William VanDenBerg - Writing with a deranged lyricism that recalls Matt Bell and Ben Marcus, VanDenBerg is relentless in his depiction of the strange

William VanDenBerg, Lake of Earth. Caketrain Journal and Press, 2014.


“The captivating stories in Lake of Earth are meticulously crafted and full of sure-handed description. William VanDenBerg writes so much story into so few lines that it’s easy to get lost in these bright fictions.” Michael Kimball

“VanDenBerg’s close calls drain the morbid from the mundane, siphoning from even the puniest sideshow of anonymity a graphic identity. This is writing with muscle memory, a séance of stark, and narrative so seamlessly soldered it maintains body temperature bloodessly.” Kim Gek Lin Short

“‘There is another world outside of this one,’ VanDenBerg tells us, and that’s a pretty good description of Lake of Earth: full of intense, stark prose, these seven stories portray a dream-like world of characters who struggle with visions and hope. I think it’s a terrific and daring book.” - Brandon Hobson

“William VanDenBerg has created a sleepy version of suspense. People shift between consciousness and un-, spaces appear and disappear, objects transubstantiate, and all the while people are trying to share and reconcile and concern all the realities with each other. The tension comes in determining how long the tether can hold between connection and confusion, recognition and division.” Jac Jemc

“The stories in Lake of Earth take us deep into the dream’s dark heart. Writing with a deranged lyricism that recalls Matt Bell and Ben Marcus, VanDenBerg is relentless in his depiction of the strange.” - Robert Kloss

The cover image of Lake of Earth shows a gemstone—its surface angled, smooth, brilliant—that seems to contain an inner light, something Machen might have imagined as harboring a human soul. This gemstone can also be seen as being representative of VanDenBerg’s crystal-clear, lean prose. Take, for example, this brief excerpt from the story “Wife of Elijah”: “He planned on a third child but balked at the cost. The wife wanted a piano, and that was fine. They imagined the house filled with music. Instead the younger girl punctured their Sunday afternoons with idle plinks.” In a mere four sentences, VanDenBerg is able to say more than most writers say with 80,000 words. Here is a family whose home is filled with emptiness and disappointment; here is a family whose dreams have evaporated into an unrecognizable reality.
Such powerful passages are not a rarity in this book. In the stories that make up Lake of Earth, time slips into oblivion again and again. Impossible large spaces bloom in an instant. People meld, separate and disappear, leaving behind only vague memory and impressions of light. VanDenBerg is at his best when burying macrocosmic gems in his narratives, such as this excerpt from “Characteristics of Aberrational Cultic Movements”: “The Book of the World contains a random inventory of objects. It documents the state of all things before The Book of Light, sometimes in specific terms, more often in general. Mildew damaged shirts, plaster molds of hands, Bell jars of fused toffees. Halves of guns. Few of us have made it through the Book.” This paragraph is housed by space within its story, emphasizing its mystery and lending it an air of prescience. No words are wasted here; every sentence reverberates with meaning, whether hidden or displayed.
There are seven stories in Lake of Earth—some more successful than others—and the eponymous story, which makes up the vast majority of the page count, holds the center, the shorter, slighter pieces in revolution like planets spinning around the hold of the sun. Despite the relative slightness of stories such as opener “Treatment” and the subsequent “Five Cities,” nothing here misses the mark. The prose always feels refined to the point of brilliance, such as this excerpt from the excellent “This Is How We Move Through Homes”: “The ceiling of leaves, the black-blue spots of sky, the stars. Wind stirs the canopy. I recognize common shapes: branches, leaves, moss. Then the recognition exits. The canopy is a net, a screen, a ceiling caved in.” The only moments that fail to create a sense of awe, jarring in their very irregularity, are the brief snatches of dialogue. But such transgressions are easily overlooked.
Machen’s gemstone was the result of experiments in magic that went against the order of nature. Similarly, VanDenBerg’s writing has a certain magical quality it, something almost mystical, as if beaming into our realm from some cavernous beyond. As far as I can tell, this is VanDenBerg’s first book. As such it holds a great amount of promise—such beguiling light—for that which is yet to come. - David Peak

