This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.
Kathe Koja is an American writer who first emerged as a novelist during the U.S. horror boom of the early 1990s. Kafkaesque, transgressive novels such as The Cipher (1991), Bad Brains (1992), Skin (1993), and Strange Angels (1994) established her as one of weird fiction’s most innovative practitioners. Story collaborations with science fiction writer Barry Malzberg broadened her oeuvre, and as Koja moved into the realm of young adult novels her work continued to evade easy categorization. In 2010 her first historical novel, Under the Poppy, was published, with the sequel to follow in 2012. Koja’s version of the weird is both claustrophobic and luminous, continually questioning the nature of reality, as demonstrated by stories such as “The Neglected Garden,” previously reprinted on this site, and her story reprinted in The Weird, “Angels In Love.” That latter story is the latest focus of our 101 Weird Writers feature, courtesy of our newest contributor, Lynne Jamneck.
- Adam Mills, editor of “101 Weird Writers”
“Angels in Love” is a strange story. An obvious statement, considering our context. Yet it’s important to remain unprepared; we need the element of surprise, for how else can the unforeseen and unexpected be allowed to put in an appearance? As we will see, however, words – no matter how surprising – rarely stand up to the challenge of conveying the inexplicable. Language is meant to explain, but more often than not, it fails stunningly at the very thing we created it for.
“Angels in Love” does that thing weird literature does well: fascinates and repels in equal amounts. The moment Koja’s story starts, the narrative’s subliminal insistence that something is very wrong remains constant. The very first sentence gives us, instead of factual descriptions, only resemblances: “Like wings. Rapturous as the muted screams … luscious like sex …” (italics mine). Nothing is; rather, everything simply imitates something else. It may seem as if the narrative is trying to hide something from us, yet moments later, we are told that, “whatever it was, Lurleen knew it was wrong.”
Every night, our protagonist, Lurleen hears the lustful sounds of sex through the walls that separate her apartment from the one next door. At least, she assumes this to be the source of the sounds, an “arpeggio of groans, that basso almost-unheard thump, thump, rhythmic as a headboard or a set of baritone springs.” These sounds affect her on such a physical level that she begins to stay awake, to listen through the wall, satisfying the desires her hidden neighbours awake in her. So intensely is she drawn to what is happening that Lurleen hardly sleeps; she is “Drained every morning … the sting of tender skin in the shower” a reminder of the mental and physical exhaustion her obsession is effecting on her.
The story is framed throughout by the juxtaposed tension of physical attraction and rejection. Sex is the conduit, highlighting the physical and psychological attraction of the Other. Lurleen drives the narrative’s intimacy by supplying us with voyeuristic details of her sexual desires, inspired by what she believes to be the nightly amorous encounters of her neighbours. The concept of desire – an effect of physical and mental bodily structure – is filtered through Lurleen’s assumptions, which in turn triggers her imagination into believing she is in a position to attain something she has never had, something she believes she wants. Without having any kind of confirmation about what her neighbours are up to, Lurleen believes. Considered from a faith-based perspective, this carries intimations of being deceived; yet as we find out by the end of the story, the only one Lurleen was deceiving was herself.
Koja’s work frequently addresses boundaries, among them social, psychological, and moral. “Angels In Love” addresses a subject that is often found in transgressive fiction: the abject physicality of the human body. This body has boundaries, too. While we are physically contained, our mental lives can be projected far beyond the limits of skin and bone. Lurleen’s imagination, her inner life, is part of what pulls her into the obsession she develops with her neighbours, as she “[Imagines] all the reluctant way to work, what sort of exotica, what moist brutalities [they] practiced, what kinds of kinks indulged.” As in many instances in “Angels In Love”, this sentence at first appears alluring. Read closer, though. A “moist brutality” infers nothing particularly enjoyable.
