Essay: Extremities, Kathe Koja, 1998.extremities

Extremities reprints 14 Koja stories and includes two original ones. The original publication dates of those reprints range from 1990 to 1996. There are no collaborations.

The stories range from high weirdness to non-fantastic ruminations on famous poets.

Arrangement for Invisible Voices” (Dark Voices, 1993) literalizes that anthology’s concept with Olson, a man who hears “not only the cries of the dying but the screams of the murdered” though here’s it’s not other humans. (An early indicator of Koja’s animal rights activism?) Olson first hears the voices at a pig roast:

… it soared through the talk like a scream through mutters, actually piercing, his ears felt bruised from the pressure, his auditory canal seemed to swell, what in God’s name is going on and on and then, rising an order of magnitude so there was no longer even the possibility of concealing its effect, he fell to his knees, buckling like punched, the singing scream no longer an expression of pain but pain itself and possessed at the same time of a beauty so eerie and fierce that while he pounded at his ears to stop the sound he was obscurely glad he could not …

The erotic and the weird are often linked in Koja’s fiction, especially The Cipher (though the appeal of the Funhole to Nakota isn’t necessarily an erotic one) and “Angels in Love” which is also in this collection. In this story, the link is definitely of a negative sort.

The story opens up with Olson rendered impotent with wife Laurah because he hears those sounds during sex. Eventually, it wrecks not only their sex life but marriage. Olson even talks to a Barbie doll as a sort of counselor.

An even more common theme in Koja’s fiction than transcendence and transformation is communication. After all, what is it all those artists are trying to do? What is it that so many lovers lose in her stories except the chance or even ability to speak or to only speak with violence. Talking with a Barbie sure seems an example of this.

There is some general Christian imagery and vocabulary in the story: the sounds Olson hears are described as a “hellish sound” and an “angels’ cacophony”. The story ends with a hint that the weirdness that has entered into Olson’s life is infectious. Laurah starts hearing the sounds as well as Ted – perhaps her lover and called “Doctor Ted” so perhaps a psychologist.

The brief asides of marital arguments are well done, and this also seems evidence that Koja tends to write stories close together that involve similar themes and images. The murderous and impotent Hemingway in Koja’s collaboration with Barry Malzberg, “Literary Lives” shows up in a 1994 story. Since this post is already long enough, I’ll leave other examples for readers to discover.

The Neglected Garden” (Fantasy & Science Fiction, 1991) is a good example of how re-reading Koja often, though not always, rewards with insights – and sometimes more questions. Another thing not necessarily a bad thing with weird fiction.

When I first read the story on its original publication, I thought the ending obscure and the story absurd in its real-world context.

However, the story, all those years ago, this first brush with her work, planted Koja’s name in my brain as a writer to look at again given this story’s my fascination with its grotesque imagery.

The story is of a romantic relationship gone very wrong. An unnamed (yet another) protagonist, breaks up with lover Anne.

Anne, however, is not going to go away gently. In fact, she’s not going to go away at all:

She was on the fence. The back fence, old now and leaning, half its braces gone. She sat at the spot where the rotted wood ended and the bare fencing began, legs straight out, head tipped just slightly to the right. Her arms were spread in a loose posture of crucifixion, and through the flesh of her wrists she had somehow pierced the rusty wire of the fence, threading it around the tendons, the blood rich and thick and bright like some strange new food and while he stood there staring and staring a fly settled down on the blood and walked around in it, back and forth.

The narrator does make an aborted call to the police to get rid of Anne, “Our Lady of the Back Forty”, but he declines to finally call them over lest they think he’s the one who wired Anne to the fence. He tells an angry neighbor he’s called the police though. A doctor friend of the narrator is invited over, and he leaves in disgust.

One can see the neighbor and doctor easily put off by the narrator as a symbol of imperfect humaneness. Both seem to just accept the narrator’s explanations.

One can also see the story as a metaphor for the battle of wills and cruelty and need and neglect that characterize a pathological relationship, here a relationship our protagonist cannot escape. You could see the story that way, but I think it’s a misreading, too sympathetic to the narrator and too wide.

