Before we begin, let’s take a moment to praise the small press industry, shall we? Ever since I was in teenager I’ve had a passionate love of those little publishing houses that could. Sometimes they exist entirely in zines hand-stapled and passed out on street corners. Other times they crawl their way up to becoming tiny empires of their own, with rabid fan bases and bookstore presences to rival the big five. No matter their size, the small publishers always like to take risks and discover those off-beat talents that the big five wouldn’t take a chance on. Here are the books that are quirky and downtrodden. Here are the books that whisper things people don’t want to hear, don’t want to talk about, don’t want to confront. I’ve been a fan of Apex Books for years. And just recently they released something that I read and immediately wished I had someone to talk to about, right away. It was the kind of book you join book clubs for, just so you can press the spine into eager hands and hope they come away as affected and taken aback as you were.
Enter Stay Crazy by Erika Satifka. The kind of book that just spoke to me straight away. It touched on all the buttons of my own personal writerly fandom. It was a bit of Valis-era Philip K. Dick, with its touch on reality paranoia. A bit funny and tongue-in-cheek and campy. And yes, it even had parts that reminded me so intimately of One Flew of the Cuckoo’s Nest I had to set it down and take a break for a little while. And I’ve known people like Emmeline Kalberg. Friends who had mental breakdowns in college, and who struggled with the mania of reality versus the dull sleepy days of being medicated. Those who were taken in by that kind of mania, and had to be put on lithium or other drugs just to feel real and normal for a little bit.
She writes the scenes of madness with pure poetic fire. The kind of writing that slinks in and settles into you, and makes you keep reading and reading onward. The moments when she was off her medications and her schizophrenia is taking hold feel so true and so right and so on point. Which made the whole alien invasion angle a little more interesting. Like Horselover Fat in Valis before her, the main character of Stay Crazy is contacted by some interdimensional being only she can see or hear. It comes to her while she’s working at a Wal-Mart stand in, and it tells her how to stop an invasion that would destroy her universe.
What makes this so interesting is that this plot is just in the background. It’s not a foreground matter at all. The foreground is Emmaline’s struggle with dementia, and what makes this whole thing so interesting is how the alien invasion is written compared to her manic episodes. The alien invasion has a very this is really happening feel to it. Very cut and dry, and rather normal. While her manic episodes feel like true inspired madness. The give and take between her normal, everyday life (alien and invasion and all), and her realistic struggle with schizophrenia is the bedrock of this novel. Everywhere, Emmaline feels like she is caught in a machine. Everywhere, she feels reality trying to grind her up in giant machinery, a la Chief's view of the world in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. And everywhere she looks, the only sane moments were she feels real is when she is off her medications and completely off the rails. This dynamic is what makes it so interesting, because the real world is crushing. It is trying to keep her in place, motionless, like a pinned insect. While her mania is a different kind of terror. A brutal, mental one, caused by the things she dreams up. So, go now, run out and grab a copy from Amazon, B&N, all the usual places. It’s a book that sticks with you, that digs under your skin. And as someone with a debilitating illness (multiple sclerosis), I appreciated the authors’ authenticity towards disabilities, and having the main character not defined directly by her illness. She instead is defined by everything else, even that struggle to stay crazy all this time, no matter what anyone else thinks of her.
Paul Jessup is an award winning writer, poet, and playwright. With a decade long writing career, he's had short stories in various magazines, both in print and online, and has had several books published in the small press. You can check him out at his website, his patreon, or on twitter.