Book Review: I TRANSGRESS ed. Chris Kelso

By Ben Arzate

Staff Reviewer

Have you ever picked up a book and then wondered if someone had put it together just for you? I got that feeling when I read the table of contents of I Transgress. Not only did it include some of my favorite authors often labeled as “transgressive,” such as Dennis Cooper and Thomas Moore, but also bizarro authors, horror authors, some big names like Samuel R. Delaney and James Joyce, but The Residents have a story in here as well? I was very excited to start reading this.

The collection starts off strong with “Solidarity Forever” by Nick Mamatas. This is a dark and satirical story in which a hippie couple from the United States seek out “the most oppressed person in the world” in order to have sex with them. It’s a brutal and hilarious skewering of American imperialism, especially when it goes under the banner of humanitarian efforts. 

Another favorite of mine is “The Cinematographer” by Thomas Moore. In it, a young man attempts to commit suicide and film it. As he thinks about how he could have filmed it professionally if he had more than an iPhone, he receives a text from his boyfriend. Moore has a real knack for combining disturbing scenarios with some real, deeply felt emotions, and this story is no different. “Heartwarming” is not a word you usually associate with transgressive literature, but Moore pulls it off here. 

The dreams are twisting but any movements or turns are cushioned, like it’s us turning the world rather than the other way around. 

The Residents may seem like the odd ones out here. Yes, it is the band famous for their weird music and eyeball masks. Those more familiar with their recent work may be less surprised. Members of the band/collective have turned to writing recently, even releasing a novel called The Brickeaters. Their contribution here is a story called “The Healer and the Ailing Archer: A Fable of Love and Loss.” It does, in fact, read like an old fable. An archer meets a young man with supernatural healing powers and falls in love with him. However, their relationship eventually begins to grow distant and the archer loses his livelihood as muskets begin to make archery obsolete. 

The story reads very much like the lyrics of The Residents from their Demons Dance Alone and Animal Lover era. It’s a melancholy look at human longing for connection. Fear of aging and becoming a relic, both in society at large and to the ones close to you, are major concerns here. It’s one of the more memorable works in the anthology. 

“From All the Ugly Things: Excerpt From An Interview” by Gary J. Shipley is written in the form of an interview between someone who may be a police officer and a serial killer. The serial killer speaks in broken English and gradually reveals more and more disturbing details of his crimes. The story is profoundly disquieting, giving a sense of overhearing a conversation you weren’t supposed to and giving just enough to leave you wondering exactly what you missed. 

Lauren Sapala, who contributes “California Nights,” is an author I was introduced to in this collection. Her story is a dreamy trip through the isolated roads of California at night. The characters include Charles Manson, Richard Ramirez, and “the blue woman.” The events of the piece include Ramirez blowing Manson, a parade of luxury vehicles, and the ground swallowing people’s bodies. This is less a story and more a literary mood piece and it works very well. I look forward to reading more of Sapala’s work. 

Scott Philips, author of The Ice Harvest, was another I was introduced to with his story “Old Blue Eyes.” This is one of the most traditional short stories in the collection, but it’s an effective one. A mountain climbing guide agrees to lead a woman, who is working on a book about a man who froze to death on a mountain, to the place that the man died and where his frozen corpse can still be found. When he comes back to lead her back down, he finds that she had other plans for the frozen body. The story is a mix of disturbing and hilarious and delivers it with a straight-faced subtlety. 

I Transgress had me excited going in and it didn’t disappoint. It’s an excellent collection of edgy stories from different genres from humor to horror, from traditional to experimental, and from new and lesser-known authors to big name ones. This anthology is a must-have for anyone interested in fringe literature.

Ben Arzate lives in Des Moines, IA. His articles, reviews, short stories, and poetry have appeared in various places online and in print. He is a regular contributor to Cultured Vultures and is the author of two poetry books (the sky is black and blue like a battered child and dr. sodom and mrs. gomorrah, feel bad all the time), one book of short stories (The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Saying Goodbye, NihilismRevised), and two novels (The Story of the Y, Cabal Books and Elaine, Atlatl Press). Find him online at