Fiction: “Publish and Perish” by James Hynes

Publish PerishI first read this book years ago – like, I was still living with my parents, “years ago”. I found it at the library, and I think the only reason I picked it up was because I had heard good reviews of Mr. Hynes’s next book, Kings of Infinite Space (which I still have yet to read – that’s been on my bookshelf for decades now). The subtitle of this book is “Three Tales of Tenure and Terror”, and y’all should know by now that I have a … different relationship with the horror genre.

Look, I like vampires. Buffy, The Vampire Diaries, Dracula – hell,

OKAY, SO, as I was writing that paragraph, a FUCKING HUGE SPIDER just FUCKING DROPPED from the ceiling. Like, “hey, y’all, I see you’re writing about horror, GET A LOAD OF ME” and I may have flipped out a wee little bit. BECAUSE I DON’T REALLY LIKE SCARY THINGS.

Here are the aspects of horror I enjoy: Vampire-related, to a point. Buffy and Dracula will always remain top spots in my heart, even if upon a second read I found Dracula to be boring. I … no longer know how I feel about the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series. I remember enjoying them at some point, but I haven’t enjoyed one since … ever, according to my blog history. I liked the Sookie Stackhouse series – until I stopped reading it. Although I am in the middle of getting caught up with True Blood right now. (What? Seasons 1-6 are included with Amazon Prime, so why the hell not? If Lifetime’s UnReal isn’t coming back until 2018, what other options for summer cheese do I have? TNT’s Will? Oh dudes – that’s a story for another time.)

Are vampires even considered “horror” anymore? If someone said, “Hey, there’s a new horror movie playing,” my first thought is, “how many people get slashed by things hiding under beds and shit?” Because that’s the thing I hate. I don’t like the idea of people walking into rooms and having blood dripping down the walls. I don’t like slasher films. You will never, ever, get me to watch Saw or Paranormal Activity.

Now, psychological horror – like Hannibal / Silence of the Lambs, or Psycho – those I’ll watch. And if people go back to making goofy horror movies (like The Grudge, or Final Destination II), I may watch one. On Redbox.

I’m also a terrible Mainer, in that I’ve only read one Stephen King novel. It was The Dead Zone, and the only reason I even read it way back when was because Sean Patrick Flanery was playing the bad guy in the USA series way back when, and Sean Patrick Flanery played my favorite Boondock Saint. (I’m going to try The Dark Tower – soon. Maybe.)

So it’s really against my nature to pick up a book in the horror genre. It’s also against my nature – at least, I think – to enjoy it. And it’s really against my nature to enjoy it so much to want to read it again. I think it helps that the three stories in this book aren’t gory or slasher-ey, but more along the lines of WTF.

First up is “Queen of the Jungle”, which stars Paul and Elizabeth, two professors attempting to get tenure, and their cat, Charlotte. Paul and Elizabeth live in Bluff City, Iowa, and Elizabeth lives during the week in Chicago where she’s on a tenure track. When Elizabeth’s away, Paul definitely plays with his mistress, Kym, one of his students. Paul’s a stereotypical adulterous douche: he’s careful enough to make sure Elizabeth doesn’t find out, but he doesn’t care about her feelings enough to stop. He’s also fairly jealous of Elizabeth’s tenure track, as he’s been struggling to get his first thesis published. When Elizabeth tells him that her boss is interested in reading Paul’s research, which could lead to his own tenure-track position at the University of Chicago, Paul is ecstatic, and spends the week frantically fucking Kym and writing down whatever he could.

Meanwhile, Charlotte may or may not be attempting to sabotage Paul. She starts by peeing in Kym’s shoes every time she visits. Or taking Kym’s panties and hiding them, then dragging them out just before Elizabeth gets home. Paul even accuses Charlotte – a cat, remember – of unplugging his computer while he and Kym were out of the room, causing all of his day’s work to be erased.

I should warn cat lovers: Paul is progressively meaner and abusive to Charlotte. And there’s a moment before the climax of the story where it looks as if he kills the cat. (Note, I said looks – the horrific element comes in and allows you, the reader, to determine that for yourself.) And if reading my blurb about it causes you to not pick up the book, well, I can’t say as I blame you. But I’d also like to point out that the next two stories (which I’ll also briefly recap) do not have any harm come to any other animals, so you may want to consider giving the other two stories a chance.

“99” is the middle story, which has as its focus Gregory, a disgraced American anthropology professor vacationing-slash-forced-sabbatical-ing in southern England. The title of the story is taken from the following joke Gregory’s friend Martin tells him:

“A man is jumping up and down on a manhole cover. As he jumps, he’s shouting, ‘Ninety-eight, ninety-eight, ninety-eight…’ Now, another chap comes along and says, ‘What on earth are you doing?’ The first man keeps jumping up and down on the manhole cover, and he says, ‘Ninety-eight … it’s wonderful fun … ninety-eight … you really should try it … ninety-eight…’

“So the second man says, ‘Really? What’s fun about it?’

“And the first man says, ‘Ninety-eight … try it and see … ninety-eight …’

“’All right then,’ says the second man, ‘step aside.’

“So the first man jumps aside, and the second chap steps onto the manhole cover and starts jumping up and down, shouting out, ‘Ninety-eight, ninety-eight, ninety-eight …’”

“I get the picture,” Gregory said. Martin had little sense of pacing, an unfortunate lack in a documentary producer.

“Of course you do.” Martin smiled. “So the first man says, ‘Jump higher.’

“’Like this?’ says the second man, crying, ‘Ninety-eight, ninety-eight, ninety-eight,’ and jumping as high as he can. And as he jumps higher, the first man reaches under him, pulls away the manhole cover, and down falls the second chap into the hole. Then the first fellow puts the manhole cover back over the hole, and starts jumping up and down saying, ‘Ninety-nine, ninety-nine …’” [p. 101-102]

Gregory extends his sabbatical to a small town near Stonehenge named Silbury, which is known for crop circles and other strange phenomena. When he visits the local pub, there’s a wall of photographs of painted people surrounded by local villagers, dating back to the late 1800s. It’s attributed to a local festival, the Seven Sisters – a tradition. Without divulging spoilers, the joke and the festival are connected.

The last story, “Casting the Runes,” stars Virginia, an adjunct professor at a Texas university one paper away from being granted tenure. Unfortunately, her advisor, Victor Karswell, has other ideas – he wants to take her paper and publish it under his own name. And it’s not the first time he’s done this with other students. Virginia refuses and grabs her paper from his hands. When she gets home, she finds small runes written on the side of the last page. And then weird stuff happens.

What I like about this genre of horror is that the horrific aspects could be explained by coincidence or human nature; or, there actually could be a supernatural element behind them. We the reader are allowed to make that decision for ourselves, based on what we believe. If you don’t believe in any supernatural stuff at all, then these tales would fall squarely in the center of psychological terror. If you think maybe there’s something to pagan beliefs, you’ll probably come to a different conclusion.

I like these stories. They’re well-written, and allow the reader to come to their own conclusions. I’ve read a few books lately (to-be-reviewed) where the author tells you exactly what happens and there’s no doubt allowed, and I don’t enjoy those as much. If this type of genre intrigues you, I’d say go ahead and pick up the book. And feel free to skip the first story.

Grade for Publish and Perish: 4 stars