Author Playlists

Matthew Cheney’s Playlist for His Story Collection “The Last Vanishing Man”

“The Last Vanishing Man collects fourteen stories in four groupings. While there is no requirement to read a story collection in order, I did organize the collection toward a certain cohesion. This playlist seeks to make some of that cohesion apparent by creating a soundscape that may help you feel your way into these strange worlds. Other arrangements, and other worlds, are possible.”

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

The stories in Matthew Cheney’s collection The Last Vanishing Man are equal parts unsettling, surprising, and fulfilling.

Jeffrey Ford wrote of the book:

Matthew Cheney’s stories in The Last Vanishing Man are fables of survival and community. His fully relatable characters are up against the same environmental, social, and political problems we all face today. Weird, dark, and wonderful visions and hallucinations from a wholly unique voice. 

In his own words, here is Matthew Cheney’s Book Notes music playlist for his story collection The Last Vanishing Man:

The Last Vanishing Man collects fourteen stories in four groupings. While there is no requirement to read a story collection in order, I did organize the collection toward a certain cohesion. This playlist seeks to make some of that cohesion apparent by creating a soundscape that may help you feel your way into these strange worlds. Other arrangements, and other worlds, are possible.


“Arctic Dreams: No. 1, The Place Where You Go to Listen,” John Luther Adams

Characters in this book often yearn to go north, dreaming last breaths of frozen air in a burning world. They seek the clarity of arctic cold, the purity of polar light. No music captures that clarity and purity so well as the compositions of John Luther Adams. Arctic Dreams is dedicated to the memory of Adams’s friend Barry Lopez, a ghost who also haunts this book.

First Movement

“Why Did You Separate Me from the Earth?” Anonhi

The questions Anonhi asks, and the statements she makes, echo through all of these stories. I don’t want your future could be another title for the collection.

“Magical Music Box,” Public Nuisance

From the existential questions of Anonhi, we move to the more personal questions of Public Nuisance: Should I take a chance … at this which seems to be my last… The lyrics fit with the book overall and its title story, but the story of Public Nuisance and their music also fits, as the group almost vanished completely after releasing a couple of singles in the 1960s. It wasn’t until 2002 that “Magical Music Box” and other demo songs were gathered together as the album Gotta Survive, first by Frantic Records and then by Third Man. The Last Vanishing Man is a book haunted by all that gets lost in the past, and “Magical Music Box” is itself just such a thing.

“Candy Darling,” St. Vincent

“Winnipesaukee Darling” was written before St. Vincent released her song, but the story and song share both an interest in the idea of Candy Darling and a certain tonal similarity. Candy Darling died before St. Vincent was born, so the gorgeous yearning in this song hearkens back to a past the singer-songwriter herself never knew. It’s a fond and deeply touching nostalgia trip into a dream of the lost, irretrievable, perhaps hallucinated past, an affect that suffuses the first section of the book.

Second Movement

“In the Dark Room,” Nakhane

We find ourselves in dark rooms. We hate ourselves in the morning. But if we are able to see the morning light in the room, perhaps we might still get up, find the door, escape, start over, try again to heal. The lyrics of this song are tough, the singing plaintive, but a fast beat works as an undertow to bring us through the darkness and toward the transcendence at the end of the song. Let this be an anthem for this darker section of the book. These are wounded people, but they are also survivors. They made it to the other side.

“Denny (Naked),” Pansy Division

“Denny (Naked)” is both fierce and heartbreaking. There are elements of Jack from “Killing Fairies” and Corey from “Hunger” in the character of Denny, and the singer could be Wendell Hamilton from “Mass” — certainly, a lot of the loss Wendell speaks of is conveyed in this song.

“Silent Spring,” William Basinski

We move toward desolation and loss. Basinski’s soundscape captures the very different horrors of the stories “Hunger” and “Mass” in dark meditation. Appropriately, it is a track on an album titled Lamentations. A track made from old, disintegrating tapes — the sound of decay, the fading voices of ghosts.

“Borrowed Light,” Perfume Genius

At the end of “Mass”, the narrator realizes that no matter his beliefs, he must somehow move from a faith in the material to a view of existence that might best be called spiritual (though words are inadequate). It’s a transition we all have to seek if we are to make our way beyond the horror that is existence. We must somehow find a way through the endless dark rain of night and toward whatever waits beyond.

Third Movement

“In the Woods: I. Wainscot Pond,” by Tōru Takemitsu, performed by Shin-ichi Fukuda

Sitting alone, resting alone,

Walking alone, unwearied,

The one alone, who controls oneself,

Would be delighted in the forest.

—The Dhammapada

trans. Carter & Palihawadana

“Snow,” Sam Baker

This is a song about Boston by a Texan who barely survived a deadly bombing in Peru. Like many of the stories in this book, “At the Edge of the Forest” is based in New Hampshire but draws from other places of the world, in this case South America and a warmth the character Bryan fled. The snow is deep. The road is long.