I think the key is when the narrator keeps looking at Anne in the backyard: “It occurred to him that he was paying her more attention than ever now”.

I think Koja’s title may have been inspired by an old English ballad, “Rue” (aka “Sprig of Thyme”, “The Seeds of Love”, “Maiden’s Lament”, “Garners Gay”, “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme”). I base this speculation on the number of ballad related stories in the Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Volume 2 edited by Koja which I’ll be taking a brief look at in another posting. That ballad compares love to a garden though it’s hardly the only work of art to do so.

The story ends not with any Catholic imagery but something from Hinduism, something from Kali:

 … in one instant every flower in her mouth turned black, a fierce and luminous black and her eyes were black too, her lips, her hands black as slowly she separated herself from the fence, dragging half of it with her, rising to a shambling crouch and her tongue free and whipping like a snake as she turned, much too slowly, it was as if his disbelief impeded him, turning back to see in an instant’s glance that black black tongue come crawling across the grass, and she behind it with a smile.

It occurs to me that, since “Illusions in Relief” (Pulphouse, 1990) features a character who shows up at protagonist Joseph’s house unannounced, whose skin slowly turns green, and that flowers spring from Joseph’s finger at the end and that Koja wrote “Remnants” for 2002’s The Green Man anthology, she has had a long interest in the Green Man myth and that this is a modern retelling.

Joseph is another one of Koja’s mad artists (most clearly the protagonist of 1992’s Bad Brains but also, in some sense, 1993’s Skin as well). They have prodigious artistic powers linked to the onset of visions and madness. Here Joseph’s amazingly productive collage work keeps horrible hallucinations at bay – and unaccountably people camp outside his doorstep thinking that he can heal them or fix their problems.  There’s no evidence in the story they are being healed or helped– even at the end when something miraculous happens to Joseph.

You could maybe see this story as a metaphor for the artist’s relation to his audience since people think that Joseph can help them and provide him material to use. (The story is tellingly titled “Illusions of Relief”). I suspect the story only gains real coherence if viewed from the selfish viewpoint of the artist:  work needs to be done without any feelings of guilt (so Joseph is advised) and that it “Never Fails to Bring Relief” and “riding the current”, e.g. creating, infuses him with creativity and fertility as symbolized by him becoming green. Joseph’s visitor also says he doesn’t want to be cured of becoming green, of becoming an artist. For me, it was a somewhat underdeveloped story about what art provides the artist and nobody else.

The Reckoning” is another somewhat underdeveloped story which may explain why it’s original to this collection. One of Koja’s poor artists, sculptor Drew, is on a road trip to go to a potential commission. He’s guilt ridden because his wife Lucy died in a car accident shortly after they argued about him not earning any money while she worked as nurse.

Sleeping in his car one night outside of a vacant house, Drew encounters a bunch of revenants with silver “angel eyes” where images of the past can play and, in a garbled form, sometimes the future. One of them is Lucy who begs him to stay. Koja tries to answer some obvious questions. No, not everyone who dies comes back as a revenant. No, they are not from areas nearby. No, it doesn’t depend on how they died. The revenants won’t travel far because they fear they will be killed or held as lab animals if they are discovered. Indeed, protagonist Drew is killed by neighbors at story’s end.

The revenants seem to need no substance, just want company. They can form new attachments after resurrection. Two that were unrelated in life now seem like mother and daughter. But they have no deep mental life. No deep thoughts or philosophy from this bunch. The closest to that is he sole revenant, who was a suicide, fascinated by burning bugs and seeing if they come back in an attempt to replicate the revenant process). Drew plans on leaving Lucy but is killed first. There isn’t a lot of Koja’s long sentences or Christian imagery here apart from angel eyes.

I think you can see it as another consideration of human lives with truncated or absent social ties to families, another variation on all the artists from her novels I’ve looked at where the main characters exist in a shrinking circle of acquaintances and with almost no family contact.