We experience the world physically, through our bodies. We are tactile creatures. The downside to this is that our mental relationship with the external world is restricted by our physical natures. We need our bodies to project our inner selves, our thoughts and feelings. As such, we are ambiguous to ourselves: are we fundamentally physical or mental beings? Our bodies, so fundamental to our existence, restricts us from seeing.
Lurleen herself is described as “unseeing” (mentally), realising that she had “never really seen that next-door neighbour of hers” (physically). This leads her to the conviction that, naturally, “she had to see.” The act of optical interpretation is referred to throughout the story, until right at the end, when Lurleen finally does see. However, it is a truth that “hurts to see”.
Koja’s narrative constantly plays with notions of pleasure and pain, obscuring the threshold between the pleasure principle and Lacan’s concept of jouissance. The consummation of sexual pleasure is promised throughout the story; yet there are instances when the narrative warns us about the fulfilment of such an end. One such occasion occurs when Lurleen is in her car, on her way to work, imagining what her neighbours get up to at night, “Wriggling a little, [her] skirt riding up and the cracked vinyl edges of the too-hot seat pressing voluptuously sharp into the damp flesh of her thighs.” As alluring as this may sound, the car seat is too hot and “voluptuously sharp”, foreshadowing the image we are given at the end of the story, when Lurleen finally sees what is transpiring in the apartment next to hers. Finally crossing the threshold – both of her neighbour, Anne’s, front door, as well as the point of no return – Lurleen is greeted by the sight of “Anne, bent like a coat-hanger – [hurting] to see the angle of her back – her eyes wide and empty and some stuff coming out of her mouth like spoiled black jelly …” Hot and hurting, sharp, dangerous edges, waiting to pierce skin and set free the rot within. Lurleen inevitably discovers, as Lacan points out, that the path to jouissance is unknowable: “It starts with a tickle and ends up bursting into flames.”
This final discovery is rendered uncanny by the fact that “Lurleen knew…” This “knew” carries with it a host of connotations, none of which particularly relates to factual knowing. Rather, it has more to do with the notion of sentience, i.e. to have qualia. It is this ineffable nature of the narrative, mirrored in Lurleen’s subjective experience, which warns us on numerous occasions not to accept what we as readers “see” on the page. Or perhaps it is not a warning at all, only flickers of truth that we choose to interpret as warnings. What exactly is the reality of Lurleen’s experiences? Can we in fact impose any parameters on what happens to her, considering the limitations imposed on us by our own bodies?
Despite the monstrousness of what has been transpiring in the apartment next door, when the truth is revealed to her, Lurleen does not run from it. She is drawn to the unknown, a place where “Fierce, relentless encroachment [promised] no pleasure but the pleasure of pain”. Within the body context, “pain” in this instance may be both desired and feared. For Lurleen, pain could finally be the way she breaks through the limitations and expectations of physical pleasure, finally allowing her to see. One interpretation of the story’s end may be that Lurleen is annihilated. However, considering Anne’s fate, this oblivion is preceded by a kind of psychosexual torture, prolonged by the drive for ultimate pleasure. If we are to believe Freud, “the most painful experiences … can yet be felt … as highly enjoyable.” This may explain Lurleen’s seeming acceptance of what is to come; she does not run from the creature, instead, “Her mouth as open as Anne’s … she approached the vast brutality of his embrace …”
What exactly does Lurleen find in the apartment next to hers? The title of the story would have us believe that the cause of all Lurleen’s lust is an angel, or something that “maybe once, long, a long, long time ago” had been such a creature. But what was it now? A demon? The creature’s expression as it looks at Lurleen with “the cold regard of a nova, the summoning glance of a star” echoes the most famous of fallen angels, Lucifer, also sometimes referred to as “The Morning Star”. It should be noted, however, that this term holds a somewhat contentious position within religious contexts. In various scriptures and other writings, it appears to sometimes refer to Lucifer, other times to Jesus. Particularly, in the book of Revelations, the Messiah/Lucifer roles are often strangely intertwined and mirrored within one another. Moreover, angels, those supposedly sexless beings, cannot possibly engage in sexual intercourse. Demons, on the other hand … Were we to accept the possibility that the creature in Koja’s story could in fact be Lucifer, we should remember that Lucifer was once an angel, one of God’s sexless, shining beings – “a long, long time ago”. Whatever it is Lurleen finds, it is not what she had expected. Or is it? Her seeming lack of fear, of wanting to escape raises questions. After all, “Lurleen knew …”
