Friday, August 31, 2012


Many of you might remember a while ago, I raved about an awesome book called DEEP FRIED, reviewed here.  Others will recall that yesterday, I reviewed a related book, WEAPON BROWN:  BLOCKHEAD'S WAR #6, which can be found here.  This year at Wizard World Chicago, I managed to catch up to the genius behind both of these books, Jason Yungbluth.  He kindly consented to an interview, where he talks about 'Nineties indie books, pedophilia, and the relationship between innocence and darkness.  As with the Josh Filer interview, the sound quality of the recording was just terrible, but I did a much better job of deciphering this one, as you'll see below.

John Bruni: I’ve been reading a lot of DEEP FRIED lately. Tell us about the book.

Jason Yungbluth: It’s my effort to create the kind of comic that I would want to buy, which is a comic that’s very hard to find with my very rarified humor tastes. I like underground humor. I like the works of Evan Dorkin, the guy who does ARSENIC LULLABY, whose name I forget [Ed. note: He’s talking about Douglas Paszkiewicz], you know. Adult Swim. I like humor that’s off the beaten path, but it also has to be funny. It has to get a laugh out of me. It can’t merely be weird or shocking, it’s got to be all three of those things together. DEEP FRIED is my attempt to create the kind of eyebrow-raising humor that still elicits a laugh. I can’t help but mention Kieron Dwyer’s LOWEST COMIC DENOMINATOR. When I first saw that, that was the second time a humor comic really blew me away. The first time was MILK AND CHEESE. LCD also reminded me that the bar can be set quite high. Even when you think you’re setting the bar high, someone else comes along and says, “Oh, fuck you, I’ll put the bar RIGHT UP HERE WHERE YOU CAN’T TOUCH IT!”

JB: Like, say for example, what was it? Preschool Girls Gone Wild?

JY: There’s an interesting story behind that. So I did a fake ad in an issue of DEEP FRIED: Girls of Kindergarten Recess Gone Wild. And the joke is, there’s this schoolyard rhyme, Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these, and the girl pulls up her shirt. She was like, four or five. I thought, what if you made a video about that? Someone didn’t realize that it was a fake ad and actually sent me money for these videos.

JB: My God.

JY: He also wanted some comics of mine that he didn’t already own, so I was like, “What to do here? What to do?” I sent him the comics he didn’t have, and I sent him back SOME of the money he’d sent for the videos and kept the rest of the money, which was about twenty bucks, and said, “That was your dumbass fee.”

JB: Did he have any argument with that?

JY: Apparently he didn’t. I’m sure he’s just hoping I just forget who he is.

JB: That’s pretty crazy.

JY: Crazy like a fox. I wasn’t, like, offended or creeped, but, you know, I did do the cartoon, so . . . you attract a certain crowd.

JB: True. I have noticed that a lot of your stuff starts out with innocence—Charlie Brown, for example, and clowns and cute little kitties, and even Clarissa—and it always takes this dark turn. What is it that compels you to do this dark, terrible stuff?

JY: For some of the stuff, it’s a little cheap. With Weapon Brown, the gag is obvious. It’s nostalgia meets, you know. Any brand of modern humor, like VENTURE BROTHERS and SOUTH PARK is familiar with that. You take something sweet and innocent, and you pollute it. I like Weapon Brown. I think it has its own merits, but on one hand, it’s a simple, cheap gag. But as to the overall theme of corrupted innocence, I guess I’m attracted to that concept. If you do it right, it’s hard to pull the wool over people’s eyes because a lot of humor starts out that way. It’s something that is otherwise banal and non-threatening, and then you give it that dark twist. My effort is to really throw people off track. When you buy my comics, you know that it’s going to end in something that’s at least dark. I don’t like pure shock. I don’t like to go that route for no reason, but I do like to make it dark and surprising. I like it to get laughs, but I also want it to be a laugh you didn’t see coming. To do that with something innocent is kind of tough because you already know I’m going to corrupt it in some way when you’re reading it. As long as you know there’s going to be a dark twist, you have to make that dark twist as interesting as possible.

JB: Have you ever gotten anyone pissed off at you for what you’ve done to Charlie Brown?

