ANTISOCIETIES by Michael Cisco (Review)

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Michael Cisco is one of many writers I’ve long intended to read but haven’t. So it goes. Over the course of Antisocietieswhich I couldn’t put down, by the way—I found myself compulsively ordering titles from Cisco’s catalogue. The majority of his publications are on the way to my house at the time of writing. The point here is important enough to state clearly: if you’re a reader of weird fiction and haven’t yet given Cisco the time of day, you need to rectify this. Right away.

“No work has been more Ligottian, not even Ligotti’s.” This is what I wrote in my notes at some point. It’s clearly one of those indefensible claims manufactured for the sheer shock of saying it, so I’ll leave it distanced by quotations.  Given, however, the permeable membrane separating outside and inside in Ligotti’s work, that element of “unreal reality,” to cite Ligotti’s description of the work of Bruno Schulz, that is “like dreams and not like them at the same time,” it’s worth keeping Ligotti close, since Cisco’s collection continues in this Ligottian key. But make no mistake, Antisocieties stands easily—fiercely even—on its own merits.

This collection’s immense power resides in the fact that it’s possible to read a story like “Intentionally Left Blank” and feel simultaneously that something horrific and momentous occurred while also questioning if anything truly happened at all. This is a Ligottian strength, the imbuing of nothing (an overlooked art exhibit in a library, a dilapidated gas station) with the weight of a world-ending. It’s a talent Cisco has made seem solely his, so seamlessly is it put to service.

A child moves in with an aunt, begins watching the neighbors, since there’s nothing else to do, and catches a glimpse of a man with a mask. What happens next is difficult to describe. The misty anti-logic of a dream assumes dominance, and every word is weighted with lead-heavy dread; Dog Scream is his name, the masked man says, and no one surrounding the protagonist can be bothered to deny or rationalize this unsettling turn reality has taken. They’re unwittingly complicit in the nightmare, observing the same events with the emotional detachment of a cardboard cutout, leaving the protagonist, just as Cisco has left the reader, with a “monster” divorced entirely from the symbolic ordering of reality. You are not told what’s to be said or thought or felt about Dog Scream; the great violence of language against alterity is prevented (as much as possible) from occurring. It is sheer otherness, then, a signifier “intentionally left blank,” which lightnings convincingly from the page to the reader’s mind. The result is disorientation, confusion, a sense of losing your way that leaves you on edge. It’s a masterful bit of manipulation, priming you to mistrust all that is to come. This is the very first story, after all. There’s much left to mistrust.

Ligotti’s best tales tend to involve subjects who fixate on elements in their surrounding object-world that have ceased fulfilling their proper function. We could say Ligotti’s characters find themselves maniacally obsessed with signs that no longer signify as they should. When Ligotti’s protagonists investigate further, they discover in the misbehaving object a reflection of their own disintegrating interiority. It is a violence to the illusion of self that Ligotti seeks to inflict, and he does it by enacting a play between the cracks in subjectivity and the abysmal nature of the object.

Cisco’s work pursues a similar ontological deterioration, but the cursed, reflective objects in Antisocieties reside even further than Ligotti’s from the language of categories that structure the social sphere. “The Starving of Saqqara” involves the disappearance of an ancient Egyptian sculpture that seems anachronistic in its realistic depiction of suffering. It is explicitly acknowledged as either “pre-Dynastic Egyptian art, or a modern fake,” and thematically paired with, of all things, Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” It is precisely these details undermining the plausibility of the object that imbues them with a kind of super-charged strangeness. They are tainted things that can’t quite be grasped by the mind, entities withheld just beyond the cognitive Tantalus grip, generating a psychical distance typical of works of high art. If this collection has a signature move, it’s Cisco’s masterful distortion of the mundane, an alchemical metamorphosing of the everyday into the profoundly weird.

Cisco’s (mis)handling of objects, however, is never itself the target; the real assault is always on the self, as is made extraordinarily clear in stories like “Saccade,” “Antisocieties,” and “Water Machine.” In each, Cisco demonstrates with terrifying vividness that our bodies and minds are strange, potentially alien things, ready, with just a few adjustments, to exchange the invisible maintenance of equilibrium for vistas of unimaginable agony. “Saccade” suggests levels of signification that lie beyond perception, a symbolic order we can only glimpse when our bodies stop lying to us; “Water Machine” posits a similar edifice, decodable only with the paranoiac’s insanity (which Cisco depicts almost too convincingly). Both stories pull the primacy of the subject up short, suggesting that we live everyday lives only at the expense of truth.

Other writers have suggested this, including Ligotti, but Cisco has a way of recasting the inherent weirdness of consciousness with more urgency than ever. “Antisocieties,” the last story I’ll discuss here, is a horrifying portrayal of the body as a prison. The story begins, benignly enough, with descriptions of an area surrounding a park. A black car pulls up, and a man named simply “the administrator” walks up to a man sitting on a bench. The man on the bench—we are not told why—is nearly paralyzed with terror over the course of the administrator’s seemingly inconsequential attempts to interact with him. A lesser writer than Cisco would succumb to the temptation to record the seated man’s subjective mental process; a lesser writer still would lapse into flashbacks to justify his fear of the administrator. Cisco passes over subjectivity and history to focus on surfaces:

“The man nearly sighs through his nose and stops abruptly in a windless snort. He draws his lips into his mouth and presses them shut. His eyes fail to receive impressions. He struggles to keep himself completely still. Sitting without breathing, without moving.”

It is this excruciating corporeal detail that deprives the human body of familiarity. The horror of “Antisocieties” is this sudden nakedness, this uncanny alienation of our own flesh. Our bodies must operate in invisibility for life to be bearable—this very invisibility is taken from the man on the bench, along with the invisibility of his subjectivity (“The man winces at the word ‘you.’”) and the all-too-subjective assumption that the ego tunnel will continue linking the past and present with the future without interruption. Cisco accomplishes a brutal dehumanization here, a relentless objectifying of the human body that far trespasses the borders of comfort. We are back to the problem of objects, except this time it is the human body itself that is butchered into ungraspable otherness.

Horror, according to Eugene Thacker, “is about the paradoxical thought of the unthinkable.” No other characterization of horror feels truer, even if most horror fiction itself appears to challenge this standard by groping clumsily towards it without ever reaching (which isn’t meant to sound as critical as that—how, after all, can one reach the unreachable?). Antisocieties is an unqualified victory for Thacker’s definition of horror, since it convincingly posits terrors beyond thinkability without telling the reader about them. Antisocieties is also a victory for Grimscribe Press, for Cisco’s already-standing reputation as a master, and for readers who enjoy their horror unforgettably outré. It may seem overwrought, but I mean it: this collection is as close to perfect as they come.

-Justin A. Burnett


Justin A. Burnett is the author of The Puppet King and Other Atonements, to be published by Trepidatio Publishing in 2022. He’s also the Executive Editor of Silent Motorist Media, a weird fiction publisher responsible for the creation of the anthologies Mannequin: Tales of Wood Made Flesh, which was named best multi-author anthology of 2019 by Rue Morgue magazine, The Nightside Codex, and Hymns of Abomination, a tribute to the work of Matthew M. Bartlett. His quarterly chapbook, Mysterium Tremendum, explores the intersection between horror and the holy. He currently lives in Austin, Texas, with his partner and children.  

1 comments on “ANTISOCIETIES by Michael Cisco (Review)”

  1. I would love to hear you in conversation with Michael discussing this and his other work! Great review!

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