Like Koja’s novel The Cipher, “The Company of Storms“(Fantasy & Science Fiction, 1992) is mostly just an atmospheric tale of weirdness intruding into everyday bored teenage reality. (As an aside, it’s interesting to ponder if Koja could credibly write these stories now in an age of cellphones and social media.)

Here a group of teenagers, realistically described in their clothes, behavior, and pickup truck, occasionally troll a local lake and drag up weird aquatic creatures, sort of aquamen, whose fate they’re not really clear on. Does the uncle of one sell them for lab subjects in medical research or to freak shows? I suppose the point of the story may be they are unmoved by the wonder of what they are experiencing, caught up in quotidian teenage life, just looking for another distraction. The only person who seems to feel the wonder, who ponders about the creature’s life, is Lewis who is something of an outlier in the group.

I suspect there may be a bit of Flannery O’Connor who Koja said in a Locus interview (June 1992) was one of her favorite authors, in “Teratisms” (A Whisper of Blood, 1992). The teratisms of the title refers to fetal monstrosities, and, in this story, Alex seems to fulfill that roll. He may be a sort of vampire or a cannibal or just a regular killer.

His older siblings, Mitch, and sister Randle (another one of Koja’s odd and dislocating names of an androgynous sort), have been hauling him from place to place seemingly to avoid him being caught for his crimes. It seems they are doing it because of a promise made to their dead mother.

Koja’s prose lacks her usual long, rolling sentences. But it’s oblique enough and confusing enough in its switching of names (Randle’s real name is Marie-Claire) to say nothing of the litany of cities reeled off where Alex did whatever he does to require two readings.  However, I think it is a rather slight story. It ends with Mitch deliberately crashing his car into Alex and perhaps killing himself and Randle.

If there is a O’Connor influence beside the setting in the American South, it’s that it brings to mind O’Conner saying “Tenderness leads to the gas chamber.” Family loyalty and filial tenderness certainly lead to death here.

Angels in Love” (Fantasy & Science Fiction 1991) is thoroughly in the zone of kinky, obsessive, destructive transcendence bounded by Koja’s early novels The Cipher (1991), Skin (1993), and Kink (1993).

Lurleen, like Nakota and Nicholas in The Cipher, works at a dead end retail job (though more economically viable in the 1990s then now). And, like Nakota, she finds her object of obsession in an apartment building. But it’s no “Funhole”.

It’s the noise of rough sex next door:

The sounds, arpeggio of groans, that basso almost-unheard thump, thump, rhythmic as a headboard or a set of baritone springs but that wasn’t it either. Subsonic; felt by the bones. Lying there listening her own bones tingled, skin rippled light with goosebumps, speculation: who made those strange strange sounds? Someone with a taste for the rough stuff, maybe, someone who liked the doughy strop of flesh.

Lurleen (another odd name) pleasures herself, loudly, to the nightly sounds. She begins to look for her mysterious neighbors. Who are these people of the “nightly ravishment”?

She eventually sets eyes on one – the very unpreposing Anne – “skinny … chicken-bones, short blonde hair . . . flat chest . . . Purely ordinary.

Lurleen begins to think Anne does not deserve her lover. Another version of the ménage a trois, the central motif of Kink, develops. Lurleen loudly masturbates during those ravishments, hoping to lure “the boy next door” to her.

And then, one night, the sounds just end in “mid-jerk, mid-groan”.

Curious and worried about Anne, Lurleen runs next door through the hot hallway.

And we find out why it’s hot.

The “angels in love” are “mating in the cold graceful rapture of thin air”, floating.

The “boy next door” has a body “beautiful and huge”. He also has wings.

And the lovers’ embrace is a thing of horror. Anne’s back is “bent like a coat hanger”, “her eyes wide and vacant”, and she drools a black jelly.

But that doesn’t dissuade Lurleen:

Her mouth as open as Anne’s as she approached the vast brutality of his embrace, room enough for two there, oh my yes. Fierce relentless encroachment promising no pleasure but the pleasure of pain. Not an angel, never had been. Or maybe once, long, a long long time ago.