JY: No one has ever complained about Charlie Brown. I’ve never gotten any threats or lawsuits from any of the cartoons I’ve parodied. I got a fan letter once about Clarissa where the person said that he loved everything else I’d done in DEEP FRIED, he really loved the humor and the tastelessness, but then he said in all seriousness, he thought he should call the FBI for Clarissa. He didn’t understand that this is perfectly legal. It really struck that chord, which I thought was great. If you’ve got someone who loves you AND hates you, you’re doing something right. You’re really doing some paradigm-shifting comics, if you can pull that off. I was very proud of myself for getting that letter.

JB: I was talking with Josh Filer, who does GROSS, GRANDPA!, and he had a really difficult time coming out with issue two. It’s so transgressive and nasty and vile that printers wouldn’t let him use them. Have you ever run into anything like that?

JY: I really haven’t. From a visual point of view, my work has all been done. I find that less is more. For example, THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE is less visually disturbing and more mentally disturbing. You paint a mental picture. They actually did a cheesy job of doing it. No one really wants to see that, but it’s all the more horrifying because if you’re not able to see it, you know what’s implied there. Once I did this strip that actually had such visual grossness to it that I thought it could be possible that the printer would take exception. It was a bonus strip that I included in the trade paperback of volume one of DEEP FRIED. It was one that was done to be deliberately shocking. I like the humor of it, but it was to supplement my all-shock issue of DEEP FRIED, so I was like, “This isn’t all that shocking.” It was actually a commentary on shock humor. There’s nothing in here that pushes the envelope on pure grossness. I’m not really a fan of doing that, but I really wanted something that was visually over the top. The worst thing I had, visually, in that book was Beepo the clown beating up the Pope with a baby harp seal. Then you see this gore panel of the Pope, but it’s not really gore, it’s Spaghetti-O’s. I drew all these Spaghetti-O’s. Did you know the Pope was full of Spaghetti-O’s? That’s what gore is in movies, it’s all fake and rubber vomit. So I didn’t really have anything that was disgusting, so I did this strip called “Who’s the Jerk Now?” It was a hokey 1950’s style—some of my stuff is deliberately retro—story about a guy who steals a guy’s parking spot, and the guy is so mad that he goes back to the guy’s house. The guy who stole the parking spot comes back later and sees the fellow banging his wife. He’s like, “Hey, you’re banging my wife!” And the other guy says, “And yes! That’s not all!” And he takes out a hunter’s knife and stabs into her belly, and there’s this gross sound effect. And he’s like, “And now she’s dead!” And the other guy’s like, “Oh, you showed me!” It was the humor aspect that I liked. It’s aw-shucks 1950’s humor meets 21st Century viciousness. He then takes a very slender and not-at-all-pregnant looking woman and pulls out two fetuses, which he proceeds to use as a yo-yo and a paddle ball, and as he tapdances in the woman’s open belly, he’s like, “Who’s the jerk now?!” And the other guy’s like, “Me! I’m the jerk!” It was way, way over the top. When I read LOWEST COMIC DENOMINATOR, it was so more appalling than that strip and so funnier than that strip. I don’t like to go for the gross gore visual sick-out because I don’t think mine is just that funny.

JB: You’ve got some really deep, psychological horror going on here.

JY: I want my comic to be the kind of comic you’d find under someone’s mattress. It’s more like psychological porn than actual porn, although it does have shocking elements. It’s interesting that even with things like the internet, there are still some things that can shock the audience. I really do want you to laugh when you read my book. There is some genuine darkness to it, like with the Clarissa stuff. With Clarissa, I was walking a tightrope with myself because, originally, I wasn’t going to exceed the first strip. That one got a great reaction from everyone, it did everything I wanted it to do. People just never see it coming. There’s the innocent set-up, but even though you know you’re reading a dark comic, the delivery is so explosive it subverts even what you thought it might be building up to, which is great. And then I started doing this series of Clarissa comics, and I was thinking, can I really do this? Can I really go to the well twice with a joke like that? Instead of going for the shock and horror of Clarissa’s evil father, I decided to delve deeper into the psychology of what Clarissa’s life must be like. I started with a couple of endings that had to do with her father molesting her, revisiting that punchline, but the build-up to that punchline is where the real beat of the story is. It’s not the shock of the reveal, because you’ve already had the reveal in the first strip. It’s more like the darkness of the family life. And now I’m going to be moving away from that to an even more intense examination of the true psychology of Clarissa. I’m going from a one-off shock joke to something that’s less humor-based and more tender and . . . I don’t want it simply to be bleak, but it is bleak. Where that’s going to lead is something I’m still working on. The subject matter will remain the same, but it’s moving away from the humor and the pure shock to something that is investigating the subject matter in a more mature way without sacrificing the bit of meanness that is basically in me. I have to take the point of view of the characters. I have to be Daddy and Clarissa to write this joke. There is a meanness to the strip, but I don’t want it to be me being mean anymore. It’s no longer about my mean humor. I’ve decided to let Clarissa have her say.

