Liminal States: tour-de-force horror novel is also a bleak western, a noir detective story, and a dystopian sf story

Liminal States is the debut novel from SomethingAwful editor Zack Parsons, and it's extraordinary. It begins as a grim, relentless western novel that describes a doomed love triangle between a simple lawman, the twisted scion of an land-baron, and a woman who has married one but thinks she might belong with the other. After a botched train robbery and an epic battle, Gideon (the rich man's son) finds himself gutshot in the desert, led by a mysterious spirit animal to a mystical pool that dissolves him and then reincarnates him, young and whole and vital and immortal. Gideon goes back for the woman he loves, only to discover that she has died in childbirth, and, enraged, he kidnaps the lawman who was her husband and throws him into the pool, too. And now they are both immortal. Every time they die, they are reborn in the pool, over and over, locked in orbit around each other like twin suns being drawn into a destructive nova. This first third of the novel is dark and bloody and remorseless, a story of revenge and tragedy that doesn't let up, until...

The second act begins. It is now nearly a century later, and the two men have found uneasy truce among them. They are living in the early 1950s, and they have started to replicate. It seems that their kind doesn't need to die to come back from the pool -- sometimes, the pool emits a doppelganger of its own devising, a fresh copy with all the memories of the branch it has copied. Now numbering in their thousands, the men comprise a secret army and conspiracy that is spreading across the world. Discipline is enforced by one of the lawman's progeny, who has been nominated Judge, and who murders any doppelganger who violates the code of secrecy.

So begins this second book, which is a pitch-perfect noir detective thriller, and it, too, is witheringly bleak, and vivid, and relentless, masterfully plotted and very hard. This gives way to the third book, and this one is a science fiction pandemic thriller, shot through with the brooding, Lovecraftian mysticism that the runs the length of the book.

Parsons's debut is a tour-de-force, a justifiably showy demonstration of the author's chameleon-like ability to write in several genres all at once, and it emerges as one of the scariest and bleakest tales I can remember.

Parsons has created a site for the book with sample chapters, a prologue, and additional material intended for an accompanying alternate reality game.

The author was kind enough to supply us with an online version of the prologue and chapter one of Liminal States.

Liminal States


    1. The 19th century was often unkind to the aspirations of women. That does not make the women in the book weak characters. Without giving away too much, I consider the book a feminist work and a woman to be the hero of the novel. 

    2. Sounds pretty par for the course for the 19th century. So it’s misogynistic — if the author had politically-correct-ified the period, people would only complain about it being anachronistic instead.

  1. The description sounded awesome, so I tried the prologue; too opaque and bizarre.  Skipped it and tried the first chapter; starts with a terrified little boy being mutilated by an untamed horse he’s forced to clean by his father who expected him to fail.  Skipped the rest. 

    I’ll give this book a pass.

  2. I’m intrigued, and like the premise, but am not sure about the use of “horror” and such, especially after checking out the first chapter. I’m hardly a shrinking violet when it comes to horror, suspense, and shock in books or movies, but my initial impression of the first chapter is that this novel is horrific in that it regularly mentions putrefaction, bodily fluids (urine, bile, etc.), rather than, I don’t know, a more Stephen King-like approach to horror.

    I find that by keeping a narrative firmly grounded in descriptions of the gross and off-putting, I personally become desensitized to the usual ups & downs of a story. If everything is urine, vomit, and feces, when a scene is set up as ominous and hopeless, when something actually happens I simply assume the worst, most gross thing is going to happen. Which means when something horrific and gross does occur, I’m like “well, yep, that’s been telegraphed from page one, no surprise there.” I guess a good comparison is Iain Banks’ “The Wasp Factory,” which by the end of it I was bored with the constant mention of supposedly shocking things, or the torture scenes in “The Lies of Locke Lamora,” which started to feel tame by the end.

    Has this book been out long enough to get a couple reviews? I’d like to read more as the premise seems very interesting, but don’t want to read 500 pages of trying to be shocked simply because it describes gross things in an attempt to be disturbing.

      1.  Thanks for that — I didn’t want to jump in to a later chapter and end up spoiling something, since enjoying the twists and turns seems to be part of the fun. I noticed that the website is more clear about what’s discussed, which is great. I can understand the Old West with a focus on the harsh conditions of the time, but was hoping it wasn’t just “shock for shock’s sake.” That doesn’t appear to be the case.

    1.  It eventually takes that “more Stephen King-like approach” near the end. I don’t want to oversimplify the author’s intent, but each third of the book features some genre/theme, warped by the presence of the main plot device. A revenge story where death doesn’t work right. A murder mystery where identity doesn’t work right. A whole lot of things are going wrong by the time the pure horror part begins.

      1.  Neat! Not that I’m a big fan (although I did read his books in high school), but he does a pretty good basic plotting for horror/terror/suspense.

  3. Zack Parsons was responsible for the “Instructions for a Help” series on SomethingAwful which was then followed up by “The View From Below”.  What appears at first to be a dadaist life manual written by a developmentally disabled person is revealed to be part of an sci-fi epic about the apocalypse and multidimensional beings …  Highly recommended.

    In order:
    Instructions for a Help: 
    View from Below:

    1. It should be back. Amazon was having a problem with Kindle versions of all titles for a couple hours.

      1. Safely purchased and stored on my kindle. I’m looking forward to reading it. Thanks for the reply.

  4. Sounds interesting. Let’s see if there’s a DRM-free EPub version available.

    Nope, doesn’t look like it. That might have been a sale.

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