“I am sewn gristlething full of hate. I invade the gory trench and crush and stalk through waves of poison gas. I am pierced by metal. My limbs are burst by heat. I howl my fading fury to the sky.”
From the outset Zack Parsons' debut novel Liminal States envelopes the reader in a fog of desolation and creeping dread. The eerie and evocative prologue traps us in the mind of some otherworldy, insectoid creature, its singularity of purpose and isolation feeding an overwhelming claustrophobia. And the story hasn't even begun yet.
Liminal States is one of those immensely pleasing books which appear from out of nowhere. Prior to this work, Zack Parsons was better known to the denizens of the internet as an editor at SomethingAwful.com. Known more for crude (although hilarious) photoshop competitions than highbrow literary criticism I was unsure what to expect at first. Admittedly on reading the prologue I was unconvinced and ready for a slog through a deliberately unwieldy slice of experimental prose. How wrong I was.
Liminal States is three books in one, an epic tale of rivalry spanning two centuries and covering the western, hard-boiled detective and dystopian sci-fi genres with plenty of diversions to an almost Lovecraftian mythos underlying the book's central plot device, the pool.
The first tale, The Builder, takes place in 1874 in and around the tiny troubled town of Spark, New Mexico. The relative peace of Spark is upheld by Sheriff Warren Groves, an ostensibly good man with a dark and hidden past. Groves and his wife Annie are trying their best to settle and make a live for themselves, despite the secrets both of them bear. Life in Spark is soon to be changed forever by the actions of Gideon Long, a wretched coward of a man living under the shadow of a successful and abusive father. Long, in an attempt to raise the money needed to transform the fortunes of his ailing father's factories, has decided to rob a train, setting in motion events that will see his and Warren's destinies entwined forever.
Following a shoot-out at the site of the planned heist and a near-fatal injury at the hand of Groves, Gideon barely escapes, following a ghostly wolf across the parched desert. With death snapping at his heels he drags himself into a hidden pueblo and discovers a strange pool full hidden underground. Resigned to his fate, Gideon slips into its scalding waters, only to reappear at its edge, wrapped in some kind of cocoon. Emerging unharmed, full of vigour and without a scratch on his body he realises that he has found a source of immense power. Consumed with desire for revenge against Warren, his would-be killer (and, it transpires, rival for Annie's affections), he sets out not only to kill him but to revive him with the powers of the pool, dooming him to eternal life. In the meantime Annie has passed away during labour, providing a catalyst which will see Warren's hatred of Gideon grow to unimaginable levels. The devils of his past are now unleashed and he will stop at nothing to see his vision of justice served.
Parsons takes this concept of two immortal rivals duelling through the ages and adds a wonderful twist in one of the side-effects of the pool, which I'll not spoil here and let would-be readers discover for themselves. The action then skips to the 1950s and seamlessly becomes a Chandler-esque detective romp before finally catching up with us in the present day, albeit a very different one from that to which we are accustomed.
One of the strongest points in Liminal States is the way Zack Parsons manages to effortlessly skip from one literary style to another. The Builder planted my mind so firmly on the frontiers of the old west that I could almost taste the dust in my mouth. It brought to mind the bleak savagery of Nick Cave's And The Ass Saw The Angel and at times the heat from desert became almost oppressive. The transition to the following section is abrupt and you can be forgiven for forgetting you're still reading the same novel. All of a sudden the desert is a distant memory and we're following Detective Groves on the trail of a murderer whose victim could not possibly have existed. The trail takes us through corridors of conspiracy, intrigue and danger before depositing us in the present day. This is no brave new world, more of a nightmare filled with poisonous spores, clones and the signs of am impending apocalypse emanating from the pool, now a fearsome industrial complex.
It's a well-worn cliche to say that a particular work will haunt your dreams but I can truly say that this happened on no fewer than three occasions while reading Liminal States. Zack Parsons is so adept at completely immersing his audience in his terrifying and bewildering alternate realities that you can't help but feel them infesting every corner of your psyche. As such my sleeping brain found itself wondering through the canyons of New Mexico and the already dreamlike alien world briefly visited in the book's intermissions.
As you may have guessed, Liminal States is something of a dark work. Every one of the main characters has major flaws, to the point where you can struggle to find a single redeeming value among them. Revenge, anger, betrayal and hatred are the order of the day. The inexorable crawl towards catastrophe is bleak and wearing but it nonetheless grips you and drags you along with it, perhaps out of a sick curiosity to see just how much worse things can get. For an author to maintain this level of hopelessness and still keep readers hanging on every word is an amazing feat and it's to Zack Parsons credit that he achieved it with his first novel.
This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones. Liminal States is available in now. Clearly, it is not only available but bloody awesome. Just saying.