deadlines, this is the equivalent of a course of minutely prepared restaurant dishes compared to microwave ready-meals.
If you operate in publishing, in fiction; if you have even a passing interest in the subject matter or genre, you owe it to yourself to experience this.
For my part, I'll be on the lookout for more of Adam S. Cantwell's work; the most sincere recommendation I can give.
The stories in Adam Cantwell’s Bastards of the Absolute are richly imagined mysteries. They could be fairly equated with the works of Kafka or Borges if their prose were not so luxuriant and surprising at every turn. Contemplating the mood and storylines of these arresting pieces, a quote from Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym comes to mind:
“My visions were of shipwreck and famine; death or captivity among barbarian hordes; of a lifetime dragged out in sorrow and tears, upon some gray and desolate rock, in an ocean unapproachable and unknown.”
The fate of each protagonist in Cantwell’s collection delineates or fulfills Pym’s fantasy—one that is both lavish in its exoticism and unbounded in its desolation. Although these beings are entrapped in worlds that to all appearances turn upon axes of torment, they are as likely to be resigned as resistant to their cruel destinies. While readers may not chortle in experiencing these awful fantasias, they will be captivated by them.
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