“This Is the Record of John” by Orlando Gibbons, performed by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge and “If You’re Anxious for to Shine” by Gilbert & Sullivan, sung by John Reed

Two songs linked in the story “Wild Longing”, one a stately Anglican “verse-anthem”, the other a satire of the Aesthetic Movement and Oscar Wilde. What art thou? A vegetable love.

“Careless Love,” Ella Mae Wilson & Richard Williams

This field recording is a particularly beautiful version of a song with countless variations. Here, Child Ballads, tavern songs, country songs, and jazz and blues standards join in counterpoint with elements of the world around the recording (including a fine flourish from a rooster). The rich tensions in the structure of this version of “Careless Love” reflect the tensions in the stories of the third section of The Last Vanishing Man: playfulness imbued with melancholy, tradition enlivened by improvisation, the physical and animal environment inseparable from the music.

“Cello Suite No. 5 in C Minor, BWV 1011: IV. Sarabande,” Pablo Casals

The main character of “A Suicide Gun”, Malcolm, is an academic musicologist. In his farmhouse in Vermont, he installs an expensive audio system and listens to 78s of Pablo Casals’ recordings of Bach’s cello suites. Imagine the sarabande of Suite 5 echoing through the lonely forest…

“Big Man with a Gun,” Nine Inch Nails

It is tempting to say that everything you need to know about the story “A Suicide Gun” is in this song. The tone, of course, is quite different from the story, but the quiet surface and deliberate pace of the story contains — represses — the screaming vulgarity the song reveals. If you want to know what’s wrong with Malcolm in the story, it’s all here.

“Sanzen (Moment of Truth),” Tony Scott

Throughout The Last Vanishing Man, the stories bring their characters toward moments of recognition and realization, toward awakening from the dark. But to reach that point, the greatest darkness must be recognized and confronted. Moments of truth require that we scrub away our delusions.

Fourth Movement

“I Wanna Be Sedated,” The Ramones

We fear we are going insane. The mind grows frantic, asserting itself. The ego is an attention hog. Hyperactive solipsism rules the day. We are sick, we are dying. Every message we get tells us to medicate, medicate, medicate. Still, we are sick, we are dying. We fall in love with our trauma because at least it loves us back. Nothing to do, nowhere to go.

“Dust Cake Boy,” Babes in Toyland

Oh … my soul … there’s a hole… Imagine this song sung by Myra in “The Ballad of Jimmy and Myra”. True love doesn’t wait, because true love knows we could die at any minute.

“Killdozer,” The Coathangers

You might have noticed things have gotten a little loud around here. In “The Ballad of Jimmy and Myra”, “Patrimony”, and “On the Government of the Living” we must reckon with the terrible questions of how to live in a world of horror, of whether to bring children into an apocalypse, of whether to hold onto anything from the most destructive species, homo sapiens. We made the killdozer and it is heading straight for us.

“Devolve,” Lustmord

Separated from the Earth, we built a killdozer. Now we are here. Call it the present, call it nihilism, call it enlightenment. We stand together on the blasted heath (a melting tundra) and we sink into the mud. The rain it raineth every day.

“bless ur heart,” serpentwithfeet

No matter how terrible the landscape, no matter how relentless the destruction, we are not required to die inside ourselves. Living as one with the ravaged world takes courage. We often want to meet the onslaught of a thousand unnatural shocks with hardshell armor, but no armor can withstand what existence sends our way. Armor becomes a habit, another type of wound. Share love boldly. Keep a tender heart. Let the whispers become deep rumbling sounds.

“Players in Wheat and Wine,” Franz Nicolay

How can we move beyond horrors? If there is enlightenment, it comes from compassion and solidarity. Bring spirit, bring song, bring warmth and wine to my table.


“Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Minor, BWV 1003: IV. Allegro” by J.S. Bach, performed by Amandine Beyer

A brave and lively performance that pulls from the notes of the past a sense of future possibility.

Matthew Cheney’s debut collection of fiction, Blood: Stories, won the Hudson Prize and was published by Black Lawrence Press in 2016. His academic book Modernist Crisis and the Pedagogy of Form: Woolf, Delany, and Coetzee at the Limits of Fiction was published by Bloomsbury in 2020. About That Life: Barry Lopez and the Art of Community will be published by Punctum Books in the Fall of 2022. He is Assistant Professor and Director of Interdisciplinary Studies at Plymouth State University. His work has been published by Conjunctions, Woolf Studies Annual, One Story, English Journal, Weird Tales, Strange Horizons, Best Gay Stories 2016, Literary Hub, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. He is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies, and the co-editor, with Eric Schaller, of the occasional online magazine The Revelator.

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