JB: My favorite Clarissa strip is the one with the stuffed rabbit.

JY: That was recently turned into an animated cartoon. People saw it online, and they were in the animation department at their college, so they did a short film. It’s not online yet, as they want to show it around a bit first, but hopefully soon I’ll be able to show it on my website or put it on a disc and include it with my comics.

JB: It’s such an incredibly sad and fucked up tale.

JY: It’s the turning point. That was preceded in the same issue of the comic by another Clarissa story that had an entirely different tone. I had Clarissa talking to the audience. It was a metamorphosis as to how I’m going to treat the story from here on out. It went from the original shocking comic to the still-bleak but still-humorous bathtub story with Clarissa. I got such a positive reaction, and it had a much more poignant ending than the original Clarissa story. I thought, why don’t I move it more in this direction? Then I can actually use the character without it being exploitive. If I keep doing the molestation joke, it’s about exploitation. I don’t want to do that.

JB: Earlier on, you mentioned something about your influences. Was it their work that inspired you to work in comics?

JY: No, I was a cartoonist from day one. I have a lot of artists in my family. Uncle Bob Donavan drew SNUFFY SMITH for a few decades. He made a go of it. I had that as my first inspiration. And I thought, hey! There are cartoonists in my family, and I want to be a cartoonist. How fortunate! I’ve been an artist my whole life, and I’ve always wanted to be in cartoons. I like comic books, comic strips especially, and I always wanted to do both. With Weapon Brown, I got the best of both worlds. Originally, I was equally divided. I decided I couldn’t really pursue both avenues, and the comic books gave me the most freedom. It was after I submitted the original incarnation of DEEP FRIED, a comic called PLOP FICTION or something like that, which included Beepo and Roadkill, which I’ve been doing since college. I got some positive feedback from the syndicates, but they didn’t want—I just wanted to do what I wanted to do, so comic books got me. For better or worse, I can’t be edited. I do have editors, and sometimes I have trouble with them, but I really need to do whatever I want whenever I want to do it. Self-publishing my books is the best way to have my cake and eat it, too, I guess.

JB: Has your sense of humor always been this twisted? Or did comic books do that to you?

JY: Good question. When it came to how I would do my comics, I always liked humor. I’m funnier on the pages than I am in real life, but I’m a blabbermouth, and I like to be funny. It was inevitable that I would factor into my propensity for humor into my comics. As for the way I turned out, I was always attracted to certain animated shows I’d see, like HEAVY METAL when I was younger. FRITZ THE CAT, which I saw on scrambled HBO or Cinemax or something. You know, the naughtiness of it all. I was like, I like naughtiness. I think I’ll put naughtiness into my work. I liked the black and white movement of the ‘Nineties, the early ‘Nineties, late ‘Eighties of independence, but it was really MILK AND CHEESE, which was the funniest thing I’d seen, that did it. If I’m going to be funny, it’s got to be Milk-and-Cheese-funny. I’m not that funny, I still don’t think, but I do my best. That set the bar for me. When I started doing DEEP FRIED again after LOWEST COMIC DENOMINATOR, I was pretty much in my groove. Also, I saw you could do stuff that was really shocking or really funny. Usually, it’s one or the other. LCD was the most shocking and hilarious comic I’d read. Again, the bar has been raised. I think I know where my career is taking me now. My comedy really doesn’t ape MILK AND CHEESE or LOWEST COMIC DENOMINATOR, I’m not chasing that dragon, but I realize that in order for me to be pleased with my work, I have to be approaching that level of humor. Hopefully, I’m doing something original, too. It means a lot to me to pursue original subject matters, things that are surprising shock, unexpected but not merely shock. That’s the goal I’m chasing.

