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Everywhere the glow of something waiting to end: On Gary J Shipley’s Warewolff!

By Lucy Brady.

Warewolff

Gary J Shipley, Warewolff! (Hexus Press, 2017)

UK based writer Gary J. Shipley’s Warewolff! opens with a passage bearing the heading ‘Prologue/Prodrome’, the latter part of the title referring to the first visible symptoms in the onset of a disease. It is both a framing narrative, and an oblique mission statement: “This is an attempt at seeing. It’s an attempt to see something while having access only to its effects.” The contents of the book are presented as a kind of miscellany. It is made up of surreal monologues, composed in an often disconnected, stream of consciousness fashion, and characterised by a combination of philosophical ambiguity and elaborate nastiness. These are, we are to understand, a collection of excerpts compiled by the author, transcribed from audio recordings, interviews, notebooks, web forums and other such channels. They form the cross section of a raw, unmediated stream of data to which the narrator has made themselves the willing vessel in their obscure quest for enlightenment. This they now present to us, so that we might share in their understanding.

Despite its unorthodox format, which at times more closely resembles a collection of avant-garde prose poetry, Shipley is unambiguous in identifying Warewolff! as a novel. Nor is it his first work to adopt this classification. While bearing much of the same florid style as Warewolff! his 2013 work Dreams of Amputation perhaps comes closest to the traditional novel format, taking the form of a cyberpunk detective yarn, come dystopian social commentary, while his 2012 book Crypt(o)Spasm, made it its explicit objective to “[explore] the idea of the novel as an impossible object”. To grasp the idea that Warewolff! is indeed a novel is the first of many challenges contained in what is an enigmatic and deeply troubling text.

In an attempt to draw order from this incoming morass, the narrator has separated the various data into ten obliquely titled categories: thematically assigned sub-groupings he describes as “layers”. These are, he explains, “put together from a single word or phrase in the sentences preceding the extracted texts that seemed somehow to signpost the content to come”. To what destination it is unclear. The author figure from ‘Prologue/Prodrome’ never reappears. Instead, the narratorial voice becomes separated across a multitude of different narratives and identities that the reader is invited to listen to, to engage with, and in many instances to inhabit. As the text progresses, this first voice becomes subsumed into the pervading horror: a single instance lost in the plurality of suffering.

I’ve come to think of Warewolff! primarily as a work of science fiction. Its passages play out like a myriad disconnected visions of the future, inviting us to imagine a world after the death of sanity. The trappings of the genre are more pronounced in some cases than others. In ‘Astronaut Laughter’, for example, we are presented with the account of a disembodied narrator dissecting the state of things awaiting them on their return earth. In cold detail, they relate how “in Moscow they peddle our heads, mock us up as space-suited Stasi men. In London, bloodshot androids sweat anti-psychotics into freezer bags bearing our names.” In similarly bleak fashion, ‘The Rise of the Hikikomori’ sees the postmodern hermits of Japan’s young adult population reborn as harbingers of a new, pathologically introspective age, elevated to the status of quasi-divine beings. In the tale, they appear “glowing in the streets like hatchlings dropped from UFOs” as “soon after, groups of office workers fell to their knees in recognition of their God in so many bodies”.

Stylistically and thematically the novel runs the gamut of literary forms and cut-up, pulp prose, reinventing itself across genres as the voice develops in texture and detail. There are passages that are set out like debased proverbs, echoing the Labyrinths of Borges in dream-like absurdity. Like in ‘Stories’, which describes the curious dilemma of a man ascending the hitherto unknown floors of his own home, expanding outwards like an inverted pyramid, or ‘Russian Dog Fail’: a blunt folk tale of altruistic canine self-destruction by cannibalism. Intercrural Comedown reads like the distillation of a thriller: the monologue of a hard-nosed reporter in the company of a group of men on the trail of a killer. This takes place in the psychedelic heart of darkness of an imagined Uganda. Meanwhile, stories like ‘Corrupted 3D’ take the form of schlock, noir dispatches from the minds of serial killers, musing on their crimes with grim satisfaction. In one of its more oblique sections, the narrator of ‘Corrupted 3D’ talks about the collection of diseased vaginas he keeps in his fridge, casually remarking how “my co-workers aren’t the kind to notice that I might be somebody who’d have up to three decaying worlds peaking in the basement of his house” (shades of a more imaginative Jeffrey Dahmer). Some, such as ‘The Family Diet’, even scrap literary pretext altogether, instead mimicking the format of a biology textbook, upholding a sheen of objectivity even when its contents, the parasitic habits of cannibal humanoids, defy rational interpretation. It wears these many archetypes like a series of misshapen garments, fitting some but not all parts of its ultimately undisclosed form.

