Thursday, December 3, 2020

Book Review: Castle Faggot by Derek McCormack

I recall that when I was a child, a religious relative of mine was angry at Disney claiming that they hosted “Gay Days” at their parks. These were apparently days where large groups of gay men would come to the park and parade their, in the eyes of my religious relative, deviant lifestyle in front of families. It would only be until years later that I would learn that these were not something actually sanctioned by Disney, but events organized by gay rights groups and they simply consisted of visits to the park by these groups. Looking back, I wonder what they actually believed these events consisted of. I can only assume it would look a lot like Derek McCormack's Castle Faggot.

Funland's for fun, Futureland's for futures, Fantasticland's fantastic—Faggotland's for faggots.”

Castle Faggot consists of three parts. Part one is a fictional flyer/brochure for a theme park called Faggotland. The titular castle is the center of the park and is described as being full of the bodies of “faggots” who have committed suicide and every surface smeared with shit. The scatological examination of homophobia hits one immediately when you open the book. The visitors of the park are always described as “faggots.” The word is repeated so often, copying the repetition of real marketing materials, that it would lose meaning if McCormack's prose didn't maintain a sarcastic, angry energy throughout.

The bodies of suicide victim “faggots” as the decoration of the theme park attraction is an evocative image. There many ways that LGBT+ people passed in the struggle for their rights, suicides due to being cast away by family and society among them. Today, many companies will use a display of sympathy towards gay right struggles as a means of marketing despite never giving any meaningful contribution. The bodies of victims become décor in the neoliberal theme park.

The mascots of Faggotland are also cereal mascots; parodies of Count Chocula, Boo Berry, and Frankenberry. The park, the castle, and the mascots are “shown” in a section with blank squares instead of pictures, leaving the actual images to the imagination of the reader. There's also an advertisement for a dollhouse of Castle Faggot, continuing the themes of satirizing homophobia, it declares that “faggots love dollhouses” and tells the ones who buy it to shove it up their asses.

For all the darkness and scatology in the book, it's still very funny. Parodies of French Decadent writers, such as “Stéphane Marshmallarmé,” make appearances. I wonder what it says about my sense of humor that the funniest part of the book to me was when they speak only the word “French” over and over again.

The second part of the book is a narrative called “Rue Du Doo.” This section is a surreal mix of cereal commercials, The Wizard of Oz, Disney films, Rankin/Bass films, and what is likely autobiography from McCormack which also has a surprisingly straightforward story. Count Choc-o-log, the ruler of Castle Faggot, is unable to see himself in the mirror because he's a vampire. However, because he's a stereotypical conceited gay man, he wants to be able to see himself and, believing him to be a wizard, brings Derek McCormack into Faggotland to create him a magic mirror. While McCormack struggles to fulfill the Count's wish so he can go back home, some of the Count's underlings oppose him as they want to keep the vampire dependent on them for compliments.

The narrative has a heavy sense of nostalgia marred by heartbreak and trauma. Films and TV shows are recalled with a sense of humor, but also with cynicism in recognizing their commercial purposes. The fictional Derek McCormack thinks little of his real life before Faggotland due to his sexuality causing severe bullying. There's even a love arc that ends very tragically and maintains that sense of tragedy despite the coprophagia and cartoonish scenes of bats flying into rectums. It speaks very well of McCormack the author that he's able to fit so many emotions into a story so ridiculous and with such a puerile sense of humor.

The final part of the book is an afterword consisting of a dialogue between author Dennis Cooper and director Zac Farley. It serves as a good summation of the themes of the book as well as giving some context surrounding the creation of it.

The day after I received this book in the mail, I was checking for reviews of it and noticed the book had been taken down from Amazon. As of writing this, it's still not up. Whether this is a mistake or whether this was taken down due to the title and the content remains to be seen. This was a book that was always going to push buttons, and it seems to be doing that already. The title alone will be incredibly off-putting to many, and I won't try to convince those who are. However, while a disturbing piece of work, I believe it's an important one. It's a hilarious and insightful look at the effects of homophobia, trauma, and the way sexual identity has become increasingly commodified in the wake of recent civil rights victories. 

Buy Castle Faggot by Derek McCormack

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Book Review: Freak Night at the Slee-Z Motel by Amy M. Vaughn

 

(Disclaimer: Amy Vaughn is one of my editors at Babout 691 and this book was published by the same outfit that published my first novel, The Story of the Y)

Conjoined twins Jackie and Maddie thought they finally found a place to fit in when they joined the Main Event Sideshow, a modern day traveling freak show. When a storm in the Southwest leaves the group stranded at an isolated desert motel, they find themselves under attack by the homicidal owners and discovering the dark secrets of the occupants staying in the other rooms.

