I talk about my reasons for these choices a bit more on the latest episode of The Quiet Place. Watch it here.
Tuesday, December 22, 2020
Thursday, December 3, 2020
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 were 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.
Saturday, November 28, 2020
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.
Wednesday, November 25, 2020
Tuesday, October 27, 2020
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.
Wednesday, October 7, 2020
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
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.
Friday, September 11, 2020
Wednesday, September 9, 2020
This chapbook from publisher of transgressive and experimental books Amphetamine Sulphate is a fragmented novelette that's a bit hard to describe, even by the standards of a press as radical as AS.
The plot, if it could be said to have one, follows two characters. Nina is a young girl regularly abused by her Mother and prostituted to older men. Audrey Szasz is a "girl detective," whose story is told through a series of diary entries and documents, that falls in with a group of serial killer cannibals. These two girls may or may not be the same person.
For only being about about 50 pages, this novelette chops up, distorts, and incorporates numerous genres; crime, coming of age tale, horror, erotica, meta-fiction and mystery. The result is a series of stories that are horrifying, engaging, and very funny. Szasz (the author, not the character) has a great dark sense of humor.
The closest things I can compare to this book is Naked Lunch era William S. Burroughs and Atrocity Exhibition era JG Ballard. Both seem to be obvious influences here, especially since one of her other books is about Ballard, but Szasz has a unique voice that stands all on its own.
I highly recommend this book and after finishing this I'm picking up more of her work right away.
Buy Invisibility: A Manifesto by Audrey Szasz here.
Lloyd Hopkins is a sergeant in the LAPD who despises music and can't stop cheating on his wife. When a case involving a man murdering women in a brutal manner comes his way, he dives head first into it between trying to keep his family together, keeping his own fragile mental state together and keeping Internal Affairs off his case for his philandering.
This is one of Ellroy's earlier books. I couldn't help but compare it to his latter ones. For one thing, the prose here is more straightforward rather than the bare bones, telegrammatic sentences of his more recent works. It's also much shorter.
One of the biggest differences is the fact that Lloyd Hopkins is pretty unambiguously the "good guy." In most of his books I've read, even the so-called "good guys" are completely awful people and gleefully corrupt. Here, Hopkins is very flawed, but is without a doubt the hero working to catch a clear villain.
It lacks the dense historical explorations, though the beginning follows Hopkins's response to the Watts Riot. For the most part, however, it takes place in then contemporary early-80's LA. There also isn't much explicit political commentary.
Despite the differences between Ellroy's latter books, it remains a thrilling and engaging crime novel.
Buy Blood on the Moon by James Ellroy here.
Saturday, August 8, 2020
Bash Bash Revolution by Douglas Lain
Matthew Munson is a high school dropout and slacker who spends all his time playing the video game Bash Bash Revolution, a stand-in for Super Smash Brothers, who has no real goals outside of lukewarm attempts to play the game professionally and hanging out with his fundamentalist Christian girlfriend Sally. Around him, a popular movement is taking place wherein people plug themselves permanently into a sentient AI, known as Bucky, which is working to gamify the economy completely. Matthew, knowing his estranged father was one of the scientists responsible for the creation of Bucky, finds himself rebelling against this new system, refusing to plug in as he attempts to learn to true nature of the AI.
BBR is told as a mixture of posts and messages through Matthew's Facebook and, in some chapters, of transcripts of Bucky conversing with itself as it tries to learn more. The two bounce off each other well. Matthew's posts and messages are essentially conversations with himself. No one seems to be responding to them, outside of the occasional bot, and Bucky is essentially trapped within itself, able to learn and grow but unable to have any profound experiences. As all Matthew can do is react to what is going on around him, Bucky can only follow what it believes to be the logical ends of its programming.
