David Peak’s Recent Reading at Brown University

Here’s the introduction I delivered before David Peak’s reading at Brown University’s Literary Arts Department’s Demitasse on  April 18, 2013:

The first fiction I read from David Peak’s work was his chapbook Museum of Fucked, the curator-narrator of which has a thing for b-grade horror films, the narrator offering aching portraits of disturbed, hurting, and despairing people living in rundown Chicago neighborhoods, ne’er-do-wells, like crack addicts, homeless people, a blind man begging for change, a landlord who starves cats and dogs for pleasure, a woman with “burned out nostrils” with “rotten” teeth who claims her mother was Marilyn Monroe, and a desperate man swinging a baseball bat holding kids captive. Roaming Chicago’s “gray gentrified industrial neighborhoods,” its “people-packed, colorful shopping districts,” “hip neighborhoods filled with three-flats,” and the “dirty parts…with their broken glass and families,” these grotesques could easily be confused for the zombies of Dawn of the Dead and Night of the Living Dead (titles of two of Museum’s stories). The view of life here is encapsulated in the following lines from this brutal fiction: “God we’re all fucked, he says to someone on the other end of the line.”

The next thing I read from Peak was another chapbook: the destruction loops, which I read as fragments from some ominous whole: a series of jagged communiqués delivered after some largely undefined cataclysm, a world where surrounding waters threaten, are a “bath of acid eating away at the coastline.” Considering recent events in Boston, oh, and Mogadishu and Yemen and Palestine and Syria, etc. ad infinitum, I can’t help but shudder while reading the following lines from Peak’s text: “The overpressure of an explosion can tear a hole in the space between things / and pull a body inside its hidden folds.” Employing a poetics reminiscent of Andrew Joron and Will Alexander’s alchemical blends of science and science fiction, the destruction loops is an absurdist, terrified, paranoid response to ultra-terror: the terror of terrorism, of territorial pissings, of the “frightful myths of monsters.”

“Museum of Fucked” can now be found in Peak’s Glowing in the Dark, a creepy collection of gothic fictions mired in abjection, where corpses and wounds and dark holes and all kinds of rot force breakdowns in meaning. And “fucked” is an apt description for the prose here, a descriptor that might be considered akin to Viktor Shklovsky’s idea of “difficult, roughened, impeded language.” Peak’s prose is a sickly fusion of Evenson, Hawthorne, Kafka, Lovecraft, and Poe. “Museum of Fucked” suggests that “no living creatures were ever meant to be too comfortable,” and all of the stories in Glowing in the Dark present character after grotesque character, decapitee to amputee, in various forms of discomfort, discomfiting, too, this reader. “Strange Signals from the Center of the Earth,” is an interpolation of “the thing” trope: here cables inexplicably appear to emerge from some underground, an unknown and perhaps unknowable menace. The comic “Carnivali and the Carmelites” features a simulated, but still grisly, series of executions-by-guillotine of nuns, where ideas about martyrdom and divine service are juxtaposed against more mundane forms of pomposity. “Doghouse” literalizes the familiar locality of the harassed husband, transforming it into an S&M dungeon, giving new meaning to the insulting descriptor “whipped.” The most disturbing story for me was “Helping Hands,” where a pile of arms in the Sudan are described as “stacked up like chicken bones on a plate, pools of black blood all over the place.” Later, the story’s well-intentioned protagonist suffers from symmetrical peripheral gangrene caused by malarial infection, resulting in a quadruple amputation. In Glowing in the Dark, you’ll also find a dark vision of a dank prison “A Book of the Guilty”; a man who finds linkages between his teeth and string theory; any number of yawning maws; fictions vomiting the rot of life, its putrescent excretions. Two quotes serve as guideposts for understanding the writer at work here: The last line of the title story: “It’s only when you look closely that things seem to break down.” And a line from “King of the Rats,” the last story: “From the familiar lull and weight of what I began to call the blackness—the cancer of the mind.”

Things fall apart in Peak’s fiction, fall into blackness, into sickness, into death, into nothing, which results in fear, which H.P. Lovecraft, in “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” called humanity’s “oldest and strongest emotion of mankind,” and Peak, just like Lovecraft, knows that “the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

David Peak’s books also include The River through the Trees and Surface Tension. His fiction, non-fiction, poetry and criticism have been published widely in print and on the web. In 2011, Peak’s story “Just Boys” was selected as one of Wigleaf’s Top 50 Very Short Fictions. He received his MFA from Columbia College Chicago.

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