Book Review: Liminal States (and earlier works), Zack Parsons

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Liminal States (and earlier works), Zack Parsons
Citadel Press, 2012

Of all the places in the whole wide internet, you wouldn’t expect the comedy website Something Awful to host some of the best Web-original horror out there. Do a little digging into their archives, though, and you’ll come across the bizarre, surreal, genre-bending and brilliant serial fiction of Zack Parsons.

It’s hard to explain any of his works without spoiling the enjoyment of reading them, because much of their impact comes from piecing together the setting and plot from the clues you’re given. For instance, my favorite piece, Instruction for a Help, begins as a series of how-to guides (the first simply explains how to grow fruit) written in bizarrely broken English, accompanied by odd, distorted images. Going in blind, you’d probably read it as surreal humor– but as you continue through the subsequent guides, it becomes clear that the strangeness has a context, and you begin to get an unsettling picture of the world these guides are describing and the perspective from which they are written.

The story gets increasingly creepy, weird and confusing from there, and finally you’re faced with a choice– stop reading after the last guide and preserve the mystery, or read the final entry, which explains everything. I am of the opinion that Mind Screwdrivers rarely live up to the potential of the original mind-screw, but this is a definite exception– the explanation makes perfect sense, puts everything that came before into a completely different context, and casts a frankly overdone horror trope in an incredibly original new light. I really love this series, a lot. That Insidious Beast is another great series, using such interesting narrative formats as television schedules, episode guides and blog entries to tell the story of Earth’s involvement in an alien war. He’s written a few other serials I haven’t read yet, but it looks like they are similarly unique in structure and content.

The whole point of that long digression (aside from recommending some really awesome online fiction you should totally read) was that I’ve been a fan of Parsons’ writing for a while, and I was very excited to hear that he was publishing a full-length novel. The book’s announcement was accompanied by an ARG and a prequel serial, as well as some videos and music, all of which are still available on the book’s website. The ARG dropped some tantalizing hints– an alternate history run by a huge, shadowy corporation, a disease spread through spores, references to “types,” “clades” and “snowflakes” hinting at an unknown social structure– and I waited on the edge of my seat for the book to be released.

Now. After all that, was it worth it?

Sort of.

Liminal States is a very good book. Like Parsons’ other work, it breaks narrative and genre rules left and right– it’s simultaneously a science fiction epic, a Western and a noir detective story with horror overtones throughout, and it takes place over a massive span of time following many different characters (well… sort of). It starts in 1874 in the American West, with a love triangle– hard-nosed sheriff Warren Groves versus charming yet cruel Gideon Long for the heart of beautiful, restless Annie Groves, Warren’s wife and Gideon’s secret lover. The inevitable tragedy of the situation is complicated by Gideon and Warren’s involvement with a strange immortality-conferring pool in the desert– it takes in human bodies and spits out a new, young, healthy version, but the copy function appears to be stuck on repeat…

The rest of the book is an intriguing alternate-history, focusing on the huge impact a secret, ever-growing community of immortal clones would have on American society as we know it. The second section follows Casper Cord, one of the Warrens and a detective in the 1950s, and his investigation into the murder of a woman who resembles Annie; the third section is set in a dystopic future overrun by clones and ravaged by strange diseases and horrors stemming from long-term use of the Pool. If it sounds sprawling and disjointed, that’s because it is– this is not an easy, smooth reading experience, but part of that is because it’s just so unique. There are no shortcuts, because you’ve never seen anything like this before.

So why was it only sort of worth the wait and the excitement? Honestly, I liked this book but I didn’t love it, and I wish I could have. Part of the problem was that I was expecting a more non-traditional narrative format, more like Parsons’ other works– while there are a few transcripts in the third section, this is not the epistolary, piece-it-together-yourself style he excels at, and so everything feels a little too spelled out, a little lacking in mystery compared to what I was expecting. A traditional narrative also tends to need strong characters, and our protagonists are a little too one-note to be relatable and sympathetic. Part of the point, I’m sure, is to show how warped the world would be if reshaped in the image of deeply flawed men with petty fixations on revenge, but that doesn’t make it any less unpleasant at times to read about.

It’s still an excellent book and it’s still well worth a read, if only to experience what speculative fiction pushed to its limits looks like. I’m just holding out hope that Parsons’ follow-up will use more of his skill at creating bizarre alternate worlds and pulling the reader in, bit by bit, by recreating artifacts of a history that never existed.

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