JB: What’s next for you?

JY: Hardcore drug addiction. All this dark humor has rotted my brain away. I’m gonna’ ride the spike into an early grave. But if that doesn’t happen right away, WEAPON BROWN will be wrapping up.  The BLOCKHEAD’S WAR series that I had not anticipated going on as long as it did—I stretched it out for three years—it is approaching its final issue. The web-strip is in its final arc. I will wrap that up and hopefully find a publisher soon. If not, I think Kickstarter is calling me. It’ll be a graphic novel, either way. Then, I want to return to DEEP FRIED. I have new material that I’m going to collect into a second volume trade paperback. I’ll have that for sale soon with a brand new Clarissa story. I still like traditional comic books, and I’ve got this urge to be involved with superhero comics, even though superheroes are really clichéd at this point. You would think that a person who was really independent and liked Vertigo and stuff would really move away from superheroes. I simply can’t, so the best I can do is try to do something interesting with superheroes, which is kind of tough because something like VENTURE BROTHERS, which is something I really like, ironic superheroes . . . when I first got into them, it was brand new, like with WATCHMEN and DARK KNIGHT. Now everyone’s doing it. The audience for superheroes is more adult than child now, so you have to take superheroes and do adult things with them. I’m still stuck on superheroes, though, so I’ve had this project of mine that is sort of a happy medium between Rob Liefeld and Grant Morrison. If I can’t lead with the genre, the least I can do is something clever with it. It’s a series that I want to work with another artist on tentatively titled THE GARBAGEMEN. It is basically a lampoon of ‘Nineties-era comics and the idea that, what if goofy silver age stuff is more of a threat to the world than hardcore, gritty Rob Liefeld post-Image, post-Mark Millar stuff? What if the gruesome, dark, brooding superheroes and the over-muscled, over-amped indecisive heroes, their greatest threat was just the silly stuff from the silver age? So this is an X-Files-type superhero team that tries to keep the silver age from bleeding into the modern age. I’m a big fan of Grant Morrison, and I want to introduce a level of that kind of thing into what is a more straight-forward and amusing superhero book.

JB: Where can people find your work?

JY: There’s not too much of my stuff in stores right now, but when I come back with the trades and stuff, you’ll be able to find more of it nationwide. You can find me at various shows like this one. I’ll be in Baltimore next, then Roc-Con in Rochester, NY. I haven’t planned my next slate of appearances, but I’ll do more shows this year and in the coming year. The best way to find me is online. And in MAD Magazine, I’m in every other issue in the Strip Club section and also in the Fundalini pages.

In case you miss it on his blog, you can buy his books here.

Thursday, August 30, 2012


Faithful readers here might remember a fellow by the name of Weapon Brown from a previous review of DEEP FRIED. Now he’s got his own book, and it’s a hell of a rollercoaster, even more so than the last story he graced.

For those unfamiliar, Weapon Brown is actually Charlie Brown, if that round-headed kid had grown up in a post-apocalyptic world. With the aid of his robot arm and his sidekick, a snarling dog named . . . well, you know, he bounty-hunts his way across the nuke-scoured Mad Max-type landscape our world has become.

All right, to be fair, such a gimmick is really only good for one story, right? Writer/illustrator Jason Yungbluth has to know that, right? Where else could he possibly take Weapon Brown?

Over the course of BLOCKHEAD’S WAR, which was only supposed to be two issues, we have followed Weapon Brown's adventures as he does battle with the syndicate (which is run, incidentally, by the boss from Dilbert), who has sent quite a motley crew against him, chief among them Beetle Bailey and Sarge (and they are most definitely not your father’s version of these characters). Weapon Brown finds himself in a society dedicated to hiding out from the syndicate. Run by Anne (who is, you guessed it, of the little orphan variety) and peopled with many other world-ravaged versions of classic comic strip characters, they produce something magical called schmoo, a liquid that can be transformed into any food its beholder desires. (Actually, it’s the fecal matter of something called the Garf, a giant grub worm who more than a little resembles Garfield.) Naturally, the syndicate wants it, and they’ve sent their biggest weapon against them . . . CAL-v1N and his bloodthirsty tiger, Hobbes.

