[Editor's note: We're very pleased to have this guest review from Harry Markov, who "tries to be a writer while pursuing the not-lucrative career of professional procrastinator". He also heads the marketing of The Zombie Feed, a small, but ravenous imprint of Apex. Mr. Markov's ramblings on fiction can be found at Through a Forest of Ideas and you can follow him at @harrymarkov or @tzf_press.]
Kaaron Warren is a name I love to type, because usually it involves typing praise and that warm feeling of having read worthwhile fiction. Yet her collection Dead Sea Fruit (2011), even as delightful as it was, challenges me as a reviewer, mainly because of Warren’s unwillingness to settle for a comfort zone. I voice this as a compliment, rather than a complaint, since all the stories allow the reader to discover Warren, a writer who is always in a state of flux and in search of the next story, wherever it might be hiding.
As a collection, Dead Sea Fruit lacks cohesion. Rarely did I see two stories share more than a theme, a setting, a trope or a genre, unlike, for instance, Mark Samuels’ The Man Who Collected Machen & Other Stories, where the stories feed off each other by sharing similar imagery and themes. Dead Sea Fruit features twenty-seven stories with only the author’s skill to disturb and unsettle binding them together.
As clichéd as it sounds, Kaaron Warren has cast herself as a literary chameleon and a tinkerer, who is ever dissatisfied with only one or two combinations of techniques. However, that’s all on the surface, though purely cosmetic as some people might say. Warren immerses herself in the exploration of the grotesque, be it physical (“His Lipstick Minx” with its specially bred tiny women, whose existence centers on the application of lipstick on their male owners; one of the truly bizarre pieces in the collection) or psychological as in most of her stories featured here. She studies cruelty, malice, dimensions of revenge, egoism and indifference.
In Dead Sea Fruit, Warren assumes different roles. As the ‘conjurer’, Warren breeds genres into hybrid beasts. In “Tontine Mary” the readers face a blend of seventeenth century culture on an interstellar colony far from Earth as they follow the life of Mary, whose sole socially-enforced role is to outlive the rest of the contestants in a lifelong lottery. Although the concept is as alien sounding as the colony, the tontine is an historical fact, which Louis XIV used to fund French military campains. The spirit of the century, coupled with the sense of all embracing isolation that accompanies Mary through her life as she ages and the abominable acts performed in attempts to win, contributes for a revitalization of the planetary colonization as a trope.
In “Guarding the Mound,” Warren pulls a trick she performed in her novel Walking the Tree by introducing a fantastic premise (Din must guard the tomb of a chieftain for all eternity), but steers into science fiction as Din observes the technological progress and evolution of humans through the eyes of his progeny. In “The Census-Taker’s Tale” Kaaron conjures a Britain after an apocalypse that has plunged it back into a faux-Victorian setting filled with ghosts and mothers who poison their children.
When not blending genres, Warren writes the impossible into the fabric of reality. The world bends to her and accommodates the preternatural dogs in “The Gaze Dogs of Nine Waterfall” without questioning the biological impossibility of such breeds as vampire dogs. To a degree, the story is a tropical version of Dante’s descent into the nine circles of hell and coming face to face with Lucifer, here depicted as a deceiving, illusion-casting yellow hound. Reality does not mind that a woman can create a husband from corals and blood in “The Coral Gatherer” or that a woman can impregnate the clay statue of her beloved in “Fresh Young Widow”. No reason exists for the reader to suspend his disbelief, no explanation is supplied. The bizarre world is the bizarre world. You have no choice, but to accept it as it is.
As an expression ‘dead sea fruit’ means ‘a thing that appears to be, or is expected to be, of great value but proves to be valueless’ and it’s no wonder that the collection bears it as its title. The characters in these stories seek release or devise exit strategies from their unenviable lives, but what they considered as salvation morphs into damnation. Case in point here is “Sins of the Ancestors,” where in a society that punishes people for the crimes of their ancestors Yolanda tries to prove her uncle innocent of a murder in order to remove the stigma on her family. In the end she achieves her goal, but nevertheless suffers an undesirable fate. “Ghost Jail” uses ghosts as a way of social commentary, as Warren admits in the afterward, but at the same time follows the theme of the ‘damning salvation’ by luring the voices of a nation, those that dare to speak the truth, to a haven, which quickly morphs into a hell and a resting place.
In “State of Oblivion,” the strongest emotional piece in the collection, Warren explores abuse and its potency to beget human monsters in the foulest sense. The relationship between child and parent becomes tainted and perverse and the whole tale is a tour of sickening cruelty and the most disgusting of people. Not even the promised oblivion can protect the individual from the sins coming back to haunt and torture them. “A Positive” develops the idea of the monstrous parent, where a couple raise their child as a replenishable blood bank. The child once again is an object, yet unlike in “State of Oblivion”, indifference is not the sin, but the objectification of the child as a resource. Both stories hit hard and haunt.
In “The Grinding House,” Warren pens The Final End of Everything. However, there is not a flashy apocalypse. The dead don’t rise. The world does not burn. The nations don’t nuke each other into oblivion. No, the ending comes with a disease. First it pains, then it cripples, before it suffocates the diseased. The process is slow and torturous to read. “The Grinding House” evokes Jose Saramago’s Blindness in the sense that the disease is all encompassing and as the characters, the youth of the world, wait for their deaths, the human world deteriorates as well. It’s an ironic extinction, because humans undergo the same process as the planet has as a result of the heavy industrialization. The scene where Jeremiah cuts open Sasha to extract her newborn, it’s revealed that it’s stillborn as it had suffered from the same disease that grows bones together into a husk, thus effectively emphasizing on how there is no future for humans.
Kaaron Warren makes the reader feel. Her stories are emotionally tactile and its through these sensatory assaults that I had to stop and process my response as well as think about what I’d just read. In Dead Sea Fruit as a whole, Kaaron Warren deconstructs blood ties, love and friendship and shines light on what happens when they mutate, when goodness dies and the human spark flickers out. Her stories follow the death of the soul, while the body’s still living, and the life of the soul after its body’s death. Her endings are usually the end for the lone, unfortunate people who populate her tales.
Kaaron Warren isn’t for anyone. Much like in her novel Slights, she injects the reader with an overdose of anguish and grotesque, but there is beauty in her freakish, cold and clammy world, where no one is safe.