It’s hard to describe Joanna Koch’s new book. There is an almost impressionistic quality to it. Dreamlike, poetic. Operating on multiple layers most of the time. It’s cosmic horror as I’ve never encountered it before. And I feel like they have captured something in a way I’ve never seen it captured in fiction, the truly ineffable. Not just describing something that defies description, but capturing that borderland where our understanding and language fail us, drop off into an abyss and leave us scrambling to make sense of what we see and feel.
As someone recovering from the horrors of an evangelical upbringing, I see the echoes of that here. A steady diet of shame and betrayal by those who are supposed to protect you. There is a recurring theme of having one’s agency forcefully taken away. Of being literally taken apart and consumed. And then there is what comes after. Because despite being truly haunting and scary, there is the promise of redemption. Of reassembling oneself and reclaiming all that has been taken and more. Ultimately, despite the very personal horrors at the center of the book and the larger horrors that exist on the periphery, this is a story of sloughing off the terrible things that we live through and finding freedom.
There are lovely parallels throughout of the obscure occult narrative of the King in Yellow and the more traditional beliefs that underlie our mainstream religious culture. To some extent the former is less harmful than the latter. As someone who grew up deeply steeped in the latter, that makes perfect sense to me.
And so, in spite of being at turns a vividly grotesque and terrifying story, what moved me to tears in this story was the deeply embodied pain and the pathway through it. If you’ve ever been taught to hate who you are, been told that there is something wrong all the way through you, then what Joanna Koch has provided here is a reminder that you aren’t alone and that healing can be ugly and painful, but also liberating.