Reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe
Norman Lock may be the best kept secret in indie-lit. He’s been plugging away for years, producing some of the most interesting and, really, just exciting ‘experimental’ literature, without a lot of mainstream recognition. Ravenna Press has put out several great books of his, and I recommend them all, but he also pops up in other places: Ellipsis Press, FC2, and now Mud Luscious Press. What makes Lock so interesting is his inventiveness, his fearlessness, his originality. I first encountered Lock in Land of the Snowmen, a Nabokovian adventure story ostensibly taken from the journals of an arctic explorer who was part of a failed expedition to the South Pole. Around this genuinely interesting framework, Lock (writing as George Belden) weaves an intellectual and philosophical tapestry, while raising questions about the world as we perceive it. In History of the Imagination Lock creates a metaphorical Africa, a world of absurdity in which time and space are at the whims of the characters (and, of course, who can forget the iceberg hunt undertaken to finally avenge the Titanic?). Lock writes with wit and verve, his plots reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut on acid, his prose more like poetry.
Grim Tales is certainly no different. Originally published as an ebook and then as part of a collection named Trio with two other authors, this is the first time the book has appeared in print as a standalone work (with a wonderful introduction by author and editor Matt Bell). As the title suggests, this is a collection of fairy tale-esque rather dark stories (similar to the ‘Grimm Brothers’ hinted at by the title, but just different enough to warrant the only slight nod). The Tales are brief – often, more like prose poems, few as long as a page, many only a few lines. They aren’t necessarily linked, though many appear as series exploring similar themes or ideas (two tales might deal with similar situations, at the conclusion of one, there might be an alternate version, that sort of thing).
Common themes include appliances and various aspects of our everyday lives gaining sentience and seeking revenge for perceived slights (or just out of a sense of malevolence), otherworldly entities intruding into our reality and disrupting our lives, and a general throwing aside of established convention; a person looks at the sun, even though warned against it, and sees ‘unimaginable sights;’ a husband turns off the lights, and when he turns them back on, his wife is gone (having just seen something of herself for the first time in a reflection); nightmares come true. A surprising theme is the inclusion of several tales of murder, adultery, abuse; which throw into sharp relief the idea of what is true horror.
Some of these read like dreams (and describe dreams). Some read like fears (a baby attacked by appliances or a child hiding in a well and drowning, for example). Something one pieces together fairly quickly is that, even though the world these stories inhabit seems full of chaos – a world in which a hand appears inside a tree split open by lightning, for example – there is a strange kind of order to it – a man who tried to strangle his wife had his hand cut off under mysterious circumstance, a hand that resembles this one in the tree… This is a world ruled by kismet, fate, serendipity, a strange sort of moral justice, whatever you want to call it. Murderers are killed by accidents that seem to have been caused by the ghosts of their victims. Negligent parents find (or rather, don’t find) their children swallowed up by malicious beings from under the earth. Angels arrive too late to be of any use and offer nothing more than sneers as recompense. Narrative is the only true law, and symbolism is its sheriff.
And don’t we all secretly think the world works this way? We claim to value reason above all else, but how many of us check horoscopes, feel uneasy on Friday the 13th, flinch – just a tad – when we see a black cat? Lock has tapped into that zeitgeist and explores it in fascinating ways. I, for one, am grateful to be able to come along for the ride.
CL Bledsoe is the author of the young adult novel Sunlight; three poetry collections: _____(Want/Need), Anthem, and Leap Year; and a short story collection called Naming the Animals. A poetry chapbook, Goodbye to Noise, is available online at Right Hand Pointing. Another, The Man Who Killed Himself in My Bathroom, is here. He blogs at Murder Your Darlings and has written reviews for The Hollins Critic, The Arkansas Review, American Book Review, Prick of the Spindle, The Pedestal Magazine, and elsewhere. Bledsoe lives with his wife and daughter in Maryland.