Welcome to the November edition of the BTZ Substack. In this edition a heap of book news, and a short story from Stephen Toman.
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Lots of book news this months starting with the exciting announcement that Jen Craig’s books finally have an Australian Publisher - Puncher and Wattman. They will publish her first two books and her long awaited new book, Wall in 2023. Zerogram will publish Wall in The USA.
Daniel James’ The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas special edition from Valley Press is almost sold out and when it's gone, it's gone. There are less than 50 copies of this visionary new edition of the cult novel left and with no digital version or reprints currently planned, this limited edition book is set to become even more of a collector's item. Order a copy while you can - Valley Press
- Nothing Is More Real Than Nothing: Writings on Ezra Maas will be published by Valley Press in November. This mind-bending new collection is the first critical work dedicated to The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas by Daniel James. It features essays, fragments, fictions, and artefacts by 15 academics, artists, and authors, from around the world, and explores the reclusive artist Ezra Maas through the prism of authorship and identity, metaphysical detectives, post-truth narratives, intertextuality, the value of art, celebrity culture, and gender equality in the art world.
The essay collection will be released in November and it will be available to pre-order from the Valley Press website from 4 November.
New books - Willam Macbeth’s new novel is out from Rough Trade It is called Lee Cross and Unplanned Novel. Antagony By Luis Goytisolo Translated by Brendan Riley is out later this month through Dalkey Archive Dr No is out from Percival Everett through Graywoolf Press
Finally, this podcast has started a Patreon page. There will be some great benefits to signing up and you will help keep the lights on here. Go over to Patreon to sign up.
If you have news, a review a short story or anything else you would like to share send it to firstname.lastname@example.org
Ghost Eye Seeker
by Stephen Toman
A pair of eyes peered out from two slits in leather, framed by a mane of orange and grey. Its body and limbs were like a heavy mammal turned inside out, with the hair only spurting out from the neck, ankles and wrists. It clutched a spear in a paw, which consisted only of a small thumb and a single fat finger about the size of a paddle, and stood on the shore with the water lapping at its feet. The retreating water revealed the body of a girl, face down in the stones.
The man clucked and waved and some of his kin came forward from the treeline where more of them stood watching. One man prodded the body with the blunt end of a spear but the girl stayed dead. He turned to his chief as though waiting to be told what to do. They tried shoving her back out to sea but it was too far gone to take her and she got stuck in the sand.
Bring her, the chief said, and the two men took her by the arms and legs and she swung between them as they shuffled up the beach until one of them lost patience, dropped her and pushed away his companion. Then he stooped down and slung her over one of his shoulders and joined the rest of his people as they made their way back to the village.
They laid her body on a scaffolding of branches constructed on the side of a cliff. Then they lit a torch and left her to the elements, retreated down the mountain.
she woke to a bird on her chest. She could feel her toes for the first time since . . . she didn’t know when . . . before they left the ship. Though the wind was cool and shook the trees so that snow fell from the dark green branches onto her face and body, the sun was warm and she was in no hurry to move. And the bird on her chest was heavy. It was only a silhouette against the sun, directly overhead, its features in shadow. She could not see what hung from its beak till it opened its mouth too wide, pecking at the air, trying to shift whatever it was eating further down its throat, and only then, as she pushed herself up with her elbows so she could see the animal better while it continued to peck at its food now lying on her chest, blinking, did she feel the crust around her left eye crack, felt the scabs that protruded from the socket break off as her lids closed down on them and felt them crumble like oatcakes and dust her cheeks when she opened them, did she realise she was seeing everything from an unusual angle, just off to one side, and felt sick, disorientated, and saw, as the bird stretched out its wings to fly away and momentarily blocked the glare of the sun, her left eye dangling from tendrils clutched in the animal’s beak.
When she walked into the village a number of days later the people there were not surprised to see her, though they were not expecting her. They made space around the fire and offered her a drink from a wooden bowl. The drink was thick like porridge and burned her tongue. When the chief saw her eye, saw the dried bundle of ropes sprouting from the scabbed socket, he called out to an elderly woman who shuffled over. When she looked into Aoife’s eye she made a sound like a corpse deflating and asked for somebody to bring her a torch, a hot knife and a pebble, the roundest one they could find. Aoife, of course, knew none of this and had to be held down by six of them whilst a seventh held the torch by her face. She could smell the old woman’s breath. She was given something to chew beforehand, so when the woman took the knife that had been heated in the fire till its blade glowed so yellow it was nearly white, she felt no pain, only the hardness of the stone blade as it scraped around inside her skull, a feeling that, while being completely unlike any sensation she had ever had before, was also not an unpleasant one, perhaps even satisfying in its own way, like twisting a loose tooth till it hangs from one last fixture, holding off for as long as possible before yanking it out, enjoying the texture of the underside of it as you roll your tongue around it, noticing the way that parts of the tooth taste different, fresher, compared to the bits that are usually exposed . . .