Remember how the syndicate created Weapon Brown from the remains of poor ol’ Chuck? CAL-v1N is created from scratch, and he’s a bad motherfucker, maybe even tougher than Weapon Brown. In the last issue, CAL-v1N wiped the walls with Weapon Brown in mere seconds, and Hobbes has torn its way through most of the secret society. Things are looking grim for our heroes.

This issue features the evacuation of their town . . . and Weapon Brown getting his ass kicked yet again by CAL-v1N.  As his head reels from this new beating, Anne gets left behind during the evacuation, the Family Circus gets killed (all of them, and in a hilariously circular panel, too), Broom Hilda faces off against the Wizard of Id, and holy fuck! What else do you need to know about this book?!

Fine. Weapon Brown is a one-gag bit, but it really is the gag that keeps on giving. Yungbluth really has created a post-apocalyptic scavenger hunt. See if you can find all of the comic strip characters in their new, darker, edgier incarnations. No one is safe, not even Doug from Zits, or the forever-arguing Lockhorns. One of the villains is Duke from Doonesbury. In one scene, there are a bunch of strip cats, from Heathcliff to Bucky Katt from Get Fuzzy to even Bill the Cat from Bloom County (and Outland . . . and Opus; oh yeah, and Opus has a cameo, too, as well as other characters from that world). Of course Dagwood Bumstead and Blondie Boopadoop are in attendance. Look really close, and you’ll see Andy Capp and a very frazzled looking Jon Arbuckle. Marmaduke is hanging out by the cages, and even Huey and Riley from the Boondocks made the party (Grandad, too!).

But the best is Popeye, who is one of the higher-ups with Anne. He’s a giant sailor with a chin made of tumors from the radiation, forever chewing on his corncob pipe. He even has a “goyle” by the name of Olive. As they’re escaping the wrath of CAL-v1N, Olive Oil gets gunned down, and the scene is just so heartbreaking, it reminds one of the previous story, in which Chuck’s original red-haired girl was killed. It turns Popeye into a killing machine.

Speaking of red-haired girls, it would seem that Weapon Brown has a thing for them. In a previous issue, he managed to get into Anne’s pants just before shit went south. Now he must rescue her from CAL-v1N before it’s too late. How awesome is that?

Another great moment: the Snoopy dance. ‘Nuff said.

Not only does Yungbluth show off his love of these old strip characters by putting them into his hellish vision of the future, he also knows their gags pretty well, as you can see. Granted, there is a lot of sex and violence in the chronicles of Weapon Brown, but at the very base of this book, it appeals to the kid within.

Next issue should be the conclusion . . . in theory. Yungbluth thought this would be two books . . . then three . . . and so on, so who knows? One only has to wonder, after he’s gotten this far, where else can he go with Weapon Brown? Do yourself a favor and buy the entire series and see why this is one of the awesomest books lurking in Artists Alley!

Written and illustrated by Jason Yungbluth
Published by Death Ray Graphics
Too many unnumbered pages to count

Wednesday, August 29, 2012


When one peruses Artists Alley at any convention, one must make peace with the idea that most of the books you buy there will contain typos or outright misspellings. However, even to a seasoned pro, it’s hard to come upon a book with such atrocious spelling and grammar that it completely takes you out of the story. CELL PHONES AND CIGARETTES is that kind of book.

From the very get-go, writer and illustrator Raven Johnson fucks up. On the inside cover is a completely unnecessary introduction, where he goes on to explain why this book exists and what stories it contains, rather than having the confidence in letting the stories speak for themselves. Even worse, he explains them in the worst way. For example, regarding the first story, he says, “I don’t want to give too much of the plot away. Basically it’s a love story of two kids in their early 20’s . . . back in the year 2000. There’s alot [sic] more to it . . . so stay tuned!” Actually, he’s just said absolutely nothing about the story, and there isn’t much more to it. “Inner City Ellen” is the story of Ellen, who is grieving because her boyfriend left her. Or is dead. Or something. Johnson never goes into that. All we know is that she misses him, and she’s reminded of the good times when she trips over his old Dreamcast controller. (This lame thing leads to an even lamer memory.) She’s in a hurry, but on her way out, she runs into a naked guy at her door . . . and that’s it.