William VanDenBerg’s Lake of Earth contains an array of worlds within each of its seven pieces. The collection opens with `Treatment’, a short piece which puts a multitude of questions to the reader with the opening “This isn’t working, he says. We doubt your commitment to the program”. Throughout the piece, we are narrated by an individual who has been instructed to “sit here and keep an eye on the bench outside”. They are kept in a room and the room is their world, a claustrophobic one evocative of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. The story is replete with enigma and the protagonists’ focus is the mundane view of the street through the window. This normality is disrupted right near the finality: “The next day the people on the bench are erased by it”. All around the individual disappears and, enigmatically, the piece concludes with “something has changed”.
A couples’ journey from city to city is the focus of `Five Cities’. The story is composite of five vignettes, which allows it to jump across time with ease and to dissect each experience of each city. Themes of adapting to domestic life prevail in segments such as “you sewed a shirt wrong—you sewed the sleeve shut” and “I exhibited my maturity by cleaning with bleach”. These moments are countered with bizarre and disturbing sections such as “I put your hair in my mouth as a sign of respect and we wore sandles all the time because that’s the kind of town it was” and “You came home one day and wordlessly removed all your hair”. Beneath the story presides a desperation and there is a sense of the couples’ desire to escape a city whenever it becomes familiar. This sense of the temporary commences in the first vignette “”We slept on the floor” to the closing line of the final vignette “We slept the last night in a locked, disgendered bathroom”.
`Wife of Elijah’ deals with a husband and father who “sometimes viewed the wife as a curse” and regarded his children “ungainly”. Each paragraph represents a large passing of time, the children being at school in one paragraph and two later growing up and leaving home. In this instance this efficiency is at detriment to the story; more detail would have benefited the piece that the spare nature of the prose does not give. However, there are moments of this, such as “The younger girl regressed and had to be sent away. Her last act in the house involved a baking sheet and a pair of blackened hands”.
At around forty pages, title story `Lake of Earth’ is the longest piece in the book. It is a magnificently expansive and dystopian piece, where citizens have names such as “A” and “S”. The reader is introduced to the protagonist immediately, who is cuffed to a boat which floats towards an unknown island. Finding a small civilisation in a large building nearby, they are thrown into a strange and feral world, one defined by a conflict between two characters called The Woman and A. The story is interrupted by mini stories rendered in italics, that could be taken for folk-tales. Throughout the language is beautiful and passes such as “A naked male body hangs unassisted in the air. Someone enters completely swaddled in baggy realms of cloth, pulls a scalpel from one of the folds, and begins to work” remain in the mind’s eye long after reading.
`The Lake, The Other Lake, and All the Blood Gone Out of Him’ reads as an evocative and richly textured prose poem, that recalls the precision and imagery of T E Hulme. It is photographic in its description, such as in the first line: “The water passes long and wide. I float and watch the pillars of earth that have risen from the lakebed”. This beginning deftly brings the reader to the focal point of the piece: the water. It is used as a device to take the reader around the scenery of the world within. It “drifts me to the steep banks” and takes the narrator to the water’s end. The volta of the piece occurs when “The filthy children” who are implied to have followed the narrator are introduced to the story. The tension builds as they follow, crowd around the protagonist and push them to the shore. The ending is incredibly powerful “I scream and scream. I hear them roar until I am empty, under, and gone”.
As implied by the title, `Characteristics of Aberrational Cultic Movements’ deals with religious themes. The narrator depicts a prophet, Martin, introducing his fellow citizens to “The Book of Light” a text that “Details the true nature of light – how it acts”. The citizens interest and fear of this news increases when Martin “explains how light will become deadly”. Scared, the citizens are left under the growing influence of Martin who has inexplicable power over them. They move to a building to shield themselves from the light. There is a harrowing scene when Martin asks for a volunteer to make a martyr of themselves and to walk into the light when it comes. Chillingly, the people in the house learn of the sacrifices’ fate and hear their screams outside. The situation from here gets more desperate. Food runs out and they start to suspect Martin, who evades big questions asked of him such as about God; they start to long for the old world.
Wallace Stevens’ `Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ is brought to mind in `This is How We Move through Homes’ in the way it ruminates, in small sections of text, around one topic. The subject here are houses and their surroundings, beautifully depicted as “the common, puncturing memory of a gate: metal scraping on metal, the bottom right corner digging into dirt, a sharp real”.
Lake of Earth is an expansive, surprising collection of stories that, formally and otherwise, deals with extremities. A key strength of the book is VanDenBerg’s prose style, which has a brevity that caries his stories efficiently and evocatively; also impressive is the manner in which the writer renders the fantastical the usual. - Richy Campbell

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