When she finished the woman took a black pebble from a cup of polished stone that had been heated till the water inside it had mostly bubbled away. She rolled it between her fingers as though testing its suitability. It needed to be big enough so that it wouldn’t rattle or fall out and it took the old woman a number of attempts to find the right angle of approach before she could press it into Aoife’s empty socket. She had hoped for a white one but black would have to do. And when Aoife sat up and supped from the cup that was passed to her, thanking the old woman before slipping into the only painless sleep she would have for some time, the reflection of the fire danced in the polished black stone, and though it did not in any way resemble a human eye, it did appear convincingly alive.
They did not stay long in that place but they carried Aoife with them while she recovered. But her fever got worse and the skin round her black eye turned pink and hot and, before breakfast one morning, had spread down to her sternum and though the old woman checked for purple lines and found none, she expected to find them soon. It was nearing the end of winter and soon they would not be able to cross the river. So they left her. She saw them leave. Like a line of ants crawling through the gaps in the trees, her lost eye swinging like a pendulum, pupil flickering in the yellowing orb, trying to keep them in sight . . . She would need to know how to find them.
The sight from her lost eye had returned, even though she knew it could not be real, just her brain filling in the gap. Like when you dream you are flying and you can see what your home looks like from above, even though you’ve never seen it like that before, not even from a tall tree . . . But the map in her imagination corresponded with the path through the trees she saw now, even as their tracks disappeared with the snow.
As far as Aoife knew she had died already. Her legs had given way and she had reached out one hand to a thin tree for support. Then she had wrapped her arms around the tree and sank to her knees, face against the bark, eyes closed, lips puckered, whispering. Though she later woke and pulled herself up and carried on walking the single track through the trees, she knew she had died and was waiting for her brother to join her. At first she was surprised to feel the cold but reckoned that was because when she was alive she could feel the warmth of her own body and so now that she was dead it was only reasonable she would be able feel the cold from it too.
The trees stopped when the land ended. She saw the path wind round the coast, the black water lapping at the white sand or snow, the black trees scraping the white sky. She figured she should go south but didn’t know where south was.
Her stomach had eaten the last of itself. She sat upon the stump of a fallen tree and released one final roar from her gullet. Bile rose up from her throat and spilled between the cracks in her clenched teeth and down her chin.
When she looked up, two women stood before her. They spoke in clicks and whirrs but they pointed and Aoife understood that they were telling her which way to go. Or which way not to go. There being only one path, she lacked another option and set off in the direction of their clicks and whirrs.
At first they were a shadow on the horizon, rising like a leviathan from the black water. It was only when the white men leapt from their smaller boats and splashed onto the beach that the women knew they were in danger. The white men threatened the women, who had no intention of withholding any information but knew that the white men would have no way of interpreting this, and the white men grew frustrated, violent, and held down one of the women and took their turns till she begged them to kill her, and her belly grew swollen, eaten by infection, and she died screaming several weeks later. The white men took from the women all that they could carry—dried meat, water, furs—and loaded them onto a sledge pulled by dogs they had liberated from the hold of the ship. They were glad to be away from the constant reek of dog shit and raw meat. It had gotten so bad down there in the hold that they would rather be punished than clean it, and when cleaning out the hold was given to them as a punishment, they would refuse and ask for another, more severe, so a sort of slurry had taken over the entire hold and all the cargo had to be moved to the deck and a hose lowered into the hold and the shit pumped out into the sea. The dogs were ragged and sick, red-eyed and staring, desperately clawing at themselves and chewing their flesh trying to get clean.
Three men set off on the sledge with the dogs and the others returned to the ship. They expected to be back soon.