“Extreme Anarchy” is up next, and it is the story of attractive superheroes taking on a supervillain who has a taste for hot chicks and is turned on when he sees who he’s up against. Seriously, that’s all it’s about.

The next two pages contain three small strips. The first is about one friend telling another friend about a weird acid trip she took at a party. The only point seems to be to get across the idea that she tried to eat herself while tripping out. The next is about a woman changing clothes. Yeah, that's it. And the next is about a woman who gets naked and pops a pimple near her belly button before she takes a shower.

There is one more strip that’s a bit longer, but it seems to be about nothing more than a guy trying to make a mix-tape for his love interest, and then he winds up telling his friend about the time he got his ex-girlfriend off using the Rumble Pak/Dualshock/whatever vibrating thing on his game controller.

The only story in this entire issue that could actually qualify as a story is “My Untitled Horror Podcast,” which is about a woman uses a podcast to tell horror stories. She tells the tale of a high school girl who is eager to turn 16 and get a car from her parents, but when her down-on-his-luck brother moves back in, they give him the car instead, so he can get a job. This infuriates her, so she uses a guy at school who has been after her for quite some time to exact her vengeance on her brother. Ultimately, it’s a weak story, but at least it has structure and plot, which the others do not have. There is no point to the other stories, especially the shorts, except to maybe titillate a drunk reader.

The problem is right there in the introduction. Johnson says that he was invited to a convention a while ago, but all he had were prints to sell. He wanted to put out a comic book, so he did. What he doesn’t admit is, he’s not a writer. He just doesn’t have it in him. His artwork is actually pretty good. Maybe someday, he’ll even be great.

But, let’s face it. He does more than confuse “your” and “you’re.” He thinks “coordinates” is “coordinance.” He says “breaks” when he means “brakes.” And when a character doesn’t get her way, she blurts out, “FML!” Stuff like that can really ruin a reading experience.

There is no heart and soul in this; there is only a bunch of stuff that might make a frat boy laugh when he’s at his drunkest. What Johnson needs to do is make friends with a good writer. One day, he could make for an excellent illustrator. He’s got a visual feel for the motion of the story.

If he was really so dead-set on doing this on his own, what he should have done is use the narrator of the podcast story as kind of a Crypt-Keeper for all of the stories. It’s a bit of a cheesy move, but at least it makes sense, whereas most of the stories in here don’t. Johnson is not without strengths; it’s just that he’s dragged under by his weaknesses, and he doesn’t seem capable of understanding what these are.

It might also help that, if you’re going to call your book CELL PHONES AND CIGARETTES, to actually have cell phones and cigarettes in the book. The phony ad in the back is kind of funny, though.

Written and illustrated by Raven Johnson
Published by Raven J!
28 pages

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


Saying horror anthology books are a dime a dozen at conventions is a bit of a liberal number. Truth be told, they’re more like a ha’penny a dozen, and that rarely leads to good material.

Sadly, TWISTED TALES OF TERROR is not one of those good books. Good storytelling and innovative ideas take a back seat to puerile interests and clichéd notions in almost all of these tales.

First up is “The Things That Go Bump in the Night” written by Scott Guffey with an assist and artwork by Terence Muncy. We start out with a busty young woman skinnydipping in the swamp, inviting her redneck father in to join her. She is then abducted by a Creature from the Black Lagoon wannabe and dragged out to where Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Mummy await them. And then we find out that this is really just a movie being shot by a disgruntled director and self-important actors. However, as you can guess, one of the “monsters” is a real monster, and . . . who cares? It’s lazy writing coupled with a high school-level artwork (with a high schooler’s idea of what tits are like). The only good thing about this is how they borrowed a few lines from Poe. That’s all the class you’ll get out of this one.

Next up is “Terror in Sugarland” written and illustratd by Grant Gutzmer. It’s hard to review this one, considering how Gutzmer died just before this book was printed. However, it’s not all bad. It starts out with a children’s book story, in which the Kroktas invade Sugarland and lay waste to the citizens and soldiers. It actually gets kind of interesting when these creatures are depicted raping the people of Sugarland and breaking up the gingerbread denizens. But then, Gutzmer reveals his true intentions near the end of the tale, where it falls apart into more juvenile masturbatory fantasies.

