Claude Lalumière's first collection of stories is about people who have found things to worship. Sometimes, as in the titular story, the object of worship is a bona fide deity, other times it is a way of life, a sense of responsibility, a childhood trauma, a species trauma, a particular taste, or simply, their own intrinsic humanity. Now, we are a practical species, and we do not worship ineffectual gods, nor do we worship gods who are merely our equals. Our piety is designed to yield what we most crave: control. A god who cannot offer us control, is not in control, or is not into control is a god not made in our image, and is therefore an unsuitable god. In Lalumière's collection of stories, people find themselves staring at the limits of worship, and by projection, the limits of control.
Lalumière is a gifted writer, thoroughly in control of his text. James Morrow in his foreword points to the human predicament as well its solution when he suggests, tongue in cheek, that the universe would have been a better place had Lalumière been in charge. But he is! The universe Lalumière has created is a world with the key characteristic that the protagonists often make a fetish of their desires. Traditionally, a fetish vests a material object with special powers. But which powers, exactly? In these stories, the vestments vary, but by and large, what the protagonists see is not what is desired but a reminder of desire. For example, the zombies in "The Ethical Treatment of Meat" (2002) are not aware of meat as such; meat only reminds them of their desire for it. Why would characters need to be so reminded? Perhaps it is because all the characters seem to exist in a kind of twilight state. They don't quite know who they are—hence their fascination with superheroes, myths, the world-before-its-wounding, origins—and they rely on the fetish to remind them. In a sense, the entire collection consists of zombie stories. The characters are in-between creatures, driven by compulsive passions and headed towards various inevitabilities.
Three of the stories in the collection—"The Object of Worship" (2007), "The Ethical Treatment of Meat," and "This is the Ice Age" (2006)—have already begun to be studied in writing courses. All three are deeply felt marvels, and each generates that wondering disquiet so hard to achieve with other literary genres.
"The Object of Worship" is a tale about what disbelief does to a fetish. The story's world is one filled with rituals, the sort of deal-making rituals that makes the sacred accessible. But there are many gods, and so they are something of a commodity. Karl Marx wrote that even when something so ordinary as a table becomes a commodity, it "evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will." The gods in this story are of that sort. Gods and humans exist in an imagined space, possibly a hallucinatory space, and the gods have a life of their own, entering into relationship with each other and their symbiont hosts. Marx referred to this shared, imagined, hallucinatory, very real space as the Doppelgestalt, and I think "The Object of Worship" is one of its finest explorations in short fiction. The spell is broken when one of the main characters falls in love. Interestingly, falling in love leads to a rejection of faith, of former relationships, of domestic stability.
"The Ethical Treatment of Meat" deals with a very different sort of love; specifically, our meat-loving palates. It's about a zombie who begins to have doubts about eating meat ("fleshies"), and with the convert's fervor persuades the neighborhood to its cause. Naturally, life becomes very inconvenient for all, except perhaps for the fleshies, and eventually, there are inevitable choices to be made. The story has a lot of detail on how a zombie food market might operate. Now, I happen to love my steak, preferably from a holy angus, and, at first, this crushed oozing overkill of a story on narrative's highway repelled me. Lalumière suggests, I think, that the ethical treatment of meat might preclude the option of eating it. I see his point, which is unfortunate, since I now have to take the trouble of ignoring said point. The story is not so much about meat-eaters as it is about their complicity in the animal holocaust such a preference entails. Yes, yes. Now about that steak. Medium-well, please.
The third great story in this collection, "This is the Ice Age", is a Ballard-inspired piece (according to the end notes) and has his trademark stamp of a world undone by caprice. Though Ballard's refined English savagery is not evident here, the writing has that same precise clarity. What if, asks Lalumière, every source and device based on electricity spat out ice? Suddenly and without warning, fractal "quantum ice" shards rip through steering wheels, shower heads, earphones, and all things electric, right through the heart of civilization itself. The story deals with the aftermath in the form of three survivors: Martha, the main character, her lover, Mark, and his brother, Danny Quantum. There is some attempt to build suspense towards a decision, but this is not really a story in which suspense would make much sense. The most climactic event of the story—the sudden ice-age—occurs early, so everything else is very much in descendo. What lifts the story above the ordinary is the spare, unadorned style.
In fact, all the stories are written in this style. Short sentences interleaved with the occasional long one, words chosen to say less rather than more, and large spans of time covered with relatively clean transitions. No sentence calls attention to itself, and their shape bends to what they need to carry. I don't know if Lalumière has any French Protestant roots, but there is something of that Shaker aesthetic where "every force evolves a form." The style works really well for the mythic realist stories in this collection because it's so everyday and matter-of-fact. It's this that turns "The Sea, at Bari" (2008) from a relatively ordinary story of a man, traumatized as a boy by an unexplained underwater encounter, into something special. The encounter strips the protagonist of an inability to connect with humans. The writing conveys it by making him a character who can connect with things such as Bari's pizza "heavily laden with garlic and covered in tomato sauce from which wafted a strong yet delicate aroma of oregano" and Bari's wind with "the briny smell of the sea," but not with humans. The resolution-by-transformation ending was irritating (for reasons described below), but I'd already enjoyed the story too much to hold grudges.
