Garrett Cook, “Charcoal” (2021) – I got this book as a special preorder from Clash Books, which puts the “lit” back in literary, as they say! It’ll be out for the rest of you hoi polloi next year. I knew to order it because I’ve been following Garrett Cook’s career since our days at the dear departed Marlboro College. Lit and Garrett promised a literary horror experience, and delivered.
We begin in the scariest place of all- art school! Shannon Rodriguez is a student MassArt who has talent and drive but also substantial self-doubt. This is made worse by the fact she’s a Dominicana in a largely white male dominated space and someone with a lot of childhood trauma. Professors skeeve on her, “that guy” that’s in every class doesn’t take her seriously. Art is hard.
What for it but to become part of a Faustian lineage? Thomas Kemp, a nihilistic artist in Victorian London dedicates himself to wickedness and sadism, making art out of other’s pain, eventually going so far as to inflict as much as he can himself in order to depict it. He has his ashes, when he dies, made into drawing charcoals. A skeevy professor suggests Shannon use them (for a consideration, of course) to really bring out the artist in her. She does, and it does, but it threatens to bring her down. Kemp himself was part of a chain of artists sponsored by a shadowy supernatural force, one interested in pushing art and evil to its extremes. The opportunities and costs are high, as is usually the deal with your Faust situations.
One good thing Cook does is vary up prose style considerably between works. There is none of the flippancy found in his earlier “bizarro” (roughly, surrealist horror) work. That’s not to say everything is self-serious, and the close attention to interpersonal detail in one or two relationships that you can see in other works comes out here- dorm room romances amidst communal couches and cheap weed. But Kemp and the charcoals bring Shannon to another world, as manifested by the murders of crows that follow Shannon around — in reality? In imagination? — consuming her traumas, past and present, making her…
Well, here, Cook presents few easy answers. Just what is the relationship between monstrosity and art? Is Shannon producing better work under Kemp’s influence, or is that just something her douchebag professors and peers say? What exactly is the potential cost to Shannon (note, it involves murder, but mostly of people who suck)? “Charcoal” was written and published in the midst of numerous debates about the relationship between art and artist. It also comes from a scene, horror fiction, that has not altogether handled these questions well (on any “side”) and depicts an art world that’s pretty bad with reconciling morality (or just functional, non-harmful behavior) with its ideas of genius. At some points in the book, Cook seems to come down on the side of the idea that artists of sufficient evil do deserve to be cast aside, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the point, or the only perspective taken.
I don’t want to spoil the ending, but in the end, Shannon has to reckon with her own power and agency, and when she does, this opens doors. It’s not a direct splitting off with the evil engine behind her artistic rise- it is not a “cancellation.” I’m not entirely sure what it is. A reconciliation, perhaps? In any event, this was a thought-provoking and well-written work, and you all should buy it when the publisher starts putting it out for more wide release, especially all you horror heads. ****’