“Other countries have conquered us over our long history, and sometimes they changed our name. Hundreds of years ago, our Emperor Tho tried to think of ways to protect his country from being attacked again, after he managed to drive out the last invaders. And he knew he had to change the name his enemies had given to his country. Then Tho had an idea… a way to keep other people from wanting to come here and steal his empire. He would hide it from their eyes, and their minds, and the eyes and minds of any demon lords who might try to bring more bad luck to his empire. So he gave our land the name it has to this day.” “And what name is that?”
“The Unnamed Country.”
From Jeffrey Thomas, creator of Punktown, comes The Unnamed Country, a mosaic novel weaving tales of a land and people poised between the ancient traditions of the past and the burgeoning technology of the future. Where devils, gods, and ghosts still haunt the land, and where you may just discover a unicorn.
Jeffrey Thomas is an American author of fantastical fiction, the creator of the acclaimed milieu Punktown. Books in the Punktown universe include the short story collections PUNKTOWN, VOICES FROM PUNKTOWN, PUNKTOWN: SHADES OF GREY (with his brother, Scott Thomas), and GHOSTS OF PUNKTOWN. Novels in that setting include DEADSTOCK, BLUE WAR, MONSTROCITY, HEALTH AGENT, EVERYBODY SCREAM!, and RED CELLS. Thomas's other short story collections include WORSHIP THE NIGHT, THIRTEEN SPECIMENS, NOCTURNAL EMISSIONS, DOOMSDAYS, TERROR INCOGNITA, UNHOLY DIMENSIONS, AAAIIIEEE!!!, HONEY IS SWEETER THAN BLOOD, and ENCOUNTERS WITH ENOCH COFFIN (with W. H. Pugmire). His other novels include LETTERS FROM HADES, THE FALL OF HADES, BEAUTIFUL HELL, BONELAND, BEYOND THE DOOR, THOUGHT FORMS, SUBJECT 11, LOST IN DARKNESS, THE SEA OF FLESH AND ASH (with his brother, Scott Thomas), BLOOD SOCIETY, and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET: THE DREAM DEALERS. Thomas lives in Massachusetts.
The Unnamed Country is braided collection of grotesques that should be sought out by fans of Barker. As the title implies, it is set in a southeast Asian country whose location and identity have been deliberately obscured, but it is located firmly of the territory of The Weird. It is filled with characters worthy of soap operas, and each story here could be an episode of an ongoing show. My personal favorite was “The Uninvited Grave” as the black humor of this conte cruel is quite delightful.
I’ve been reading an awful lot of Jeffrey Thomas lately. Many collections over the past few weeks, in fact. I’ve been on a bit of a quest to explore the breadth of his work, which is no mean feat given that he changes and mixes genres as often as I change socks and has been writing professionally for several decades. Anyone who has dipped their toe into his work likely knows that his stories run the gamut in terms of theme and content. Of course, even within that broad context, similarities and recurring themes are perceptible, whether he’s writing horror, Lovecraftian pastiche, sci-fi horror, or what have you. The works are all different, yes, but they’re all markedly Jeffrey Thomas.
And then we have The Unnamed Country. Thomas’s latest publication, so intriguingly titled, is also his most unique. His most exotic. His most exhilarating. And, in this reviewer’s estimation, his most heartfelt. Reading this book was a singular experience and a deeply rewarding one for a host of reasons.
Right from the start (ostensibly even from the title) it is evident that Thomas has chosen to incorporate one of my personal favorite literary devices in this collection. He has elevated the setting so far beyond mere trappings and backdrop that she becomes a character unto herself. In this case, the principal character. The leading lady. The Jewel in the Jade Crown. Though every single character within these tales is infused with the life and vitality that Thomas is known for in his characterizations, none breathe so deeply, so hotly, and so longingly as The Unnamed Country herself.
She’s a mysterious lady, this Unnamed Country that Jeffrey has dared to share with us. Sensual and accommodating, fierce and hungry, ancient and wise, a sinful whore, and an elegant queen. She is rich with treasures, but she guards them closely and with a jealous grip. She is less conscientious with her blemishes and scars, almost seeming to wear them as gaudy bangles on her slender wrists, glaring for all the world to see. She is cloaked in the choking stink of engine exhaust and cheap cigarettes, bent with the heavy weight of her peoples’ burdens. Disfigured beggars cling to her ankles, caked with the grime of the filthy streets. Her fingers are sticky with greed, her palms slick with blood, her lips chapped with curses, and her eyes dark with the hunger of vengeance.
