"The Wingspan of Severed Hands" Book Review
Written by Chris Deal
Published by Weirdpunk Books
Written by Joanna Koch
2020, 118 pages, Fiction
Released on December 15th, 2020
A growing trend in horror fiction of late, one I have greatly enjoyed, is to approach and adjust, possibly correct, the horror of the past by actively playing in the mythos created by the writers of the past. A sort of high-brow fan fiction, you could say, but it’s nothing new in the world of horror. Going back to H.P. Lovecraft’s own self. By taking up the fictional creations that influenced us, we’re able to make our own mark on the worlds that inspired us, and as recent books such as The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle, Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark, or The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher have all shown, they can be an effective approach. The Wingspan of Severed Hands by Joanna Koch takes from the past to bring us the future of cosmic horror.
Adira is a young girl who, as the synopsis tells us, is fighting for her personal autonomy. Dealing with an overbearing mother, referred to her as the Dragon, Adura is attempting to figure out herself and her body, her sexual identity, as most teenagers tend to do. The reader is quick to see just how overbearing the Dragon is when after finding her daughter, not yet a high school senior, in the midst of either coitus or a rape in her trailer’s living room, the Dragon quickly starts planning the wedding. There is no mention of a shotgun, but the wedding ends with a disastrous wedding night that leaves the groom all over the room and Adiria missing her hands.
Adira’s point of view is told through emotional, dreamlike imagery, whereas when we meet the second protagonist, Director Bennet, the prose goes more traditional, less surreal. Director Bennet oversees an underground laboratory somewhere near some quiet mountain town. She commands a secret project to create a unique, living weapon, not to fight traditional warfare but the ultimate enemy of reality and sanity itself, the Yellow Queen of Carcosa.
This puts The Wingspan of Severed Hands firmly in the world of Robert E. Chambers influential The King in Yellow, but this goes more Lovecraftian, with the Yellow Queen invading this reality and spreading a sickness of the mind through a virus in the form of the Yellow Sign, with those infected falling into a horrid degeneracy.
That degeneracy infects the writing, with Koch creating wonderfully dense and poetic prose that puts the reader into a dreamlike state, evoking a literary version of a death metal Sun Ra. From the very first sentence, “Flowers in her hair, flowers in her eyes, flowers in her mouth, each step down the aisle tripped wires on a spiral-string trap,” the reader will know this is not your ordinary writing, this is surreal, the apocalypse by way of Joyce or Borges. The words may be arcane and cryptic, and I highly recommend reading this with a dictionary close at hand. Sometimes you may have to dig into meaning more than normal, but there are moments of pure revelation here. The poetry comes forth in how there are frequent callbacks to previous turns of phrase, where “Flowers in her hair” becomes a refrain or chorus.
The Wingspan of Severed Hands is horror through and through, but there is a pure beauty at the heart that is hard to compare. Thankfully this is not thick in word-count, but this is a book that requires the reader to work and rewards them for the effort.
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