Kathe Koja exploded onto the horror scene some thirty years ago, at the tail-end of the paperback boom. Starting with 1991’s The Cipher, which kicked off Dell’s Abyss line of forward-thinking horror (even if they declined to use Koja’s working title, “The Funhole”), she published five novels in as many years, all similarly concerned with outsiders and sex and art and transgression, sometimes veering all the way into splatterpunk territory.
The stories collected in Velocities are not that.
After 1996’s Kink and 1997’s Extremities (her first and previously only collection of short fiction), Koja’s books have avoided the horrific and transgressive, focusing either on the young adult market or historical fiction.
These stories aren’t that, either, for the most part.
They are very, very dark, but not in a splatterpunk or overly transgressive way. They work in a much subtler, more ruminative mode, even though they span from new works back to two originally published in 1995, within her initial burst of activity. One might call these works of quiet horror, if they're even horror at all.
Most of my own previous experiences with Koja were within the realm of weird fiction—she guest-edited the second volume of Undertow’s excellent Year's Best Weird Fiction series, and had entries in the VanderMeers’ The Weird and The New Weird. Consequently, the only one of these stories that I had read before, the almost-titular "Velocity," sits much more firmly within the horror genre than most of the others. This led me to read most of the other stories bracing for shocks or irruptions that rarely came; the violence in these stories tends (tends!) toward the psychological rather than the physical, and the weirdness is not otherworldly or outlandish but more of the kind found in personal relationships. Shirley Jackson is more of a touchstone here than Clive Barker or David J. Schow, although Koja doesn’t share her emphasis on domestic scenes.
This isn’t to say that Velocities doesn't hit a variety of genres and modes—but in all of them, Koja is here focused on relatively small-scale, taut psychological character studies. These are intimate, well-honed stories with nothing extraneous in any of them—which means that she’s able to pack thirteen of them into 145 pages. There's nothing included here but the stories themselves—no preface or introduction, no author's notes for the stories, no afterword—so the reader is left entirely on their own to make sense of them and their place in the world. The only suggestion we get is that the cover styles "Velocities" as "VELO/CITIES," and the contents are broken into five sections related to place: At Home, Downtown, On the Way, Over There, Inside.
Ironically, given these headings, Koja is not much concerned with place as an author—she's much more focused on mood, voice, and character. The mood that she’s putting forth here is exclusively a dark one, and these characters are almost all suffering deeply. These are stories of unease and discomfort and pain; of trauma, but trauma survived, although never unscathed. A lifelong friend abandoned, a baby accidentally killed, the slow death of a distant mother; the quick death of an abusive father, the morally dubious choices made to survive—this is a collection full of characters trying to move past events that took place before the actual narrative of the stories, with various degrees of success. Her protagonists tend to be isolated, surrounded by burned bridges, spurned lovers, dysfunctional families. Many of them are artists, but their art is not a solace so much as a raison d’être.
Koja’s extraordinary prose is the most consistent source of weirdness and mood here. It is off-kilter, uncanny, its punctuation used as a central ingredient rather than mere utility or ornamentation. “Linden; aspen; maple; ash” begins “Velocity” (p. 23), and many of these stories start the reader off on an odd foot like that—not in medias res, quite, but off-rhythm, mid-conversation: “I’d like to buy one of your dogs, she said” (p. 59) or “Once, I said to Davey, I saw the Devil plain” (p. 109).
Using italics rather than quotation marks to differentiate dialogue is a common tool in Koja’s arsenal, moving speech closer to the narrative voice and contributing to the interiority of many of these stories. She’s also unafraid to experiment with structure in a similarly unconventional manner. “Velocity,” about an unhinged artist who constantly reimagines his abusive father’s suicide in sculptures made of wrecked bicycles, intersperses interview fragments with impressionist descriptions of his (haunted?) house. “At Eventide,” meanwhile, begins focused on a man undertaking a pilgrimage, to a woman famous for her “Rorschach boxes” that seem to have mysterious effects for their recipients ("like a bag of gold from a fairytale"):
The boxes helped them, always: sometimes the help of comfort, sometimes the turning knife, but sometimes the knife was what they needed; she never judged, she only did the work.