They were not being, what you would call, paid well for their endeavours but neither did they have any intention of handing over what they found. They had already looted the slave ship—found it partially sunk, half-buried in a sand bank, miles away from shore. They had lowered a crewmember in a diving suit to explore it but the crewmember vomited immediately after connecting the breathing apparatus—the hose being the one previously used (and not effectively cleaned afterwards) to siphon the slurry of dog shit from the hold—filling the glass helmet with bile and other regurgitations. They patted him on the back and said to him, through clenched teeth, that it would wash off in the water. The crewmember in the diving suit nodded, sincerely hoping it would, holding the line of the pulley as they lowered him into the water, realising only then that the spew was on the inside of the helmet, legs of it running upwards across the glass and obscuring his field of vision, nostrils burning, the cavity between his eye sockets and the roof of his mouth needing emptied, full of grit—
There wasn’t much left on the boat to take. There were a few bodies in the hold but most of the cargo was gone. They found the body of the captain in his bunk, which put an end to the debate they had been having about whether they would get more money for getting him home safely or for selling him, what with it being the captain their client had been most interested in. Cargo they lost all the time, were prepared to lose and were insured for it. But a captain prepared to risk being caught by the Navy? Those were rare nowadays. Alas, with the captain gone they were now on a salvaging expedition. If they could find the cargo, it was theirs, they would argue.
They set fire to the village and dragged black ash behind them across the snow, spreading it like an infection.
Don’t this stuff ever come off? Seems I’ve been smearing this shit for a hundred miles, said Thrush, the driver, wiping each foot in turn on the snow like he was scraping off a turd.
Behind them a black path smeared through the trees to the burnt out village, to the sea now melted and returned to its violent black state beneath a sky now mostly white, darkening only for a short period during what you might call night.
It’s the dogs, replied Sally. They’re the ones what are spreading it.
The dogs licked their paws incessantly but when they set out again the black stain still trailed behind.
Wait! Stop, stop, said Henrikson, hoarse from not having spoken in a while. The snotters that coated his moustache cracked as he moved his mouth, making chewing motions, grimacing and baring his teeth to try and regain some of the freedom of movement he’d had before the cold ice froze his features in place. Halt, he shouted finally from the back of the sledge and Thrush pulled on the reins and brought it to a stop.
Thrush turned to face his boss and laughed.
You got a face like a toffee apple, he said.
When Henrikson said nothing the driver stopped smiling.
You ever get a case of the shits so bad you turn yourself inside out?
Uh, I might be able to say that, said Thrush. Once or twice maybe.
Well you might want to see if you can pop your nose back in or it’s likely to fall off.
The driver’s nose was a big one and had only got bigger as it froze and ice formed on it and bits of it dried and flaked off and froze in place and more ice clung to those flakes, and the flakes to each other, blackened crusts and sores over the purple veins of a sherry-fiend. Thrush instinctively brought his gloved hand to his face, too fast, and dislodged his nose, hearing the crack of the bone separating from the rest of the skull but not feeling it.
Oh dear, said Sally, peering at the dark line running along where the bridge of the nose met the cheekbone. Looks like you’ve gone and dislocated your nose. Knocked it out of alignment.
Aw, Jesus, said Thrush, flapping both hands near his face, wanting to touch his nose but scared to. Aw jeez, aw jeez, he repeated, stamping his feet and sending up black clouds of ash.
Sally was the cook and therefore the most qualified of the three to act as the doctor.
Let me help you, he said, taking off his gloves. He held out his hands towards the driver’s nose but did not touch it. Keep still.
Thrush stopped moving.
Sally put his fingers flat on both sides of the bridge of Thrush’s nose. Thrush flinched.
Does that hurt?
Thrush shook his head, moving only an inch or so in each direction, but too much, what with Sally holding the nose in position whilst Thrush moved the rest of his face about. The skin around the nose separated. Only where the top of the bridge met the brow was the skin unbroken. There was a facial expression Sally wanted to make about now but he kept it to himself.
That’s good, he said.
Sally repositioned his feet in the snow.
Okay, he said, I’m just going to slide your nose back into position. Then I’ll hold it till the blood dries or freezes. That should keep it in place but, if not, I’ve got some glue in my bag. Are you sure this doesn’t hurt none?
I’m sure, said Thrush, without moving more than his lips this time.
Sally dug his boots into the snow and pressed his fingers against Thrush’s nose.
Ah shite, he said as his foot slipped and he pushed Thrush backwards. He looked up from the ground at Thrush, who just stood there flexing the muscles of his face.
Is that it done? Thrush’s gloved hand hovered over the hole where his nose used to be, a strip of raw flesh from where it had peeled off like tape removing paint.
Don’t touch it, said Sally quickly. Let it heal.
Can we get a move on? said Henrikson, sticking the cork back into a bottle of brandy. Resting across his lap was what he thought he saw sticking out of the snow like a tiny stele. No doubt about it, the bone was human—a femur— and those were bite marks.
We’re good, shouted Sally.
Thrush nodded and they took their places in the sledge. When they had set off again Sally put the driver’s nose into his pocket, thinking he would get a chance later to reattach it, but then thought better of it and tossed it from the moving sledge into the trees.
Extracted from the novella, But God Made Hell.
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