With A Voice That Is Often Still Confused But Is Becoming Ever Louder and Clearer
by J.R. Hamantaschen
Review by Jonathan Raab
Sometimes a dose of cosmic cynicism is more frightening than any cosmic horror.
With A Voice is Hamantaschen’s second collection (I haven’t read the first), but his command of character and pathos is expert-level. This is a collection that can be loosely defined as Horror or Weird, but even when things get all monster-y, the emphasis remains squarely on the internal degradation of mind, morality, and motivation to live of its characters. This is a book that will make you feel bad—if you’re being honest with yourself—as it strips away the little lies and positive thinking platitudes we keep in place to make it through the dreary days and years of our pointless lives.
Did I just bum you out with that? Well, this book will bum you out, too, but in all the right ways.
The underlying philosophy of With A Voice is a cross between Lovecraft and Ligotti’s atheistic anti-natalism and cynical postmodernism: life is meaningless beyond the pursuit of not-suffering. It’s a wet blanket thrown over your moldering collection of self-help books.
But it’s an interesting read, especially if you’ve suffered from any sort of mental health issues like anxiety or depression: it’s an affirmation of your darkest thoughts and self-destructive desires.
Does that mean I buy its philosophy? No, of course not.
But I enjoyed dipping my toes into the self-induced terrors of insecurity and creeping dread that I, and I’m sure we all, feel from time to time, that are so expertly articulated in the stories contained herein.
“Vernichtungsschmerz” kicks the book off with a kick to the groin, positing in explicit terms the horror of existence and the unending horrors of relativity-in-death.
“The Gulf of Responsibility” and “Oh Abel, Oh Absalom” form a yin and yang examination of class and race embedded in a dual-headed critique of American progressivism, cultural attitudes about abortion, and what it means to be moral, set in a world full of unspeakable violence, grand conspiracies, and ultraterrestrials.
Race, privilege, and inhuman horrors are called into question in “Big with the Past, Pregnant with the Future.” GoodReads subculture gets its due with a compelling if somewhat by-the-numbers (that’s okay, it worked for me!) slasher/thriller in “Soon Enough This Will Essentially Be a True Story.” Videogame culture (I got all the references!) and 80s horror cinema gets a heavy-handed (once again, I’m a-okay with this) nod in a look at what happens after Mario rescues the Princess in “I’m A Good Person, I mean Well and I Deserve Better.”
The weakest story of the bunch is the in-joke laden “Cthulhu, Zombies, Ninjas and Robots!; or, a Special Snowflake in an Endless Scorching Universe.” I didn’t dislike the story, but it felt a little too inside baseball for me. I’ve been to enough conventions to recognize the critiques, but I felt like J.R.M. was punching under his weight class here. It’s a story that the author likely wrote to exorcise some personal demons and take a few shots at folks he doesn’t like. If you’re not plugged into the convention or writing scene he’s referring to, I suspect this one will go over your head.
The stories, while most often compelling and interesting, sometimes go on a bit long, with the occasional stretches of repetitive characterization that could have been trimmed out. And while I appreciated the collection’s dedication to its cynical philosophy, it got tiresome by the final story (again, a good story, but I was burned out on the message by the time I reached it). I suspect I wouldn’t harbor this critique if I didn’t read it straight through.
Hamantaschen is a true talent: he gets under the skin and beyond the shallow self-illusions of his characters (and in so doing, those of the reader), and leverages his horrors to create a strong emotional and psychological impact.
This is a book best enjoyed a couple of stories at a time, right when you feel like you’ve read it all, and when it seems like nothing can punch through your jaded and seen-it-all expectations. Recommended for those looking for a kick in the existential jewels, and for that friend or family member who is just so happy and well-put together that it drives you nuts.