A Golem and a Jinni Walk into the Singleton Center…

cover of golem and jinni

The Golem and the Jinni

Last night Helene Wecker spoke in Richmond, talking about the success and route to publication of her first novel, The Golem and the Jinni (Amazon|B&N|Powell’s|Goodreads). Her book has spent time in the awards ring already, and she was in town because it was this year’s winner of the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. After reading she shared the stage for a Q&A with her agent, Sam Stoloff, moderated by VCU creative writing MFA alumna Shannon O’Neill. The reading was good, the discussion was lively, and the line for the signing afterward was off the chain.

I attended in part because I was volunteering, given the nature of my work at the library, but I was also attending out of my own interest. I read The Golem and the Jinni late last year when I was temporarily laid up with a bad back, and the book was very much part of the medicine that made me well. It’s the kind of book that could sweep you away by virtue of its lyrical prose alone, even if the story weren’t excellent. Both are excellent, in fact, and I encourage you to give the book a try if you like folklore, things mythopoeic, or the turn of the last century.

It should go without saying, but this book is one of that new breed of novels that straddles with remarkable comfort the old divide between genre and literary. The conceit of the book arose, as she said on stage, from her years of reading in genre and thinking about its tropes. The prose benefits from years of revision and what she learned in getting her MFA. I had the pleasure of speaking briefly with Helene at the end of the signing, and what she had to say was of a piece with what you can find on her site and what she said on stage: she genuinely loves and is knowledgeable on a range of fiction.

Helene Wecker on Stage

Helene Wecker on Stage

Tomorrow I’m headed off to the World Fantasy Convention, where The Golem and the Jinni is up for the Novel award. She faces some serious competition, but whatever the outcome of that may be, I think the book will have legs. It’s a cliche to say that genre’s strength is story, and literary fiction’s is style, but I think this is one case where the author has welded together the best of both worlds. I usually sketch speakers in one medium or another at readings or events, and last night I was powerfully struck by Helen’s words about her process (and I hope, should she read this, that she’ll forgive my artistic license). The publishing treadmill rarely seems to allow for books that percolate for so many years. Hers is, of course, an object lesson in why more should.

The Monsterghostoccultapalooza of Orrin Grey

cover of Never Bet the Devil

Never Bet the Devil, by Orrin Grey

Once upon a time, monsters were monsters. They were, by and large, not objects of sympathy. Whatever Count Dracula or Larry Talbot or your unfriendly neighborhood ghoul may have suffered, however tragic they might have been, we were all quite clear on what they were. Genre fiction has undergone sundry transformations under the hand of Postmodernity, and many are the monsters who now seem more subaltern than Satanic, but in his first short story collection, Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings, my friend Orrin Grey has managed a neat trick. He’s taken the ghost story through the thickets of self-reflexivity and produced tales that are both nuanced and human… but also traditional in the sense that they use creatures from myth, folklore, and literature to hair-raising effect.

Orrin’s taste as a reader informs his fiction: rarely have we ever discussed an author, book, or film even tangentially related to monsters of which he’s unaware. I say “rarely” because “never” is an unlikely and fate-tempting proposition, but that’s probably closer to the truth, especially as he continues his lifelong project of consuming monster-related material, from truly obscure Victorian ghost stories to the sketchbooks of illustrators with a lech for liches. Given the monsters in general, why are these ghost stories? Reader, you will have to taste them yourself to understand, but they feel like ghost stories. “Supernatural” or “occult” are terms that might also be invoked, and they’d often be correct, but this is by and large a book about people who are and have been haunted.

To recount each story and creature you’ll meet in Never Bet the Devil would spoil the fun, but here are a few of the waypoints you’ll encounter. “Black Hill” is the story with the longest shadow, having appeared twice in print, and once in a sanity-destroying audio edition. It’s a tale about death and the secret history of oil fields, and its concluding lines are memorably effective. “The Mysterious Flame,” the novella that anchors the collection, deals with the doings of necromancers, among other things, but read it for the golem. Said golem is not the Golem of Prague, nor the Golem of Chelm, but is instead a sort of Everyman among constructed creatures, and his tale illustrates how monsters can, in their way, be haunted. “The Devil in the Box” is my personal favorite of the lot, a tale of haunted artists, and the power of a paint brush to still or loose inner demons. Finally, the allusion-rich “The Seventh Picture” blends Gothic formulae with found footage to creates a rich, multilayered story that feels the most contemporary of the lot and deserves, in my estimation, to be reprinted and keep infecting finding new readers.

author portrait of Grey

Orrin Grey with Bat

Who should read Never Bet the Devil? If Netflix has ever suggested to you the categories “Monster Movies,” “Scary Supernatural Movies,” or “Movies with Protagonists Likely to Be Eaten,” it might be for you. If Hellboy resonates with you, this book might be for you. If you want something dark without hockey masks or hostels gone hostile, it might be for you. If you fondly remember the ghost story anthologies you read by flashlight under blankets as a kid, and you wonder what could give you that same thrill today? It’s definitely for you. Too many authors’ first collections lack flavor and focus. Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings lacks neither. What it has in abundance is all of the spooky and mysterious things that you’ve always loved.