Leslie enjoyed cleaning the rooms. She believed there was a certain way things should be and that keeping things tidy kept the chaos away. When Leslie cleaned a room, she was putting that one little part of the world back in order again.”

Freak Night... is a fast-paced bizarro horror story. It reminds me a lot of Joe R. Lansdale's forays into strange fiction, such as The Drive-In. There's a lot of chaos, vivid action scenes, and a whole lot of blood and guts. The “freaks” are a mix of realistic ones, such an incredibly obese woman and conjoined twins, and more fantastic ones, such as a man with four fully functional arms and a woman with no head. There's also an actual chupacabra. All of it blends well together.

Despite the short length of the story, it still manages to fit a good amount of backstory to many of the characters. The life of the violently bigoted owner of the hotel is especially believable for how they turned out that way. It also manages the flesh out the more minor characters, the other occupants of the hotel, as much as they need to be without stopping the story.

The action is bloody and incredibly entertaining, as is the often dark humor. One could read the book in a couple hours, as I did, like watching a movie. While a mostly satisfying read, the ending does rely on a couple difficult to buy contrivances. I also think it could have added more backstory to some of the other freaks in the Sideshow as well.

Despite that, Freak Night at the Slee-Z Motel is a fun, well-paced slasher novel with a unique cast of characters. Fans of bizarro fiction will certainly enjoy this. Fans of horror fiction who want something off-kilter will want to pick this up too. 

Buy Freak Night at the Slee-Z Motel by Amy M. Vaughn here. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The Return of The Unreprinted

The Unreprinted has a new home at Babou 691! Thank you very much to the editors for picking up the column. 

The first entry is a look at The Forever Children by Eric Flanders, a diamond in the rough that was Zebra Books.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Loop by Jeremy Robert Johnson

 

Ever since the biotech company IMTECH came to the small Oregon town of Turner Falls, strange, disturbing things have been happening. A few mysterious deaths followed by a student going berserk and killing a teacher and mutilating another student are only the beginning. Lucy, her best friend Bucket, and her crush Brewer find themselves caught right in the middle when things go completely awry. A night of partying immediately becomes a non-stop fight to stay alive for the three.

Someone must have the answers, right? Someone must know what we're supposed to do when reality breaks down.”

Those familiar with Jeremy Robert Johnson's work will recognize a lot of the tropes in this novel. It's full of body horror, visceral violence, bizarre imagery, and people losing their minds. One of the things that makes The Loop stand out is that it's almost a bait and switch. While the reader gets hints of what's to come, much of the beginning of the book reads almost like a young adult coming of age novel. It follows Lucy dealing with being something of an outsider in her small town, having been adopted from Peru. The trauma she deals with after witnessing the very first attack of the people-turned-berserkers that eventually overtake the town feels very realistic and is explored in depth. We see a lot of her relationship with her best friend Bucket and her burgeoning romance with Brewer. JRJ spends a lot of time crafting the kind of characters who you wouldn't want to see horrible things happen to.

Then he proceeds to do horrible, horrible things to them.

In general, the novel is a slow burn. Throughout the book, the violence and intensity is slowly dialed up further and further until until the ending, which is like a kaleidoscope of blood and guts. Don't let the silly “World War Z meets Stranger Things” tagline fool you. This is an extremely intense read.

The biggest theme in The Loop is the divide between haves and have-nots and the contempt the former often has for the latter. Lucy and Bucket are both minority immigrants, Lucy being an orphan from Peru and Bucket's family coming from Pakistan (his nickname being a play on his real name Bakhit) and Brewer is from a very poor family. Many of the well-off in the town work for IMTECH and they become the first victims of the experiment that gets loose from the labs of the company. It's strongly implied that the sociopathy of the rich kids in town is what causes the experimental technology to fall into the violent feedback loop which turns its victims into bloodthirsty monsters.

The Loop is an excellently crafted science fiction horror novel and proof that Jeremy Robert Johnson moving from the small press scene into the mainstream has not neutered the intensity of his writing. Both fans of JRJ's prior work and horror fans in general will enjoy this one very much. Highly recommended. 

Buy The Loop by Jeremy Robert Johnson here. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Now at Babou 691

 

 

For those who haven't seen yet, the new webzine, Babout 691 has taken me on for essays and reviews. I'm very happy to be a part of it!

My first essay, The Surreality of Liminal Spaces, explores the "Backrooms" phenomenon, liminal spaces, and surrealist art. More reviews and essays will be coming soon. 

Thank you to editors Amy Vaughn and Zé Burns for having me.

