I can’t not smirk even when I look at the cover: how tongue-in-cheek the design is, recalling something like the 1870-whatever edition of Paradise Lost I found in my hometown library in high school, This is what a distinguished piece of literature looks like. There’s even a multitude of date stamps on the inside cover’s checkout card.
I think that’s why I find this collection so endearing, not just for the quality of writing but how through so many details the Anthology of Etiquette and Terrifying Angels With Many Heads, the new free e-chapbook from NAP, calls attention to its own unlikeliness of existing, and the absurdity that it actually does, reveling in it with total sincerity one second then riffing on its own ridiculousness the next. And please don’t think by “ridiculousness” I mean “stupid.” This thing is smart. I just mean the kind of ridiculousness James Tadd Adcox mentions in his Editor’s Note:
I want to thank as well all of the writers who were willing to contribute work to this anthology, taking it on faith that such a strange book would ever exist.
Matt Bell’s “When Taking a Terrifying Angel With Many Heads As Your Lover” reads like a sex ed manual for Mormon teenagers from an alternate universe, or a flawlessly proper yet strangely sensually comfortable governess administering a heavenly rite of passage into adulthood, at times boxing your ears for your gross impertinence. It’s kind of brutal and totally hilarious. The reader gets constantly reminded of their own childish inexperience and insignificance before their lover:
If asked where you would like to sit at the pre-coital dinner, do not reply smartly: “At the right hand.” But if you do say this, do not also giggle and try to slide the terrifying angel’s own right hand into the drop of your lap. The terrifying angel with many heads is deadly serious about his duties, and will not enjoy your casual nature.
Another one of my favorites here is Joseph Scapellato’s “Thomas Jefferson,” in which said president lives through some dream-within-a-dream mash-up of one of Aesop’s fables and Jesus’ forty days of temptation in the wilderness. Throughout the story, Jefferson repeatedly “wakes up” from a progression of dreams in which he is taking part in typically Jeffersonian pursuits—reading books on a variety of subjects, inventing new machines, etc.—hoping to meet the morning as he does every day, only to find the morning absent:
Always they had shared an understanding, matching roles they donned each dawn like masquerade halfmasks, costumes that enhanced rather than concealed their character. Always he had woken into morning and met it with patience, contemplation, and productivity, qualities that came from and were homage to the morning, qualities that when given returned threefold. He headed for the highest hill, his beaded moccasins turning water, the trim of his smoking robe sweeping tips of grass, his ivory hair-queue loosening with every step. Behind their old clear understanding he began to sense a darker and still older etiquette, artfully opaque, something like a dream that the morning had woken the world into, a dream that for however senseless it seemed was shackled to its own chilly iron logic.
Eventually Jefferson encounters a series of surreal temptations to betray his faith, not in any god but man’s ability and desire for fairness and enlightenment. He repeatedly rebuffs his tempter, the Redcoat, but their exchanges become surreal and unhinged to the point that it seems hard to think that even Jefferson’s genuine love of reason and orderliness could ever overcome the increasingly nightmarish world around him. Disorder claws at him, including in the form of a terrifying angel with many heads of his lovers, and we pretty much get that Thomas Jefferson is screwed. Here, absurdity is not out for laughs, it’s trying to kill the third U.S. President. Scapellato handles this fucked up morality tale or Bible story or whatever you want to call it with clarity and efficient description—there are just enough monsters present to imagine how many more might be lurking around the corner.
Also check out Vouched contributor Amber Sparks’ reflection about being a terrifying angel with many heads’ long-term platonic, silent companion waiting eons to hear it speak, and Colin Winnette’s story about a terrifying angel with many heads who is also the mother of an uneasy child with rumbling blood, and this chapbook’s many other lovely and unsettling and terrifying heads, here.