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By Jeremy Shipp
Raw Dog Screaming Press / ISBN: 978-1-933293-40-0
I'm sure some of you must think of it as an insult when I occasionally refer to a book here as "weird;" but believe it or not, so-called "weird fiction" or "weird lit" is in fact a legitimate genre, originally coined by the Romantic writers of the 1800s to describe the absolute strangest of the moody, atmospheric novels they were all pumping out at the time. Let's not forget, after all, that the term "romantic" has changed quite considerably in our society since those days; although now primarily used to describe a gooey love story, in the Victorian Age it meant any story with a gloomy, dramatic, emotional feel, a direct rebellion by that generation against the rational Enlightenment of their parents' and grandparents' times. A direct line can be drawn, weird-lit fans claim, from such projects on the fringe of Romanticism (including such works as Nathaniel Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables, which I'll be reviewing here next week) straight to such modern genre masters as Stephen King, Clive Barker, Mark Danielewski and DB Weiss, often through such 20th-century transitionary writers as HP Lovecraft (the first weird author to add a distinctly otherworldly element to the genre) and William Burroughs (the first to add academic respectability).
One such contemporary weird writer, for example, is Californian Jeremy Shipp, a highly respected genre author who has nonetheless spent most of his career so far toiling in the unglamorous world of fanzines and the like; ah, but now Vacation is out, his very first traditional full-length prose novel, which in a perfect world will finally start helping him get the larger respect he deserves. Because frankly, Shipp is about as great a weird author as weird literature gets, even while acknowledging that there are certain weaknesses to the genre in general as well; that anyone who is a fan of strange stories and off-kilter characters is bound to love this novel, and in fact love it more passionately than the current weird authors they only think they love. This isn't going to stop many of you from intensely disliking it, don't get me wrong -- that's the dice roll you always take with genre work, as I'm seemingly always saying here, is that by its very nature you are simply going to have a split audience going right into page one -- but for those who click with stories about the hidden strange details of the cosmos that are very quietly buried among us all the time, you are sure to love this book with the burning intensity that you currently reserve for your Buffy DVDs.
Set in a world very similar to ours but not quite the same, the central premise behind Vacation is a fascinating one that reflects our times; that in the near future, all American citizens are provided a one-time year-long vacation around the world, paid for by the government in exchange for wearing advertisement-laced clothing that entire year, in which an endless series of white-sneakered Midwesterners are shuttled from one country to the next for a total of twelve months, participating in all the things a typical marketing executive will tell us constitute an active and dangerous life (bungee-jumping, Thai prostitutes, swimming with sharks -- basically, anything you can envision in a Mountain Dew commercial). Our story's hero, in fact, semi-failed college professor Bernard Johnson, is one such Vacationer, prompted into the trip in his mid-thirties by a general malaise that has recently washed over him, a vague feeling that he's not doing everything with his life that he could be, but that he doesn't know what that "everything" should be.
But Bernard's Vacation is destined to be a very different one than he is expecting, a fact that becomes clear after being kidnapped at one of these destinations and then awakening in a hospital while in the middle of a medical detoxification. It turns out, in fact, that the Vacation system exists for a more nefarious purpose than what is divulged to the public; that it is in fact part of an overarching system of control instituted by the secret military-industrial cabal in charge of things (including drugs in our tap water to make us all slightly depressed, and a lot more), designed specifically to make most Americans feel like they're "rebelling" without any real threat being posed. According to the eco-terrorists who have kidnapped Bernard, this group in power is known as the TICs (Those In Charge); those whose exploitation the TICs profit from are known as the Meeks, including the small number now who are aware of the global scam and are actively fighting its influence.
Unfortunately, though, I've had to cheat a little to let you know the set-up; because within the novel itself, Shipp only very slowly reveals all the backstory I just mentioned over the first third of the manuscript, instead throwing us into the story originally by having Bernard wake in the terrorists' underground headquarters with no more clue to what's going on than us. And this of course is yet another mark of weird literature as a genre; that not only do strange things occur, like what happens in traditional horror, fantasy and science-fiction (all genres that trace their beginnings to the Romantic writers of the 1800s), but also with the authors purposely not fully explaining the strangeness either, preferring to instead just drop their readers right in the middle of the weirdness itself. It's something guaranteed to drive non-fans of the genre crazy, just the immense amount of confusion that takes place within the first half of Vacation; but believe me, that's exactly why fans of the genre are fans to begin with, in that such stories allow them to stretch their intellectual and puzzle-solving sides.
In fact, this is yet another general truism about weird fiction as a genre, that its most passionate fans tend to be teens, especially rebellious ones also getting into goth or punk music for the first time; and that this is precisely because such work forces these teens to think critically and subversively for the first time in their lives, and because such work tends to be the catalyst for "opening the eyes" of such teens as to the way the world really works. And this comes with drawbacks, of course, for the older and more educated reader, of which Vacation is certainly as guilty as any other weird book; many of Shipp's conclusions about the way the world secretly works are going to be patently obvious to such older readers, its details more appropriate for late-night stoned undergraduates in a candlelit dorm room while listening to Nine Inch Nails. Like I said, this is simply part of the genre's natural strengths and weaknesses; that like a lot of other weird novels, Vacation is more of a shadowy opening to the deep caverns of subversive thought, not so much a detailed underground map.
This is not to say, however, that Shipp is a simplistic writer; indeed, far from it, much of his writing is infinitely more sophisticated than the cheap-looking cover that's unfortunately been slapped on the front of this manuscript. (And seriously, Raw Dog Screaming Press, as much as I'm a big fan of all the things you all are doing, you need to start coming up with better covers for your books; for example, in this case I originally thought that Vacation was going to be some stupid new-age comedic The Gods Must Be Crazy crap, and would've passed it right on by without a second thought if coming across it at a bookstore.) Yes, some of this book comes off as a "Chomsky 101" primer, but other parts are surprisingly poetic, even haunting; it's always a nice thing to see in a genre writer, that they can take the stylistic oomph that usually only comes with short work and successfully apply it to a full-length book.
As is the case with a lot of books here, Vacation is definitely not for everyone, and in fact is probably for a smaller audience than the typical novel featured here; if you're one of these people, however, you're going to want to run and not walk to your favorite neighborhood genre bookstore, where you will undoubtedly have to special-order this volume while standing around listening to two Comic Book Guys debate the relative merits of Michael Moorcock. ("But what about the Elric Sequence?" "Ah, screw the Elric Sequence!") Vacation is as good as weird literature gets, a perfect example of the genre that is especially recommended to CCLaP's youngest readers; the only question really left at this point is whether or not you're a fan of weird lit in general, not whether you will like this book in particular.
Out of 10:
Overall: 7.7, or 9.7 for fans of weird literature