Imitation is a theme that features strongly in “Angels in Love”, with words such as “like” frequently used to describe an action, or as a descriptor for something. This tells us that the text merely acts as a conduit to experience. Like Lurleen, as readers we cannot help but be pulled in exactly because of the weirdness that lurks. We want to know what is bubbling beneath the surface, what is obscured by a narrative that tells us everything we need to know, but in such a way that both warns us away and entices us to look closer. This psychological scratching at the surface eventually removes the barrier between what we want to see and what is really there. It is the obliteration of the barricade that protects us from Truth. This is one of the core aesthetics of the weird: to reflect back at us our attraction to what is not “normal”, in the process illuminating that what we perceive as reality is purely invention.
The awareness of “next-door” is reflected in the notion of imitation if we consider “neighbour” to be a reflection of ourselves. Throughout “Angels In Love”, Lurleen is in effect approaching herself, uncovering her true nature as she tries to connect to the needs she is desperate to fulfil.
Lurleen is not only mirrored in her neighbour, but in the creature, too. She is described as an angel herself, though this status is assigned to her by proxy, through “An old boyfriend [who] used to say she fucked like an angel”. The ambiguity previously addressed concerning religious figures raises questions about why exactly Lurleen is described by a former lover in this way. To “fuck like an angel” is a conceptual statement, the connotations of which are filtered by the narrative several times – through the emotions of Lurleen’s previous lover, and again through the reader’s interpretation of blurred religious boundaries, as well as his/her own acuities of biological function and emotional attachment. Sex/angels/religion highlights the transgressions present in the text. It all comes back to bodies – defilement (sex), purity, (angels) and religion (straddling the border between the two).
“Angels In Love” is a complex story incorporating themes of Otherness and deceit. Do not trust the words. Or that meat sack you carry around. There are no angels in this story. We do not know ourselves.
 A word, too, is a thing. It “means” what it does only because it has been assigned such meaning by an organism with a limited capacity for understanding the outlandish and the bizarre.
 Alain De Mijolla, (Ed.). International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. New York: Thomson Gale, p. 894.
 Here we find the disconnect between mental experience and the failure to adequately (or truthfully) relay such an experience into language.
 Sigmund Freud. (1920) Beyond the pleasure principle. Available at: http://www.scribd.com/doc/95065904/Beyond-the-Pleasure-Principle. Accessed 30 November 2012.
 Some would argue that Revelations in fact reveals very little. As a text, the final book of the Christian Bible can be compared to an elaborate puzzle, often misleading, always confusing.
 For more on this topic, see Henry Ansgar Kelly, (2006) Satan, A Biography. New York: Cambridge University Press.
 Adding further confusing to notions about devils and angels is the differentiation between ‘Satan’ and ‘Lucifer’ as different theological entities, whose different natures are distinguished by two words.
 Much like words.
 Lacan claims that, “I retreat from loving my neighbor as myself because there is something on the horizon there that is engaged in some form of intolerable cruelty. In that sense, to love one’s neighbor may be the crudest of choices.” (Jacques Lacan, (1992) ” The jouissance of transgression.” In: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VII. Miller, Jacques-Alain. (Ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., p.194.). If we consider the notion of ‘neighbour’ as doppelganger, the inference in the above statement is that connection with the Self is an act of “intolerable cruelty”. This would be consistent with the Jungian approach to self-discovery as a painful process that may ultimately lead to destruction.