City Slang Sound and Vision Between The Lines Invisible Cities TiNY Art

Paperback Jukebox: End of the Fire Cult by Angela Woodward

Matt Bell

The novel begins: "Three years ago, my husband gave me two-thirds of an exceptionally beautiful and sacred mountain." From that gift, we're taken into a marriage that has its qualities displayed not in the small, telling gestures of psychological realism, but in the broader strokes of a shared fantasy, a history kept in the stories the husband and wife tell each other of their respective countries, uneasy neighbors in a made-up world. The wife creates the past and present of the Free Republic of Marmoral, put "under the auspices of a hereditary oligarchy of thieves," and even as she tells her husband about it—"back when [they] leaned against each other in the evenings"—he is already asking to change some bit of her country, to make it more to his liking. As the book progresses, the husband's country Belgrave—populated by a "long-standing warlike people"—has an uneasy relationship with Marmoral,  but that's nothing compared to the new threat that opens the book: already besieged from the north by her husband's invented land, the wife finds a new neighbor to the south, a country allied with the husband's Belgrave but which she knows nothing about, until the husband explains this new country's actions, its attempts to take more of more of what was once the wife's, infiltrating her borders with its culture and people.



Once this stage is set, the novel takes off, progressing in short chapters detailing very little about the wife and her husband's "real" lives, but delving deeply into the fantastical minutia of their competing countries. The wife invents an ancient history for her people, who were "grass, weeds, not lions," unlike her husband's people, descended from gods, then details the working of their libraries, their religions, their tourist industries. On and on the book goes, giving us more and more of these three countries, and all the while we catch their straining marriage mostly through subtext, through inferences captured in the details they choose to add to their countries, until finally Marmoral is openly attacked, after which the book once again reconfigures, changes the level of access we get to both the wife's fantasies and her reality.

In this ingenious fashion, Angela Woodward's End of the Fire Cult manages to render the sometimes-hard-to-see strains of a marriage not by zooming in on their smallest details, but by casting their essences across the history of a mutually-invented world. In doing so she makes the wife's sadness and her longing into something of a small epic, one as moving as it is inventive, as heartbreaking as it is gorgeous. Eventually the wife ends in exile, not from her marriage, but from her well-loved, invented country, imagining herself "the sole member of [her] civilization." It's a sad state for a character so full of imagination, but perhaps it is worth considering that we, as readers, get to appreciate what she's not just invented, but also shared, and then to revel in its fantasy, even if the husband for whom she'd invented the world would not.


Matt Bell is the author of How They Were Found, a collection of fiction published by Keyhole Press in 2010, and Cataclysm Baby, a novella forthcoming from Mud Luscious Press in 2012. His fiction has appeared in Conjunctions, Hayden's Ferry Review, Gulf Coast, Unsaid, and American Short Fiction, and has been selected for inclusion in anthologies such as Best American Mystery Stories 2010 and Best American Fantasy 2. He works as an editor at Dzanc Books, where he also edits the literary magazine The Collagist. He can be found online at