Like the lovers Sophie and Jess in Kink, Lurleen feels the lure of the menage a trois. Like Nakota and Tess in Skin, there seems a transcendent quest here if only in the common form of sex, but sex, of course, is a type of magic and a part of many magic systems and religions.

A winged angel is, of course, not a specifically Catholic image. But there is certainly Christian imagery here.

Lurleen, entering that hot hallway, enters hell and maybe sees not just a demon, a fallen angel, but possibly Lucifer himself. Describing the winged “man” as having “the summoning glance of a star” brings to mind Lucifer’s other name from Isaiah 14:12: the “morning star” in the New International Version of the Bible.

The story, in Lurleen’s final, willing movement toward transcendent destruction, struck me as an eroticized version of a similar theme in many of Clark Ashton Smith’s stories, particularly “The City of the Singing Flame”.

Waking the Prince” (Ruby Slippers, Golden Tales, 1995) shows Koja in her usual form: long, sinuous sentences mixing interior monologue, thoughts, and description together.

There are actually two counterpoint stories here. The opening one is of a sleeping prince, naked and forever asleep in a glass case. Why isn’t clear. He’s not said to have been cursed. His father despairs at his fate (and utters a bit from Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus: “This is hell.”) His mother is going insane, convinced that her son is locked in the case:

Who has stolen the key? for she insists there is a key, one true key the presence of which will bring to light the lock unseen, will turn that lock, will free her boy from his silence . . .

This metaphorically mirrors the alternating story set in modern day where a young woman, Cissy, picks up a really handsome guy in a bar and starts talking up with him. But he never listens to anything, including instruction on how she wants him to dress at a wedding. Cissy, like the Queen, is missing a key. She wants to free her boyfriend from silence and pay attention. Significantly, neither sleeping prince or emotionally sleeping handsome guy are given a proper name.

Like “The Neglected Garden”, this is a story about the lack of talk and communication and social isolation.

Ballad of the Spanish Civil Guard” first appeared in Mike Resnick’s Alternate Warriors in 1993. This story bears no trace I can see of being an alternate history.

The subject is Spanish poet Frederico García Lorca who supplied the concluding quote in Koja’s Bad Brains from 1992.

Before this story, I had never hear of Lorca though I’ve listened to The Clash’s “Spanish Bombs” many times, and he is mentioned there.

The story takes place over just a few hours with Lorca in jail, accused of being a Red and thought homosexual. An unnamed official offers him salvation in exchange for writing for the government, but it won’t be poetry. It will be propaganda. He refuses so is executed.

There is plenty of Catholic imagery in Lorca’s final thoughts and prayer as well as plenty of references to Lorca’s love of gypsies:

He will die, he thinks, like a matador, like Ignacio Sanchez Majias: I remember a sad breeze through the olive trees. Like a matador, like Christ, dying with his hands open in the shadeless midnight of the olive grove. He is not trembling any longer, nor shivering, he barely feels the manacles about his wrists. The teacher is shot dead; his wooden leg is particularly pitiful. …

What will the gypsies make of his blood, his sweet white bones? He has heard the body voids itself, in death, leaks urine and nightsoil, semen and sweat. All of it has power, all; even his hair against the ground like roots asearch for purchase, dark and hungry motion on the pebbles and the stones; does not the cante jondo tell us so? Perhaps they will fashion another poet from his leavings, a stronger man than he. Or perhaps it will be a different species entirely; a warrior, say.

Lorca was interested in gypsies and wrote a book of poetry called (in translation) Gypsy Ballads.

From what I could determine, it is not known who killed Lorca on August 19, 1936. It was thought to be Nationalists at Fuente Grande – which is where he is executed in the story. Some think his being homosexual led to his death. His body has never been found which plays into his final, gypsy-fueled idea that a better poet, a stronger person, maybe a warrior will spring up from his bodily fluids.

“Like “Ballad of the Spanish Civil Guard”,  “Lady Lazarus” (Fantasy & Science Fiction, 1996) has no discernable fantastic content. It’s a fictionalized account of Sylvia Plath’s last days, and the title is from one of her poems. It exhibits a moody tone and characteristic Koja prose most reminiscent of her work with Barry Malzberg. Since I’ve read little of Plath’s poetry, my knowledge of her is slim. (And her name always brings to mind the line “Sylvia Plath’s got nothing on me.” from Julie Brown’s song “Will I Make It Through the Eighties?”)