Not all stories worked. The collection had some real stinkers. For me, the story "A Place Where Nothing Ever Happens" (2002) was a colossal failure, for it succeeded colossally in achieving its title. Another story, "A Visit to the Optometrist," (2004) reminded me of the kind of "and-then, and-then" stories small children make up when prompted by loving relatives who should know better. I was also deeply disappointed by "Destroyer of Worlds" (2008) which uses elements of Hindu mythology. Briefly, the main character encounters Kali, who is being pursued by agents of the Hindu Trimurti—Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma—for the usual Ticking Time Bomb reasons. Soon the narrator realizes that events are unfolding as per episodes in Jake Kurtz's comic book Preserver series, which he'd read as a child. Shiva is a particularly subtle God (see, for example, Handleman and Shulman's "God Inside Out"), and it's a pity he's reduced to a caricature in this story. SF likes to literalize metaphors, and here the metaphorical conflict between Siva and Kali is literalized into a fight with ray guns and what not. But Hindu mythology already literalizes philosophical ideas—for example, Brahma, the creator, is said to be "married" to Saraswati, the goddess of learning, because there's no creation without knowledge—so Lalumière's story is literalizing the literalized. It is a squandered opportunity.
Perhaps Lalumière's instincts were led astray by good intentions. "A Place Where Nothing Happens" is inspired by his well-known admiration for Paul Di Filippo's work. And "Destroyer of Worlds" was inspired, according to the end notes, by his admiration for Jack Kirby. Both stories are acts of homage and suffer the consequences thereof.
It may be that these stories, including other Kirby-inspired fantasy tales such as "Spiderkid" (2007) and "Hochelaga and Sons" (2007), will have special appeal for the Marvel/DC fans. Lalumière reveals a strong tendency to resolve fantasy stories by random acts of transformation. It's used in the above mentioned stories, and it's also used in "The Sea, at Bari," "The Darkness at the Heart of the World" (2009), "Njàbò" (2003), and "Roman Predator's Chimeric Odyssey" (2009). It wouldn't be too much of a problem if we got to see the world from the transformed creature's point of view, but the stories often end after the transformation. A typical example is "Njàbò," which posits a world in which elephants have gone extinct. The protagonist's daughter is named after Njàbò, the mythical ancestor of the Mòkìlà, a feared species capable of shifting between elephant and human forms. Dreams narrate most of the story's background, and when there's no more background left to narrate, the protagonist's family transforms into the Mòkìlà, the daughter transforms to Njàbò, and the story ends. I don't find this sort of resolution satisfying, and didn't find Lalumière's attempt to persuade me in story after story very satisfying either.
But "Spiderkid," one of the transformational stories, did give me a special charge. In this tale, the narrator builds a web-shrine to the Spiderkid, the creation of a Steve Rand, who used to work for an outfit called Shrugging Atlas. But shrines attract the attention of other devotees, and eventually, the narrator is led by an old flame and fellow enthusiast to a certain irreversible transformation. I liked the story, but was even more delighted to discover from the Marvel database that there was another Steve Rand, the alter ego of Atlas, a stunt actor disfigured by a terrible fall. As a kid I'd read the issue ("Werewolf by Night") in which Atlas confronts Jack Russell, a werewolf by night, and here I was, centuries later, re-reading a tale with transformation, fallen Atlases, and Steve Rand. As they say in the credit-card biz: priceless.
The endnotes indicate that Lalumière is not particularly concerned with fetishes or the hold they have on us. Nonetheless, it is one of the dominant themes in this collection of tales. The rude haunting power of the tales comes from the fetishes that inhabit our own lives: the jacket we're unable to dispose, the beloved teddy bear, the cross we kiss for good luck, the frisson of leather, the symbols we vote into office, the burning flag…. We understand Lalumière's characters. They are us. We readers are also linked by a rather unique fetish, namely, that of the book. But that is no great mystery. Books like these tell us why.
Anil Menon worked for about nine years in software R&D worrying about things like secure distributed databases and evolutionary computation. Then he shifted to a different kind of fiction. His stories can be found in magazines such as Albedo One, Chiaroscuro, Interzone, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, New Genre, Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as TEL: Stories, Shockwave, and From The Trenches. He was nominated for the 2006 Carl Brandon Society's Parallax Prize and the 2007 Million Writers Award. His YA novel The Beast With Nine Billion Feet is out now from Zubaan Books.