The Dismembering Monster of Memory

Author J.S. Breukelaar is another one of those author crushes I talk to you guys about sometimes. Her novel, Aletheia  was a huge eye opener for me. It was a beautiful, crushingly sad, deliciously dark, gritty masterpiece that I fell in love with from the very first sentence and was held rapt throughout the rest of the novel. So when Meerkat Press announced she had a new collection of short stories coming, did I jump on it? Damn right I did. The folks at Meerkat are still fixing the damage to the door, I hit that fucker so hard on my way to demand more Breukelaar words. And man, what a collection it is. It’s a stunning, outstanding amalgamation of hope and loss, darkness and despair, and I highly recommend you acquire a copy. Click the link at the end to read my review, or just go do the thing with the credit card. You know, buy the book. You’ll thank me. But first, take a moment to read this wonderful piece on memory and how it permeates the dark worlds of J.S. Breukelaar.


A Guest Essay by J.S. Breukelaar


collisionWhen Shane Keene asked me to write a short piece on the role of memory in my work, especially in my new collection, Collision, I jumped at it. But then I thought, where do I start? Where does memory stop and art begin?

Memory—our memories—are more than something that’s in the past that we can return to from time to time, when we have the time. Our memories are not so docile. And out of sight, they are never out of mind. They tell us every day and in our nightmares too. We are the story of our memories. They narrate us. They, our memories, remember us. Literally. And when they’re not as easily tracked, or when they’re not as we would like to think of them—controllable relics from our past we can pick up and put down at will, like Ava Rune, in my story, who plays dress-ups with memories until they literally become her—when the past doesn’t behave as we think it should—it dismembers us.

This is the monster of memory in some of my stories. It drives the plot in Aletheia, my novel about a lake monster from both the glacial past and from future science experiments whose surfacing dismembers the characters and turns the dark secrets of the town by its shores into something physical. The dismembering monster of memory is also in American Monster, my first novel about a lonely planet who remembers an alien who visited it in eons past. Except that the planet, whose name is Mommy, misremembers the alien as an angel. Memory, this obsession with the past, bloats and distorts the aging planet’s consciousness, consuming and distorting the past to such a degree that when it decides to send its own alien Norma after the angel who it thinks abandoned it, there is hell to pay.

Because planets can get Alzheimer’s too.

Memory is important in Gothic or horror fiction, and is part of the weird project too, because weird fiction often looks at how the characters are conscious of their fate, even if they don’t know they are. That this consciousness haunts them, and lures them into the labyrinth of destiny—this is part of the horror, but also part of the rapture. This is part of what happens in my story, Raining Street, in “Collision.” Rebel is frozen in grief after the death of her partner, and yapping at her heels is the fear (embodied in a creature I call the Donald-Thing!) that she won’t be able to care for their children on her own. Worse, maybe she doesn’t even want to. Ava in “Ava Rune,” opens a Pandora’s box of memories in the attic of her home, when she dresses up in her dead mother’s clothes, allowing the vengeful past to dismember the cruel fire-breathing dragon of the present. And in “Like Ripples on a Blank Shore,” Celia’s past blood wedding plays over and over again in her displaced present—like Toni Morrison’s idea of “rememory,” a wedding that is still out there, both inside and outside her head. Because that’s the thing with rememory. It’s an equal-opportunity haunted house—a kind of “abandon-hope-all-ye-who-enter-here” cabin in the purgatorial woods. Celia carries bad luck around her like a contagion, embodied in the Zombie-like Hosts who look uncannily familiar but strange. In his essay on the Uncanny, Freud talks about homesickness as uncanny, because it is both the longing for and fear of “home”—a fear and abandoned hope that the place we thought we knew, and which knew us, has escaped mnemonic control and has taken on a hoary life of its own. The idea that it’s taken a part of our lives with it—that somewhere in some other time, we have become a ghost in our own duplicitous life, is central to my horror fiction.

But memory isn’t just a part of horror and ghost-populated fiction. There’s no doubt that it’s a key element in science fiction, too—our journey into the future is complicated by the baggage of our past. Authors from PK Dick to Stanislaw Lem, to Bradbury to William Gibson to Ted Chiang, have taken this ball and run with it, and one of the things I love about science fiction is its melancholy tone, its noirish, trippy cycling around the past. So when sf works its way into stories in Collision, it’s often driven by this logic of characters whose humanity it augmented by memories—again, this is literally the case in Rogues Bay 3013.” An Android, Major Whyte deliberately crashes his ship, losing his legs in the process—and gaining a set of prosthetics that will come back to bite him—just so that he can be close to the daughter whose life he wants to destroy. In the title story, “Collision,” a high school physics teacher sees the end of the world as a collision between false memories of an America that never was, and an illusive present that can never be—with her own brother caught in the antimatter storm of misremembered shrapnel.

I saw a quote by the talented Sarah Read the other day, something about how home isn’t really home until we haunt it, which nails for me this idea that in fiction, home is always already lost to us. Until we come back. And we never can. Not entirely, not in one piece.


Read my review of Collision here.

Categories: Features

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