But to brave these things and look deeper is to earn a glimpse of the beauty that she hides within. Once you have your arms around her, in spite of all her flaws, she will show you things that leave you breathless. Her heart is made of rubies and she is full of dreams. Her secret places are home to unicorns and angels. Indeed, she guards the gates to Heaven itself. And on those jeweled streets Ten gods walk, Sevens always come in Threes, circuit boards can shepard lost souls, and True Love is right next door...or at least on your television set.
The cast of characters that fill in the gaps between The Unnamed Country’s crowded streets are diverse, yet entwined in myriad ways. They are students and farmers, factory workers and nail technicians, prostitutes and monks, doctors, ghosts, and jewel-eyed monkeys. They walk alongside one another, each just struggling to make their way. Frequently beset by the same mortal frailties that plague us all, they meet these conflicts and contend with challenges in many of the same ways we might. But nothing on Her shadowy streets unfolds in quite the same way it does everywhere else in the world. There’s a certain magic to every wind that blows through The Unnamed Country and it touches all who dwell there, whether with whispery touch or a hurricane gale.
Though the setting itself is largely based on the author’s experiences in Vietnam, glimpses of other southeast Asian cultures can be seen as well. Interspersed among these bits and pieces of reality are strains of fantasy and myth, all swirling together to form a glorious melting pot of such richness that every bite the reader takes reveals a new taste. The more you stir the spoon around, the more surprising new morsels bob to the surface.
I absolutely adored this book. It is quite probably my favorite collection from the past year. Try as I might, I could scarcely even find a flaw among its pages. Obviously, I give a lot of credit to its uniqueness. The setting is so remarkable and singular that it practically radiates freshness while still keeping an undercurrent of legendry as ancient as the earth itself.
But it wasn’t the uniqueness, grand as it may have been, that took such a hold of my heart. It was the abundance of love that Jeffrey infused in each and every story. Each character is crafted so lovingly and so earnestly. Each descriptive line of this deeply lived-in world is delivered so truthfully and with such a sense of place that you see and feel and smell this world as it unfolds around you. And yes, some of this is reflective of the pure, honed skill that the writer has built through years of work. But not all of it. Not, in fact, the most important part of it. No, what really drives the impact of this work home is how damned apparent it is that Jeffrey loves this world he has built for us. His deep affection for this mythical land and its real world counterpart is so achingly and tenderly palpable in each tale that the sheer gravity of it moved me to years more than once.
The author mentions in the Afterward to this edition that this collection is his love-letter to the country of Vietnam and the beloved friends he has made there. And while the truth of that statement is abundantly clear in every word he writes, I also feel strongly that it is every bit as much a love letter to his readers. He has put so much of his heart into these earthy and mystical tales that I could not help but feel, upon closing the book, that Jeffrey Thomas chose to share something deeply special and personal with me in their telling.
The Unnamed Country truly showcases some of Jeffrey Thomas’s finest work. These tales are resplendent and evocative. They are magical, mystical, and so achingly human.
If you’re a fan of Jeffrey Thomas’s work, please read this book. If you’re a fan of exotic settings and well-realized characters, please read this book. If you’re a fan of cracking good storytelling, please...read this book. You’re going to find something to love within these pages. And who knows? Perhaps the Ruby Empress will favor you with a smile when you close the last page. There are worse boons to have earned when you buy your next lottery ticket.
If you know Jeffrey Thomas from his Punktown series of Philp K Dick-ian hard-boiled futuristic novels and short stories, this new collection will come as a surprising veer into fairy tale territory. Yes, although most of the stories in The Unnamed Country are set in a contemporary or at least modern world, they have an almost folkloric quality. Jeffrey draws upon his experiences in Vietnam and related countries and processes them through the enviable wonderland of his imagination to give us a South East Asian Brothers Grimm anthology.
Like with any good collection, the stories in Unnamed Country are snappily constructed and sufficiently varied to be continually engaging. If overwhelming nostalgia / fantastical yearning sets the tone for B-52 and Motherboard, a wicked black humor tinges stories like The Uninvited Grave and Ultimate Nails. The stories involving the 'Holy Monkey' Cholukan (Cholukan and the gods, Cholukan in Hell) have a mythological quality, while the classic "Be careful what you wish for" scenario epitomized by WW Jacobs' The Monkey's Paw is playfully referenced in Lucky Triple Seven and Distinguished Mole. The individual stories stand as independent, although some connecting wisps wind in and out of them.
Jeffrey's writing is simple and purely in subservience to depicting his ideas. While I can't claim any knowledge of the indigenous genre writing of the cultures which inspired the collection, in terms of how it appears to nail the feel of the place and people, Unnamed Country reads less like the work of a foreign visitor's mind and more like a translation of a native author. The spirit of a Mr. Lacfadio Hearn would certainly be pleased.
