Behind Karen Brennan's MONSTERS: A Shadow Bibliography

Bookmarked is a regular column in which a writer parts the curtains to reveal a "shadow bibliography" behind their newest work. Today, Karen Brennan shares the books that were influential or significant to her latest collection of fiction, Monsters. 

Monsters is a collection of 39 short, sometimes very short, fictions, written over a period of years and as such “shadowed” by dozens of literary and artistic ghosts.  Floating around in these stories are esteemed ectoplasms, too many to blog about or even to name.   But a few who deserve mention, because they are overall influences on my work, if not specific to this collection (in no order of importance), are Grace Paley, Franz Kafka, Billie Holiday, Samuel Beckett, Roland Barthes, Lydia Davis, Heinrich Boll, Natalia Ginzberg, the German Expressionists, especially a particular painting called Dreaming Woman by Oskar Kokoschka (she haunts me since I first encountered her in Manhattan’s Neue Gallery) and John Ashbery, whose strange and moving words I borrow for the book’s epigraph because they evoke a feeling not unrelated to monsters and existential horror.  This being said, I culled-- out of so many-- the below texts because they are particularly linked to individual stories or formal innovations in this collection. 


Turn of the Screw. Henry James. Norton, 1999. 

Ghosts, the question of reliability, the false document in which the story is housed, the shattering, ambiguous irresolute finale particularly influenced my story “Souls in Transit, Souls at Rest.”  I’d started this story as a kind of appropriation of James, then it evolved—perhaps devolved-- into something else.  I’d always read T of S as a commentary on women.  Published a year before Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams (1898, 99) and a handful of years after Studies in Hysteria (1895), it seems to have caught more than a whiff of the contemporary urgency regarding women and their feelings.  I like that James complicates these issues in a way that Freud does not, and in my story about a pregnancy I wanted to honor those complications and push them along, even.


The Voice Imitator. Thomas Bernhard.  U of Chicago, 1997.

Thomas Bernhard who has made the garrulous, obsessive narrator a trademark (cf. Concrete, The Lime Works, etc.), in The Voice Imitator appropriates a voice more humorously terse but just as unrelenting.  An anthology of 104 one-page stories, Bernhard is by turns bitter, rueful, absurd, melancholy and darkly comic.  What appeals to my writing self (and my own short paragraphs) is the way the flat, journalistic, anonymous narrator manages to convey so much in a page, manages cultural critique, existential absurdity, gallows humor and opinion.  It’s all in the “inimitable” voice!  The hybrid nature of these (before the hybrid became fashionable) is just enough to unsettle the reader (who is the speaker? and what is the genre?) and once we stop puzzling over these matters, we are led to a disturbing, deeply human cave.   For some, he is too bleak, but for me he is inspiring and profound. 

Between the Acts.  Virginia Woolf.  Mariner Books, 2008.

My favorite Woolf novel because it is the most structurally ambitious and the funniest.  No one orchestrates a party like Woolf—we saw a glimmer of this in Dalloway but BTA reaches a dizzy pitch.  It is a play within a novel and the novel is composed of storylines going their own discordant ways until they converge.  It is about love, history, beauty and sorrow, and is, like an impressionist painting, a whole composed of points of light.  Woolf is always there haunting and nudging along my literary efforts, her astonishing sentences afloat with semi-colons.  Like all great modernists, Woolf is interested in interiorities and so the reader feels very close to the narrative voice in her work, which is not so much wayward stream of consciousness as it is a meticulously organic representation of mind unfolding onto page.   In stories like “Souls in Transit” and even “The Snow Queen” as well as some other first person stories (“On Longing,” “On Bliss”) in this collection, I can feel Woolf hovering above me, a kind of cheerleading muse.


60 Stories. Donald Barthelme.  FSG, 1981.

I became enamored of DB in the 70s and still haven’t shaken my crush.  In those days, he was a specialized taste.  Along with John Barthes, Robert Coover and a handful of others, he’d been labeled “experimental,” which is to say, meta-fictional, device-ridden and not serious enough.   Today everyone recognizes in Barthelme a high seriousness, a profundity beneath the antic absurdism and imagination. Way back when, he liberated me from the constraints of literary realism and introduced me to new formal possibilities for fiction.  60 Stories is the one to read.  It has all the classics—“Indian Uprising,” “The School,” “Rebecca,” “Falling Dog,” among others.  Influenced by the visual art of his time-- minimalism, conceptualism, as well as late modernism-- Barthelme draws the reader through his sparse and provocative narratives, much like contemporary artists instruct the gaze of the patient viewer. I wrote my story “The New, New Music” as a nod to the hilarious “The King of Jazz,” whose tongue-in-cheek, meta-fictional theme is “the new music,” a satirical critique of all art movements and their race to immortality. What’s been most inspiring to me is that though Barthelme eschews character, plot, dramatic arc and all the marks of “the serious short story,” he manages to unearth tenderness and even tragedy in his minimalist pieces, where white space accounts for much of his eloquence.

“The Snow Queen.” in The Complete Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen.  Hans Christian Andersen.  G Books, 2011.

Like the narrator in my own “Snow Queen,” my dark-haired beautiful mother read me Anderson’s “The Snow Queen” long, long ago.  Mesmerized, terrified, I always saw her as the Snow Queen after that, covered in white fur with very red (1950’s) lips.  Of all the Hans Christian Andersen stories,  “The Snow Queen” is the most layered and most terrifying—probably because it strikes those deep Freudian chords and is, in some way, about impossibility.  When I was invited to submit a story based on a fairy tale to an anthology, I took on “The Snow Queen.”  I re-entered it and jumbled up its parts, taking as a point of departure the dream landscape of snow, its silences and erasures.  The story I told bears little resemblance to HCA’s story, but I like to think I’ve honored it somewhat, its resonances that even now shadow (and frighten) me.

Monsters, available now from Four Way Books, is Karen Brennan's seventh book. Her most recent others include the collections of poetry little dark (Four Way, 2014) and The Real Enough World (Wesleyan, 2006), and the book of stories, The Garden in Which I Walk (FC2, 2005). Professor Emerita at the University of Utah, she teaches in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers and lives in Tucson.