Besides the theme of alienation, the novel is also heavy on political commentary. There are observations of the current political situation, the book was published in 2018, on Donald Trump and the United States' rocky relationship with the rest of the world. One of the funniest passages is where the AI is debating with itself on how it can avoid nuclear war. It proposes working to increase Trump's intelligence, but its analysis finds that doing so would increase the probability of nuclear war by 95%.
It also looks beyond the immediate, examining alternatives to the current economy. Bucky's gamification of everything is essentially a Marxist accelerationist scheme. Despite Lain being a Marxist himself, this is not at all a preachy book or an Iron Heel style pushing of an agenda. The story frames Bucky's takeover neutrally, suggesting that the results of it may be horrible. There's a genuinely tragic, if somewhat comic, scene where Matthew's mom plugs into one of Bucky's games and, as a result, she takes off and Matthew never sees her again. It also causes Sally to have a severe crisis of faith. However, there are also indications that Bucky's work is the only thing preventing the apocalypse and that it will make people happier in the long run.
Bash Bash Revolution is a good mix of political satire, a melancholy coming of age story, and a science fiction exploration of artificial intelligence. This is a book well-worth reading, especially if you're a fan of sci-fi or videogames. I look forward to reading more from Lain.
Buy Bash Bash Revolution by Douglas Lain here.
The Lockdown Trade-Off by Sam West
A pub owner in Cornwall, England trades his unfaithful wife Cat and her lover to a creepy, eccentric millionaire in exchange for a huge sum of money to save his business, which has been closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
This had a decent story that moved at a good pace, but the characters are one dimensional, the prose makes some very poor word choices at times (describing a person as "delectable" is impossible to take seriously), and the "climax" was kind of goofy for as serious as it tried to play it. Also, for a book that touts itself as "extreme," there really isn't much gore or torture. I appreciate it tried to be more "psychological" in its horror, but it's hard to do that with characters that lack depth. You could do worse for 99 cents, but I'm not exactly eager to pick up any more of Sam West's works.
Buy The Lockdown Trade-Off by Sam West here.
SS Death Simulation by Michael Faun
When the locals of a small village in Sweden in the midst of WWII discover a local woman is using her home as a brothel to service German SS officers, they devise a plan to infiltrate it and bring the Nazi officials down.
Now this is how you do exploitation.
This little novella has it all; a Nazi midget, deviant sex of every kind, spies undercover as prostitutes, an exciting climax, and an appropriately bittersweet ending. I had a lot of fun with this one. It's one of the best examples of Faun's "b-movie in book form" style, maybe the best I've read so far.
(This book is currently out of print.)
Tuesday, July 21, 2020
Friday, July 10, 2020
Friday, July 3, 2020
I'd been wanting to get back into making music for a while now. I finally just went and did it and made a short album. It's the debut of my dark ambient/noise project, The Dying Nun
Download it for pay as you wish or for free at thedyingnun.bandcamp.com.
Friday, June 26, 2020
From the Belly of the Goat is a very entertaining collection of tales that mix a little bit of bizarro and splatter horror with nostalgic, pulpy horror, fantasy, and adventure. I definitely recommend this collection for horror fans and people who want some fun, breezy reads with a little edge to them.
(Update: An earlier version of this review mentioned multiple copyediting errors, however, these have since been corrected.)
Tuesday, June 9, 2020
Wednesday, June 3, 2020
Wednesday, May 20, 2020
Friday, May 15, 2020
Eric is a relatively normal music-loving hipster. He works a day job in a record shop, he eats pizza almost everyday, and his only major quirk is that he hates computers. However, he soon discovers that he has an unusual talent and finds himself roped into a conspiracy that results in a fight for human freedom, and for reality itself.
Thursday, April 2, 2020
Friday, February 28, 2020
Elaine is now available from Atlatl Press. You can buy the paperback here, or the Kindle version here.
I'll have signed copies available directly from myself within the coming weeks. For those of you in the Des Moines area, I'll be selling copies at the Des Moines Book Festival on March 28 from 4:30 PM to 7:00 PM.