I already wrote a longer review on this - link below. I said there that this is a modern classic of writing about another country or culture on the level of Lafcadio Hearn or ltalo Calvino. It belongs on the shelf of any, and every, bookstore in any airport with a flight to Southeast Asia. I still stand by that. Anyone interested in Vietnam or Southeast Asia should be reading this - no matter that the title doesn't sing out Vietnam.
These series of connected (at times loosely, others more directly) stories by Thomas is darker fare tone-wise than I'm used to, with a gritty realism that dives deeply into far more human (versus technological or supernatural) emotional world. The characters are normal, at times lost and drifting but all very real. With dashes of humor - itself also tending towards the dark side - I found myself knowing where this "unnamed country" is and other times feeling it's just slightly left of our universe. Which, I suppose, is what other worlds, even other countries seem to us. The writing as usual for Thomas is deft and artistic, and everything packs a powerful, and often sad, emotional punch.
Collecting stories that span science-fiction, fantasy, and realism but are connected by a shared fictional Asian country, Thomas offers both a series of character-driven individual narratives and an engaging gestalt vision of the liminal zone between beliefs and reality.
This collection contains nine short stories set in a fictional Asian country shaped both by religion and cutting-edge technology.
‘Cholukan and the Gods’: Wishing to learn more of the lives of humans without the distortion that surrounds the presence of a god, the Ruby Empress blesses her pet monkey and sends him down to Earth. Thomas skilfully blends universal tropes with the nuances of his own world to create a new myth that feels as if it is part of a centuries-old religious Eastern tradition. However, as with many tales of how things came to be, this one ends with an ongoing state rather than a conclusion, so might frustrate readers who crave a tidy resolution.
‘B-2’: A Western businessman, returning to the eponymous country for the first time since an army posting during his youth, meets a club dancer who reminds him of the girl he left behind when his posting ended and yet is completely different. Thomas weaves together perspectives on orientalism, nostalgia, and divergent cultures with a small cast of detailed characters, creating a story that raises questions about colonialism and prostitution while remaining very much about individuals rather than political messages.
‘The Uninvited Grave’: When a farmer discovers a fresh grave in the middle of his field tradition demands he not interfere with it but his growing anger prevents him just accepting it. Opening with a sort of funerary adverse possession, Thomas paints an engaging tale of one man’s struggle between not offending the spirits he is certain exist and an entirely reasonable sense of offence at someone taking his land.
‘Lucky Triple Seven’: A single mother selling lottery tickets to support her brain-damaged child finds herself pursued by gamblers when a man claims her son predicted his winning ticket. Thomas mixes events that suggest the predictions might be real with clear displays of the lengths people will go to to make reality fit their beliefs, leaving the reader to decide what the truth is.
‘The Unicorn Farm’: When a young concession stand worker is offered a promotion to a stall selling longevity potions she welcomes the opportunity to contribute more to her family, only to discover there is no-one more selfish or determined than someone who will buy or sell more years of life. Blending a fictional species of deer and cutting-edge veterinary surgery with the commoditisation of religious imagery, Thomas creates a story that is neither fantasy nor science-fiction whilst providing hints of some spiritual or technological secret underlying mundane events.
‘Ultimate Nails’: The owner of a nail salon plots to destroy the nail salon opposite her own. Thomas skilfully blends universal images of criminality and venality with the flavour of his invented Asian nation, creating a story that is both filled with gritty tension and raises questions over whether the truth of a belief matters if everyone acts as if it is true.
‘Motherboard’: A young factory worker who believes he can think himself into another, better, world discovers that mysteriously disappearing from work has downsides. Swiftly providing evidence that the protagonist’s journeys are more than him getting lost in daydreams but not confirming the objective truth, Thomas reshapes the classic trope of a traveller from our world being a hero in another.
‘Distinguished Mole’: A doctor whose early dreams of a scientific breakthrough collapsed into mediocrity attempts to graft more esteem onto himself. Thomas takes the universal idea that certain features are luckier, more moral, or otherwise measures of inner worth and asks what might happen if that were combined with advances in gene-editing.
‘Cholukan in Hell’: When the peasant girl he loves is kidnapped by demons, the Ruby Empress’s pet monkey breaks into hell to rescue her. Thomas adds the nuances of his fictional world to the classic trope of a hero voyaging into the underworld, weaving a tale that is both fresh and comfortingly familiar.