The erotic story “The Disquieting Muse” originally appeared in 1994’s Little Deaths. It plays with Koja’s ideas of art as a catalyst for self-expression and a path to freeing ourselves.

The protagonist is a therapist in a mental asylum, but he was an art major and “forever more art than therapy”. He’s surprisingly successful and lucky though, when a patient cuts herself during therapy, a colleague expresses scorn for him.

His relationship with his lover (perhaps girlfriend, perhaps wife) Margaret encounters problems due to his occasional impotence. Just then patient Ruth shows up in his therapy group. She’s an unattractive woman of greasy, tangled hair and gritty feet, taciturn and blank-faced.

But, from the beginning, her drawings are erotic. Her first one is of a “large flayed penis” which plugs into the therapist’s impotence. And it isn’t the last drawing oddly relevant to the therapist’s situation.

He starts to feel a strange, obsessive, sexual attraction to Ruth and masturbates to her drawings.

One drawing is titled “Margaret’s Fallopian tubes”. Ruth’s last drawing is signed with a pencil she inserts in her vagina – one of her increasingly sexual displays.

At story’s end, when the therapist has taken a day off in disgust at himself for his increasing attraction to Ruth, she shows up mysteriously at his house where she announces she is his “lucky star”, his charm.  This is sort of a play on Koja’s expressed notion that the artist, because you can consider the therapist as an artist of sorts, can become obsessed with pursuing a dark muse, a notion which transforms him. In this case, the muse is Ruth.

The story ends on an ambiguous note. Does the therapist return to work? Die? We are only told that messages from Margaret go unanswered.

We can see this as another example, like Koja’s The Cipher and Skin, of artistic obsession destroying personal relationships.

I’m just going to go into full arrogant blogger mode and say that the Denice “Queen of Angels” (Omni, 1994) is dedicated to is Koja’s sister who, I believe, is (was?) a nurse like the protagonist Deborah. (I know Koja has a sister and some dim memory says she worked as a nurse.)

The story is told with plenty of real world horror since it is set in a long-term care facility of comatose and Alzheimer patients, some whose families only visit them once a year and complain about the care.

Into this detailed account of the world of nursing in such a facility, comes the weirdness of Elliot He’s a comatose patient who seems somewhat cognizant though he never speaks. But he does start to exude odd “pearls” out of his mouth. Deborah keeps them, does not chart them, and is puzzled by their turning pale white to the color of ash.

At story’s end, though, she realizes that Elliot has given her the gift of being the “angel for the dead, the queen of angels”. It is implied she somehow has been given the gift to magically end the suffering of her patients and take them to (as the final line says) “where at last and always we were always meant to be”. The story is full of Catholic imagery from the title onward and is the most spiritual of Koja’s stories I’ve read.

Jubilee”, a 1995 story, comes from the anthology Ghosts and is an example of Koja contributing stories to theme anthologies if the theme was sufficiently broad. This is a ghost story, but it is ghost of a marriage. In a marriage of no emotional intimacy with a man and woman who never talk (and, yet again, are unnamed), the woman has painful intercourse and is sexually frustrated. She begins to hear voices of intimacy and even feels touches when no one is around. Eventually, in an almost orgasmic reverie, in jubilation, she, after being woken up by her husband for perfunctory intercourse, becomes a ghost herself.

Upon waking, her husband finds her vanished. But, as the ghostly voice made itself known to the wife, the husband eventually perceives what his wife has become and joins her. It is another case of what Koja herself identifies as a primary theme of hers: transformation.

The story ends on some sexual imagery which doesn’t quite work apart from providing some basic weirdness:

I’m real, she said, and saw both their voices, open as windows above their heads, open as an open mouth, a spread vagina, ready and waiting as a waiting ear.