Right now she was working on a new box, a clean steel frame to enclose the life inside: her life: she was making a box for herself. Why? And why now? but she didn’t ask that, why was the one question she never asked, not of the ones who came to her, not now of herself. (p. 7)
Look at that semicolon, those colons, those question marks! Structurally, the story opens focusing on the man, with italicized sections (like the above) coming from the woman’s point of view, until they meet and he is dismissed from the narrative and the main voice of the story as her text becomes stylistically normalized. The man, eerie and menacing from the beginning, is revealed along the way to have been some sort of serial killer/predator, the artist a survivor who brought him to justice, and the memory box that she’s been constructing for herself capable of having an effect on the two of them, just not the one he had hoped for. This is a prime example of the sort of approach Koja is taking here: a serial killer preying on women is trite fodder for a horror story, but she occludes it, casting it outside the narrative as a past event that reverberates through the story, the violence touched upon but never made a centerpiece of the story as it might have been in her earlier, gorier novels.
The oldest stories here—"Clubs" and "Pas de Deux," both first published in 1995 in the midst of Koja’s initial burst of horrific activity—avoid the supernatural entirely and elicit little in the way of horror, focusing instead on dread and misery among the down-and-out, even as both build inexorably to mundanely violent conclusions. “Clubs” is a lesser piece, a story in the Downtown section about a rebound boyfriend pathetically watching his girlfriend pursue her ex around various bars before the climactic encounter at a club where volunteer gladiators club each other with foam clubs. It’s all a bit too on the nose, which the story itself acknowledges when the rebound and the ex verbally spar:
“No, I don’t believe in it, any of it. It’s a ritualized violence thing, and I’m not into that at all, I don’t even play sports… Anyway the whole thing’s just a metaphor,” as if I might not be smart enough to get the joke. “It’s a substitute for all the shit that goes on out there,” two fingers flicking toward not the club around us, would-be competitors, bat-jockeys in jerk helmets, but presumably the street beyond it, the city. “Just a way to let off some steam.”
“Otherwise we’d all be roaming the streets with foam-rubber bats, huh?”
“Right, you’re right,” as solemnly as if I was, and what if I was, what if we both were, so what? It was still stupid, he was still stupid, and I still wanted to go home. (p. 40)
You can guess what violence caps off the story, but it’s worth pointing out that, even here, Koja’s prose bounces almost seamlessly from dialogue to narrative to inner monologue and back. The other piece in the Downtown section is 2019’s “Urb Civ,” a dystopian science fiction piece setting a governmental infiltrator against a school of proletarians who are practicing creative reuse to get by in the detritus of their apocalyptic urban landscape. It’s an acceleration of Koja’s usual settings and themes, but science fiction is not a mode she works in often, and this story never really coheres (it is a casualty, also, of its length, a mere six-ish pages). The only other SF in the collection, “Fireflies”—a brief conversation between two exes about vacuum energy and cancer—is even shorter, and only science-fictional insofar as it is fiction that deals with science; it feels like an excision from a longer story (and not in a good way).
“Pas de Deux,” on the other hand, is one of the strongest pieces in Velocities. The capstone of the collection (and sole denizen of the Inside section), it is the most sexually charged story here and traces the downward spiral of a woman who never quite made it as a professional dancer. Never named in the story, she is perhaps the archetypal Koja protagonist: an artist, socially isolated (somewhat by choice), increasingly desolate, driven by almost maniacal fixations—and more than her fair share of them, too: on finding love, and/or the other half of her pas de deux, on hating her condescending older ex-husband (which leads to an endless stream of one-night stands with younger men), on her ex’s ex-mother-in-law (a fixation the ex shares), and on a book written by the older woman, a memoir of her time spent with George Balanchine. There’s no horror here, nothing of the uncanny, or even any genre-specific tropes at all, just inexorable darkness and despair closing in on a very sympathetic character.