The third story fares equally as well up until the end. “Anal Slugs and Burritos Too,” written and illustrated by Chris Bailey, seems to be one of the more serious stories in the book. At least, it plays it very straight. Unfortunately, it borrows the shit slugs from Stephen King’s DREAMCATCHER as the villains. Still, the gory results of their birth is very nicely portrayed with the most skillful artwork in the book so far. Too bad on the very last page, Bailey turns the whole thing into a stupid joke.

The next story, “Devil Tomb,” written and illustrated by Jeremiah Buckel, is yet another King rip off. A kid with a ball wants to go outside and play in the rain. His mom says no because his sister died recently. He defies her and loses his ball . . . down a sewer, where he meets a very nasty monster. Yeah, big surprise. As lazy as the writing is, the artwork isn’t half bad. It has just the right amount of quality, even though it could be a bit better. The only thing that can be said for this one is, it’s the only one that doesn’t rely on scatological storytelling to appeal to the reader.

The final story in the book, “Scream Me a Lullaby,” written and illustrated by Master Legion, is the most insulting of all of these tales. Rebecca Mary is a kid in an orphanage run by nuns, so naturally, she has the devil inside of her . . . IN MORE WAYS THAN ONE! (wink, wink, tee-hee!) Yeah, she gets fucked and impregnated by a demon, and when she’s challenged by her fellow orphans and the nuns in charge of them, she gets supernaturally violent until she gives birth to Rosemary’s ba—er, rather her demon-like child. Yeah, it may be possible to be a lazier writer than that, but not by much. The artwork isn’t bad, but it’s a bit too exaggerated to take seriously.

All in all, when you get down to it, if you’re a high schooler with a less-than-average IQ and really desperate for spank material, this book is for you. If you’re anything other than that, don’t bother.

Written and illustrated by various artists
Published by Legion Studios
52 pages

Monday, August 27, 2012


Ah, the staple of Artists Alley: the anthology book. However, most are usually horror books. This one is SF, and despite the silly space octopus cover, it’s got a lot of good material in it, even though it’s presented in an odd fashion. Usually with anthology books, you get three to four stories all told back to back. Here we have part one of a story, then story two, then part two of story one, then story three, then part three of story one, and lastly story four. But the material is so good, it doesn’t even jar your senses.

The first story is a complete mind-fuck of a tale called “The Traveling Man,” written and illustrated by Matt Collander. In fact, it’s kind of hard to say what it’s about, exactly. Alan has come loose in time and space, and it would appear that he’s being kept in a mental asylum. When he wanders from one room to another, he finds himself in a room full of people who seem to be plugged into the ceiling through a series of tubes, but when they try to jack him in, he flees to find himself back home with a loving wife and children whose names he doesn’t remember. Once again, he wanders through another door and this time finds himself face to face with himself. A few of himselfs, actually. Here, he reveals to himself that the more you travel through time and space, the more you fall apart. The less you actually exist. And in yet another world, he finds that he has become a delicacy to humans. He meets aliens and bacteria and disembodied parts of himself and HOLY SHIT! There’s no way to get your head around a piece of art this ingenious. It’s a shame that the illustrations are a little bit too simplistic for the subject matter.

The second story, “Safe House,” suffers from the same problem because it’s also illustrated by Collander. It is written by David Canario, who has a masterful ability with dialogue. It’s about a couple of space farmers shooting the shit over coffee in a diner. Sadly, while the speech is pretty snappy and realistic, it doesn’t really lead to much of a story. It’s a slice of life at best.

The third story, “Adventurenaut,” is the only real stinker in the book. Written by Danario and illustrated by someone simply known as Crow, it is a throwback to pulp SF, where the hero was usually a peaceful kind of scientist who had no problem with two-fisted battles and ray guns. This is no deviation from the norm and it offers nothing new. Captain Percival Edwards arrives on an alien planet to study their life, but instead he gets stuck between two warring factions and has to exercise a little violence before the end of the tale. Unlike the others, though, this one sports a to-be-continued at the end. It’s a shame because it’s the weakest story, and the artwork is so childish it could have been done by a middle-schooler.

