In his novels and short stories, renowned Maine author Ben Marcus has long trafficked in the surreal, the dystopian and the downright strange. What’s different this time around is that reality is meeting him halfway. In a world of “alternative facts,” where “truth isn’t truth” and the climate has gone haywire, Marcus now seems slightly less exotic. His brand of frisky dark chaos is unsettling – but, then, so is the larger context in which it arrives.

“Notes from the Fog” is Marcus’s latest book, a baker’s dozen of stories that toggle between the world as we know it and assorted hellscapes that showcase all manner of manipulation and decay. Cheerful, you say? Actually, the author manages to instill both humor and heart in the bleakness he creates. Case in point: The end of the world may be near, but there will always be sex. “When it came time to test our parts,” he writes, “I found she fit on me, but we all knew where that could go.”

Marcus populates his stories with characters who seem familiar, with recognizable wants and needs, though some of the implements they use – so-called thanking utensils, grief wands, voice-based medications – are decidedly alien. Some characters have been marred by corporate experiments, such as the man whose face has been roasted by a computer screen. Offices are typically playgrounds for techno-medical research, such as the logging and curating of human emotion. Meanwhile, the ability to read others’ minds, via a thought extraction tool, is still a ways off. The prospect of death, and the impending demise of everything, hovers constantly.

Above all, Marcus weaponizes language for maximum assault. As in his 2012 novel, “The Flame Alphabet,” kids, especially, rule the kingdom, using and withholding words to manage their parents. Throughout these stories, Marcus creates linguistic mash-ups that are dissonant, estranged and heartbreaking. Consider the opening of the story, “Critique”: “In the year of I Can’t Breathe, a hospital occurred on the island,” he writes. “The building was fashioned, rather quaintly, of matter. Bricks, windows, smoke. The occasional human being stained the site, summoned from the holding pen. The hospital used flesh traditionally – draped over the anguished little need machines we call people.”

Ben Marcus

Marcus walks a fine line, at times, between the mainstream and the surreal. In “Blueprints for St. Louis,” a pair of married architects design memorials for catastrophes, specifically a bombing in St. Louis. It turns out that memorials now routinely include a chemical feature – “a gentle mist to assist the emotional response of visitors and drug them into a torpor of sympathy,” Marcus says. “A mood was delivered via fog.”

Juxtaposed near the end of the book, two stories look differently at scenes of ruinous storms and evacuation. In one (“The Sun”), an eerie pall looms, as a stalker stages a bizarre futuristic home invasion. In the other (“Stay Down and Take It”), a couple’s bickering repartee saves the day, as they flee for safety. As they squabble in the car, the husband bleary-eyed from driving, his wife wryly notes, “So much of our relationship depends on him being alive. Almost all of it.”

“Notes from the Fog” is an intense, vividly written book, filled with nightmarish scenarios and leavened by wit. Few writers possess Marcus’s agility with language or his controlled flights of imagination. Those inclined to binge-read, however, are duly forewarned. Like the lotions and sprays used in the book’s experiments, these stories are most effective in small doses.

Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.