The tone of Warewolff! is one that never questions understanding or empathy on the part of the reader. Even in the face of things that seem impossibly alien in both subject and sentiment, the narratorial voice still surveys it all with total detachment. And nor should it be any other way. Shipley has bored a hole into the inner life of a multitude of subconscious minds, and whatever pours out is judged on its own terms, without dissemblance or apology. The weight of these many realities has stripped away the need for anything else, and the result reads like a dry confessional. Yet however deeply we peer into these worlds we are still outsiders, and whatever certainty they express remains wholly one-sided.

Establishing even an ultimate meaning on these terms is impossible. Instead, the novel endeavours to convey its message by inviting the reader to share in its philosophical detachment. Warewolff! is a call to abandon mundane rationalism and revel in cognitive separation from the horrors being witnessed. This seems to happen at every turn, even when the voice addresses the author directly. Often it will say “you”, but just as likely it will be “we” who serve as the actors in the piece. We are the parasites burrowing up through the corpse of a woman in ‘Slug Sun’, we are the travellers in ‘The Passage to Nairobi’ suspending our souls in formaldehyde. This notion of collective action is a kind of deindividuation. It displaces responsibility while never wholly renouncing it. This effect is even mirrored in the language, occasionally sliding from a dry, received diction into an ambiguous colloquialism. “I’ll get me its face this way. And everyone gone from here,” remarks the narrator of ‘Xenograft’, and as they do so, the internal voice of the reader is no longer their own.

It is possible to interpret these miscellaneous dispatches not so much as disconnected fragments, but rather as whole novels sublimated to their constituent parts. They speak directly to that lizard part of the brain which draws no distinction between such entities as character, concrete action or abstract concept. Yet it is hard to deny that beneath all of this is also the sense of a unified narrative that is ever present amidst the endless stream of voices. One then feels as though what they are reading isn’t so much a gathering of recorded thoughts so much as many radically differing perspectives onto one singular, living entity.

Biomorphism, body horror and the evocation of voluptuous, ungovernable nature is at the heart of Warewolff! from the outset. The opening passage of its first layer is Ooze box, and begins with a reflection on the universality of disease, relating how its subject had “memorized the layout of Spandau. It was in him, he said, like his leukemia. A wormery of nostalgia.” It progresses from here onwards, speaking through the quasi-sentient minds of houses, corpses, car parks, animals, abstract concepts and a host of human or once human things.

Yet this is only the beginning. From this amorphous starting point the book continues in a process of evolution, traversing the different strata that form the text. And though the figure of the author in ‘Prologue/Prodrome’ dismisses its division into “layers” as a simple arbitrary grouping, as the various concepts and subjective undercurrents start to materialise, they begin to act more like chapters. It is in this respect that it begins to most closely resemble a novel.

There is no concrete story, but there is the sense of an event, a profound cataclysm at the thematic centre of the novel, of which these transmissions are the echoes, felt across the world in the nightmares of sensitive dreamers. It is a great universal death, of one kind or another, a cosmic undoing played out in a series of inverted apocalypses; theoretically abstracted yet eerily real. They echo the dying worlds of Michael Moorcock’s bleaker fictions, and invoke the world of the ‘Afternoon Cultures’ in Mike Harrison’s Viriconium, that sees a distant future world crushed by the weight of psychosis and the decaying memory of its implacably glorious past. This is death by gerontion, and the miasmic inertia at the end of all things.

Dead and the dying things are everywhere in Warewolff!, described in such vivid detail and with such intimate characterisation that their residual living-ness transects with the prescient dead-ness that the denizens of Shipley’s novel know only too well.

But this, too, is no end, and what the later parts of Shipley’s novel tackle is what comes next. The passages in these sections are among the most lucid and haunting of the book, and explore what form this idea of mortality takes within the cold and deathless world of mass information technology, in which death has been robbed of its first principles. Perhaps the most elegant example is ‘A Female Growth’. In this passage, Shipley explores this new meaning of death through the image of a woman before a television. It is a diorama of abandoned selfhood and technological dissolution: “It’s too much. She cuts off the rest of her face and places it over the screen of her TV. She sits in her armchair and watches it. Where her face was there is an oval of green light.” This condition is one analogous to both the reader and the author. We, like her, are poised at the great technological mouthpiece of modernity, and we are all attempting to see. 

Warewolff! is, if nothing else, a bleak novel for bleak times. In this present age of “big data”, of the erosion of discourse and the liberation of unhallowed vitriol, of the Dark Web and its unprecedented encroaching into public life, the sheer intimacy of strangeness Shipley’s novel conveys is appalling. But it is also uncomfortably familiar. Within the law of large numbers there will always be someone less reserved than yourself, spilling their darkest thoughts like they’re your own. The internet has held a mirror up to life and it should come as no surprise if we find the reflection unpalatable. No one likes the sound of themselves on tape.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lucy Brady is a writer and journalist specialising in speculative fiction, experimental music and fringe psychology. She has written for various publications including Hexus Journal, Dreams from the Witch House: Female Voices in Lovecraftian Horror and Living in the Future. She is also a contributing editor for Praeterlimina, a zine about magic, demonology and the human condition.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, October 5th, 2017.