By Paul Jessup (PS Publishing; 2009)
True surrealism isn’t easy to review. If any type of literature can truly be said to be critic-proof it’s surrealism, which deliberately violates any number of hard-and-fast rules of structure and composition, and doesn’t even have to–shouldn’t, in fact–make sense. To make a distinction as to whether such writing is good or bad is purely a matter of intuition. The same holds true when judging the merits of a writer of surreal stories.
With that in mind, I’ll have to say that based on the nine bizarre tales collected in GLASS COFFIN GIRLS, Paul Jessup definitely has the touch. Each story reads like it was plucked directly from its author’s subconscious, with prose that’s crisp and direct. Reading this book, which its author calls “a shadow volume whose pages were written in the cracks of ancient cities and long since forgotten,” is at times akin to having one’s eyeballs scraped, but I’d say that goes with the territory. Lines like “At night, the ink on the paper crawled together, the words hooking into figures of people. Then they wandered in the literary city, taking to one another” may seem a bit clumsy (if that description was intended as a metaphor it’s an overwrought one), but for the most part the book is literate, energetic and in its own way quite readable.
These stories are typically about rebellious teens, mostly girls, who find their reality crumbling. The heroine of “Red Hairs,” for instance, is constantly wondering about what’s real and what isn’t–almost a running joke, since everything about the story is patently surreal. There’s also the narrator of “Stone Dogs,” who early on informs us “You may think I’m a strange girl…You’re right.” Sound words, although her surroundings are even stranger: a snowed-in high school governed by the laws of magic.
Another stand-out is “Secret in the House of Smiles,” which starts the book off in typically atypical fashion with Jack, a nutty college dude who likes to cut out pieces of women’s bodies from magazines and then paste them together in new configurations, his vampire (quantum vampire, that is) hunting girlfriend Alice, and a cabin in the woods where Jack and Alice meet their fate. “The Drinking Moon” is even stranger, a slip-streamy evocation of undiluted oddness whose overall tone is set by the words of the title.
The title story is a nutty take on traditional fairy tale themes involving a cannibal princess, a dog that walks on two legs and a literal glass coffin. “Jars of Rain” contains, among other things, a drought, a séance and a buried television whose owner apparently “hopes a sitcom will grow.”
I’m not entirely sure what to make of “Wire Rabbit,” which for much of its length reads like an acid trip rewrite of Richard Matheson’s classic “Born of Man and Woman;” the wholly surprising twist ending takes things in an unexpected and puzzling direction. I’m also a little unclear on the final story “It Tasted Like the Sea,” a troubling account of an artist serial killer told from the point of view of his traumatized girlfriend, who tries to escape into a world of fantasy–that’s how I interpreted it, at least!