Queen of No Tomorrows by Matt Maxwell
Matt Maxwell’s 109-page novel (I’d call it a novella), Queen of No Tomorrows (2018), mixes American tentacular-weird with LA Noir, flavoring the story with bits of pot-smoke-fueled punk imagery of the 1980s. It is a story that thrives on shadows.
Cait MacReady works as a book restorer for the Los Angeles Public Library. On the side, she locates rare, exotic occult volumes for discerning customers… or, when the books are unavailable, creates them herself. She is an expert forger, and when Queen of No Tomorrows opens we learn that Cait has created her first original book, which she has named The Smoking Codex. Cait feels as if she practically channeled the book; she wrote the text as if in a dream and doesn’t know where the inspiration for the artwork came from. It is a masterpiece and she is proud of it. Now she has to artfully plant rumors of its existence in order to sell it to the right customer.
Cait’s partner Rico bails on a book sale, leaving Cait to deal directly with the customer, something she almost never does. Cait takes this opportunity to float the idea of The Smoking Codex, but this buyer has no interest. Almost immediately, however, while Cait is getting her hair dyed purple, she is accosted by two deadly members of the street gang Children of No Tomorrows. No Tomorrows deals mostly in drugs, but it has a reputation for dark magic — the real thing. It is clear No Tomorrows already knows about The Smoking Codex, and the Queen of the gang wants it. The two visitors extend an invitation to Cait that she cannot safely refuse.
When Cait goes to Rico to confront him (he’s the only other person who knew about the codex) she finds his murdered and ritually mutilated body, and soon she is dealing with two detectives who handle the 1980s LA version of the X-Files.
The story gets weird when Cait goes to a punk club to meet with the Queen. There is a hallucinatory quality to the visit, especially when it starts to seem like cause and effect are reversing. The Queen inverts the regular course of events, and it seems like Cait has been in this place before although she never has. It’s clear that the Queen has access to some kind of actual magic. The Queen has been waiting for the Codex to appear, because it is a key to her god.
Maxwell leans heavily on atmospheric prose and strange imagery in Queen of No Tomorrows. For the most part that worked well for me. Sometimes the text is beautiful or interesting for its sake, not to advance the story:
The lights along Los Feliz Boulevard were all polite and low, genteel old houses on the edge of what passed for the commercial district before things spilled out into Hollyweird and went into the slurry of advertising and empty pop culture enterprise and old money that was the westside. Cait stared at the shapes of Mission-and-Craftsman-style homes, which were now worth what small cities had cost at the time of their building.
However, the story gets genuinely creepy when a creature formed of smoke and shadow shows up, and the long climactic scene in a salvage yard, surrounded by the skeletons of dead cars (very LA!) is eerie and, again, well, atmospheric.
I hit a few glitches. The Queen herself dresses much like a commercial version of a Day of the Dead character. Beautiful descriptions again, but I wish Maxwell had gone a little deeper with the visualization there. When her eyes change from blue to black in one scene I didn’t know if that was an authorial mistake or a point in the plot (I still don’t). While he notes in his afterword that he had help with the Spanish dialogue in the story, in at least one place it was incorrect, and in another, even though I can’t identify the grammatical error, it just doesn’t read right to me. Spoken language is always different from the rigid grammatical rules, and it didn’t flow here. About halfway through the book Cait makes one of those boneheaded “Let’s split up/I’ll just go down to the basement myself/what light switch?” moves that horror fiction counts on, and I was disappointed on her behalf. Maxwell is far from the first writer to count on that, and won’t be the last, but, geez, can’t we all do better?
Still, as a short example of weird and noir, Queen of No Tomorrows succeeds. Be aware that the story plays with the perception of time. That messes with Cait and it might mess with you too. I liked it, and I would be very interested in reading a longer work by Maxwell, just to see what he does with it.
L.A. Noir is a complex genre, and I’ve never read a story in that vein which also incorporates Weird themes. What an interesting idea!
Yes, it’s an interesting mashup.