Other stories, though, do invite generic readings—several were first published in themed anthologies and present willfully off-kilter examples of various tropes. Just as the collection as a whole tends toward quiet horror, these could be described as “quiet” examples of their specific subgenres. Two are vampire stories: the titular monster in "Baby," from Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling's 2011 Teeth: Vampire Tales, is some sort of doll-sized creature, perhaps a leftover Nazi bioweapon (but then again, perhaps not), who has found a willing victim in a young woman who embraced it as a child—but the time has come for her to put aside childish things. Baby is a standard bloodsucker aside from its physical form, but it’s rare to find a vampire functioning as a source of comfort through a turbulent upbringing (a “real” imaginary friend). In “Toujours” (Blood and Other Cravings, ed. Ellen Datlow ), meanwhile, we find an example or two of the vampire who feeds on something other than blood, a classic American trope stretching from "Luella Miller" through "The Girl with the Hungry Eyes." "Velocity" (The Dark: New Ghost Stories, also edited by Ellen Datlow ) is a ghost story that could just as easily be read as not having a ghost in it at all. Likewise, "Far and Wee" (Werewolves and Shapeshifters: Encounters with the Beast Within ) leaves unclear whether the protagonist or the object of his hostility—possibly hoofed, possibly horned, certainly lecherous—is more truly a beast in human form. As someone reminds the simple protagonist: “Plenty beasts in the city, young man” (p. 95).
This kind of ambiguity—was there actually a supernatural intrusion of some sort, or is some sort of mental imbalance to blame?—usually falls flat for me, because the former interpretation almost always seems more interesting; but Koja’s prose, tangential without being too oblique, really sells the quiet horror by emphasizing the psychological distress at work on her protagonists. That said, it would have been nice if there were some more fireworks here and there, or just an expanded narrative form of some sort. The claustrophobic focus and lack of release gets rather intense, even in such a short volume.
The greatest source of variety, in terms of setting if not of tone or focus, comes in the stories grouped as Over There. These are set in Europe, and three out of the four are historical fiction. “Toujours” follows the factotum to an Italian fashion designer as he finds himself facing stiff competition from a groupie who reveals herself to be more capable than she initially seemed, and they become locked in a battle of influence over their mutual fixation. “The Marble Lily,” one of the volume’s new pieces, is a poor man’s plea to a jury examining him for his scandalous relationship to a young corpse displayed in the morgue, fished from the Seine and seemingly immune to the process of decomposition. The morgue’s janitor, François (obsessed following in the well-worn manner of Poe), is convinced that he has found “the true daughter of Death,” a candidate for beatification, expressed in a beautifully breathless run-on, one of Koja’s favorite tactics:
“For that, gentlemen and judges, that is the fact that came to birth, that is the secret that flowered for me alone, a momentous and dreadful fact whose contemplation brought me—through my vision, yes, that misses nothing, François has an eye for the dead—to a place beyond all dread, a place where death is as plain and good and necessary as flowing water, nothing to be marveled at, nothing to be feared: and she herself its emblem and ambassador, this girl whose body lay, as if on an altar, on the borderland, always dead, yet somehow still alive.” (p. 107)
Despite his protestation that he is being persecuted for his “scientific ideas,” François—whose surname is the revealing Undine—finds himself in one of the most fantastical stories here, outmatched only by “La Reine D’Enfer.” Pearlie, a kind of X-rated Dickensian twink, has eked out an existence as a prostitute and occasional thief, but pins his hopes for escape from his pimp on a naïve impresario that needs a leading lady (in the Shakespearean style) for a play he’s written. This is by far the most fantastical entry in the collection, as Pearlie stumbles upon dark magic to send malignant shadows after his tormentor. It’s telling both that this is a literal manifestation of the darkness suffusing the entire collection and that the story offers one of the more optimistic endings, even as the reader remains unsure how much Pearlie actually loves the playwright and how much is simple pragmatism. The fantastic element, like her punctuation choices and her run-on sentences, just adds to the uncanny effect of these stories. It’s a shame Koja didn’t use it more often.
Overall, it is nevertheless a remarkable achievement that a collection of stories written over the course of twenty-five years would have such a unified voice across such varied genres. Meerkat is also reissuing The Cipher (1991) this year, and it would seem we’re in the midst of a Koja renaissance. Even if these stories rarely got quite as weird as I would have liked, this is fittingly dark fiction for a dark time, taut and masterfully crafted.