Each of these stories can be read separately without—except perhaps in the case of ‘Cholokun and the Gods’—the reader feeling they only have part of the story. However, the secondary details in each suggest depth to events or behaviour in the others.
Thomas hints at more than the underlying connection one would expect of stories set in the same world, though. At first the connections appear mundane and realistic: a character might share a name with someone from the soap opera two characters discussed in a previous story; or events that happen in one story are plausibly the cause or consequence of events in another. This sense of reality being coloured by shared beliefs and stories that was seeded with the opening story grows with the introduction of a soap opera that “everyone” in the country watches. And, when “Motherboard” leans strongly to the science-fiction side of the line, the number of connections to that soap opera make it easy for the reader to feel that it is an in-world fiction as well as a real world one. But as these potential connections between tales that could be entirely mundane and those that are not build, the division of stories into realistic and fantastical that a reader might have created is eroded, leaving the reader to re-evaluate whether mundane events were influenced by the spirits, obscure alchemical theories, or fate the characters believe in.
While this building revision of prior stories into something potentially more speculative creates a more powerful effect than making the pervasive weirdness overt from the start might, it does mean the first few stories provide readers an indication of the skilled prose and characterisation but not the nuances of the world.
Overall, I enjoyed this collection greatly. I recommend it to readers seeking a glimpse of weirdness between accepted reality and the overtly fantastical.
I received a free copy from the publisher with no request for a review.
Thomas proves once again what a treasure he is to weird fiction, this time immersing the reader in a fictitious Southeast Asian setting. Some of his stories are achingly moving and profound, others are humorous, and a few, as always, are batshit crazy; all are elements that I love. An absolute favorite of mine.
The several excellent stories more than make up for the few that are merely fine. The opener story is easily the best, establishing the rules and mood of the setting naturally, by the characters' progress in their projects rather than by infodump. Jeffrey Thomas is good at every aspect of the writers' craft, and, particularly for a weird writer, he's astonishingly good at dialog.
Thomas creates a fictitious Asian country loosely tied together with small mentions of brands, characters and a televised soap opera. Taking science fiction, fantasy and weird horror this collection is superb in all its fashion.
FAVORITES The Uninvited Grave “Such an unexpected tomb might even show up in the center of one’s living room, if one forgot to lock their door when they went to work.” Imagine that This ghostly story “ghost melon” is a succulent possession of sorts and great storytelling.
Lucky Triple Seven A mother sells lottery tickets to support her brain damaged child, things get interesting when the child shows an unspoken mystery, as death’s curtains begin to close. Leaving the reader to decide the truth. Well Done!
The Unicorn Farm An infused potion that brings a new species of a forgotten creature and its blood is a vital component. Thomas opens a darker side of fantasy and science fiction with glorious, grotesque imagery.
Motherboard This story is my top favorite. A day dreamer that travels to a world where he is recognized as a hero, as opposed to the actual world where he’s looked down upon. The twist at the end kind of brought tears of joy to my eyes. LOVE THIS STORY!
With THE UNNAMED COUNTRY, the creator of Punktown has engaged in worldbuilding on a smaller but infinitely richer scale. Through a series of linked short stories, Jeffrey Thomas blends and deconstructs several genres in order to create a living, breathing land that transcends its own “fictionality.” Presumably somewhere in Southeast Asia is a nation with its very own myths, superstitions, popular television shows, prejudices, and pantheon of Gods and Demons. Thomas tackles serious issues, ranging from women’s rights and sexual harassment, to animal cruelty, the devaluing of the disabled and perhaps most important of all, the preservation of an ancient culture even as Western influences gradually turn The Unnamed Country into a mirror of American values. Here is a major work from an author who has worked in all of the speculative genres, a work that could compete with all of the year’s literary masterpieces.
Marvelous collection of weird fiction set in southeast Asia as viewed through a western perspective. Not every single story was to my taste but as with most Jeffrey Thomas collections I am not disappointed in purchasing and reading it!
Profundos sentimientos encontrados con este libro. Por un lado, no hay nada realmente malo en las historias en sí mismas (aunque las de B-2 y Unicorn Farm son un yikes fuerte). El país en el que se ambienta, obviamente inspirado por el sudeste asiático, y especialmente Vietnam, es una ambientación curiosa en la que me gustaría ver historias de mayor envergadura. Y sin embargo, ninguna de las historias me ha atrapado realmente, o me han hecho interesarme por lo que puede haber detrás de ellas o más allá de sus conclusiones. Es un libro escrito de forma competente y sin ningún fallo destacable más allá de que la mitad de historias son, simplemente, aburridas de narices.