Monday, September 28, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld

 

When 10-year-old Jas's brother Matthies passes away in an ice-skating accident, she and her family fall into despair. They all begin coping with it in increasingly bizarre and self-destructive ways. Her father becomes more distant and aggressive, her mother stops eating, and her siblings start engaging in unusual rituals. Jas herself starts refusing to ever take her red coat off to the point it starts to smell and refuses to defecate until her stomach bulges. To make matters worse, an outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease threatens to kill all of their cattle, the source of their livelihood.

...according to the pastor, discomfort is good. In discomfort, we are real.”

This debut novel from Dutch author Marieke Lucas Rijneveld is a character study of a young sheltered girl dealing with grief. Because of her lack of experiences, living on a farm most of her life with little media exposure, and her religious upbringing, she finds herself unable to properly express her feelings. To make it worse, she feels a deep sense of guilt because on the day her brother passed, she had prayed for something to happen to him instead of to her pet rabbit.

The repression of her feelings is represented by her refusal to take off her coat and her refusal to go to the bathroom. Both of these build to the point where the idea of being forced to take her coat off itself causes her to nearly have a breakdown and even when she begins to try to defecate, she finds herself unable to. Her repression runs so deep, that she no longer has the tools to let her emotions out.

Jas also begins to lose herself in various fantasies. One of them, that she shares with her sister, is that someone will eventually come along and “rescue” her. She doesn't even seem to really know what this means, but she imagines it in vague terms involving being swept off her feet, fairy tale style, and being taken away from her farm. She also gets the idea, from studying World War II in school, that her mother is hiding Jews in the basement, despite the fact that she never sees any and may not even really under what a Jewish person is.

Because of the strain that their son's death put on their marriage, Jas's mother and father seem unable to console her or dissuade her from any of her odd fantasies. If anything, they make these worse in their attempts. Her father tries to help what he believes to be her severe constipation by forcing soap into her anus. This does nothing except cause her to feel a deep sense of shame. In addition, sexual games by her friends and siblings going through puberty causes her to have an even more dysfunctional relationship with her own body.

This book reminded me a lot of Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden. While in that novel, it shows children whose lives disintegrate because of the passing of a parental figure, this one is about a child whose parental figures are corrupt (the vet), stultified by their own issues (her mother and father), or too distant (her pastor). As such, she's left mostly on her own to figure out her confused emotions and the results are just as ugly.

The Discomfort of Evening is a creepy, visceral, disturbing, beautifully crafted, and incredibly engaging debut novel. Because of its incredibly bleak nature it likely will alienate a lot of readers, but I believe it's one of the best representations of repressed grief and childhood without proper guidance that I've read recently. I very highly recommend this. I look forward to what Rijneveld will come out with in the future. 

Buy The Discomfort of Evening in paperback.

Buy The Discomfort of Evening on Kindle.

Friday, September 11, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Invisible by Seb Doubinsky

 

Georg Ratner has recently been appointed the new City Commissioner of the city-state of New Babylon in the midst of an election with the incumbent president, the liberal Maggie Delgado, running against conservative populist Ted Rust. His main focus is to try keep the mysterious, powerful hallucinogenic drug Synth off the streets. However, his former partner, recently appointed head of the city finance department and well-loved poet Jesse Valentino is murdered. Ratner's investigations leads him down a political, metaphysical, and artistic rabbit hole.

"All cities were tombs, after all, and New Babylon maybe even more so than others."
 
Doubinsky's The Invisible is a mix of noir mystery, fantasy, and science fiction. It takes place in an universe that was built in his other books, however, it stands on its own as well. Doubinsky works the world-building into the story very well, avoiding info dumps and keeping the story moving at a good pace. It also leaves just enough untold to leave one wanting to pick up more of his work to learn more about this world. 

One of the major themes of the book is the impact of art. Valentino's murder is at first seen as a random one, despite Ratner's suspicions. His suspicions are confirmed when he learns that other poets in other city-states have also been murdered as well as the publisher of Valentino's newest collection of poetry. Ratner's investigations into the drug Synth also reveal it has rich subculture of artists and musicians, and even finds himself a fan of some it, despite the threat to the establishment that the drug has been labeled as. 

I've seen this novel labeled as a "dystopia" in some places, however, I don't find that accurate at all. While New Babylon is filled with corporate and political corruptions, it seems no worse off than the real world. In some ways, it seems a preferable place to live than the United States in the year 2020. The story is very prescient with its election storyline and the mass protests that happen as it picks up steam. There's a sense of optimism to it that many would find refreshing in these times. 

The novel is divided into short chapters, some only a paragraph long, and into sections labeled with a tarot card. The first chapter of each section is a tarot card "reading," at least that's what I believe it is. I'm unfamiliar with tarot readings, so I can't say I know what the significance of them is. 

The Invisible is an engaging mystery in a fascinating setting. I had a lot of fun reading this and I look forward to reading more of Doubinsky's work. If nothing else, to learn more about the city-state universe.