Perhaps the vagina is spread because an emotional connection has been established and an implicit acknowledgement, particularly for women, of the sexual importance of an emotional connection and talk. But, it should be noted, that the man joins his wife in a new, translated state.

Pas de Deux”, a 1995 story originally published in the Dark Love anthology, is sort of a variation on Koja’s typical theme of destructive artistic obsession. Like Koja’s Skin, the protagonist is a dancer. Unlike Bibi in that novel, the protagonist is not exactly interested in transcendence, just pursuing dance obsessively and solo. She doesn’t even have a dance troupe.

The “dark love” aspect comes in with the relationship she has with Edward, an older man who once was the lover of a famous ballerina, Adele, and also the lover of her daughter who he was once married to.

The story, often full of Koja’s beautiful prose, charts the heroine’s (again unnamed) descent into anorexia and seeming near-madness. She tires of lover Edward. He is rich, and their relationship started out with him often giving her money. But he frequently humiliates her by comparing her to world-famous Adele.

She walks out on him, gets a job in a book store and is fired for theft, winds up a stripper and then a private stripper – where people constantly remark on her thinness – and ends up being hired, unknown to her, to do a private performance for Edward.

The metaphorical dance of Edward and the heroine – perhaps lethally ended with the heroine’s “slow deliberate kick” – is wealthy older man with a poor young woman. At one point, Edward tries to trade oral sex for cash and the heroine attacks him.

From the first sentence, we hear the heroine likes young men, “princes”. She takes several home for fevered sex at the beginning. This is echoed by Adele writing, in her autobiography, “You must find your prince, you must make him your own.” But Adele didn’t keep Edward, and the heroine doesn’t keep any of her lovers, her princes or the older prince Edward. Neither they nor Edward rescue her.

And, at story’s end, when we hear of her “crested pelvic arch”, the last words of the story, we can infer that not only is perhaps Edward dead but the heroine is not long for this world.

It’s another Koja story of obsession and increasing social isolation and a bad end for its main character.

Bondage” is an odd, enigmatic story original to the anthology.

On first reading, it seemed just a bit of kink Koja couldn’t or didn’t try to publish elsewhere.

But a second reading helped me appreciate it more.

It uses bondage and discipline and sadomasochistic concepts and has explicit sex, but the only mentioned bondage paraphernalia actually used is a mask.

Conservatively, you can see the woman’s (and, again, neither main character is designated with a proper noun) refusal to ever accept a ring from the man because it is a symbol of bondage as the beginning of the destruction of love. The conversation turns to whether the man has ever done S&M or B&D.

He says he’s not into pain. She tells him it’s not about pain, it’s about “Who’s on top”.

She buys a white bondage mask from a store, and the couple take turns wearing the mask during sex. The man feels like “Everyman” when he wears the mask and hurts the woman during sex, and once, when he is masked and disobeys an order to remain still, the woman strikes him.

Bad feelings are present, but things seem to get patched up.

The man buys a rather devilish looking, it’s even red, mask. He ponders in a mirror what he’s become:  “… himself a stranger:  sex become power, desires become demands”.

When he arrives home, he finds the woman in a new, black mask with “no hint of the human inside”.  The story ends on a very enigmatic line:

Silence: arms crossed, her breath in hitching motion, both of them waiting for him to strip and cross the room.

What to make of this? Has a new and destructive turn been taken in the relationship with the innocent white mask replaced by satanic black and red? Has the sharing relationship of a single mask been swept away, selfish individual masks replacing a shared mask? Is the woman attempting to reassert herself? And, if the latter, where will the escalation of demands and the refusal to share lead? A new and better equilibrium? But, if so, a dehumanized one – the woman inhuman looking, the man ‘Everyman”? And is being “Everyman” to the woman you love a good thing?

There is no transcendent theme here. Neither the man or woman seek transcendence. But a transformation of one or both seems to have occurred.

It also occurs to me that Koja might give no name to many of her characters to take away one more barrier to readers identifying with her characters and their often strange situations.

Besides the interview I’ve linked to in a prior post and the Locus interview I referenced, I also consulted another interview with Koja at Weird Fiction Review for this and the previous post.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.





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