Lastly, we have “Another Day Older,” written by Danario and illustrated by Jason Swearingen. In the future, there is a treatment people use to stop growing old. They are forever young, but the problem is, it sterilizes them. One day, Alec Dixon is getting his hair cut when the stylist notices that he’s got a gray hair . . . . Now, midget secret agents are after him, and his only hope might be a church that has outlawed the use of the ageless vaccination. It’s really a brilliant story, a bit reminiscent of LOGAN’S RUN, and by far, it has the best artwork of the book. It’s complex, and while it doesn’t quite look real, it looks as close as it can get. Swearingen is an artist to look out for. He’s good right now; one day, he might be great.

All in all, this book is completely worth your money. If you find these guys at a convention anytime soon, make sure to pick this one up.

Written and illustrated by various people
Published by Dread Arts Co.
36 pages

Friday, August 24, 2012


You may remember a while ago when I wrote an installment of EVERYONE’S GOT ONE about printing companies censoring art by refusing certain customers. I asked the creator of GROSS, GRANDPA! to write a little bit about his experience trying to get issue two out in time for C2E2. I caught up with him at Wizard World Chicago and scored this interview with him.

[QUICK NOTE:  The sound quality of the recording was really bad.  For some reason, it was picking up the conversation of the guy at the next table really clearly, but it was barely squeaking by on this interview.  There are a couple of places where it's just too unclear to decipher it.  My apologies to all.]

John Bruni: First of all, you're selling GROSS, GRANDPA! here. Tell us about your book.

Josh Filer: Well, it’s . . . originally I wanted to—

Jon Lennon (creator of PRODUCT OF SOCIETY): How big’s your dick, man?

JF: Really tiny. I’m white. [Pause for hilarity to wind down.] I wanted to take the idea of when you have a drawing of a teacher when you’re in middle school and blow it up. Just do something beyond. It’s something I’ve been thinking about lately where it’s just very shallow and very petty. It’s like taking this fuckin’ woman from my eighth grade study hall for kids with ADHD. I went to study hall one day, and she was crying. She said, “Josh, sit down.” She’s like, “You’re the reason I hate my life so bad.” I didn’t say anything. I was just a kid. I remember drawing nasty pictures of her, and I just hated this woman. I hated her. I’m just coming back to that as an adult, just taking those drawings and making them as fucked up as possible. That’s really the jumping off point. I felt like I could do something with those drawings, those hate filled drawings of  a middle-aged woman. They’re just horrible, and I wanted to expand on them. That’s where it started off. I had done some [UNCLEAR SEGMENT; SOMETHING COCK-RELATED] drawings in college for illustration class, so I started pulling all of these little ideas together. That’s how it’s kind of written, just stuff that I thought was funny. And then on the second issue, I wrote it before I drew it, and that seemed to work better.

JB: So if there’s anything you can really say that GROSS, GRANDPA! is about, what would that be?

JF: It’s just pictures. The bulk of it is shallow. I don’t try to make any statements, it’s just stuff that I get inspired with. I don’t take things too seriously.

JB: Have you always been this fucked up?

JF: I guess it just goes with the territory. I don’t know. Yes?

JB: How far back does your psychosis go?

JF: I don’t know. These things work for me over time. The funnier, more fucked up they do . . . well, I get laughs out of people. That’s all I do. That’s what the driving motivation for everything is. I don’t trick myself into thinking I’m going to work for Marvel or DC. One, I’m not good enough, but also, they wouldn’t let me do that kind of stuff.

JB: There’s no room in the Marvel Universe for dick copters and queef rockets?

JF: Exactly! I would have a hard time just accepting that. It’s just not happening.

JB: The dream in this business is to work for DC or Marvel. As a life-long attention whore, what was it that made you want to write and draw comics?

JF: Art and writing were the classes I could pass. Math, science, and the others, I wasn’t so good at. I’ve had teachers who were really good to me and let me write whatever I wanted, and I still have stuff from when I was a kid that I’ll get inspiration from now. I was writing some crazy shit. These teachers enjoyed it and thought it was great and they gave me passing grades for that stuff, so I kept doing it. I don’t know another medium in which I could do it. It’s a skill set I’ve developed over the years. I would have liked to have been a comedian, but I wasn’t a showman. I didn’t have people who helped me in that way. Then I got to college, and everyone was like, no. No. Nope. You’re writing about pedophilia. No credit. I didn’t know what else to do.

JB: Speaking of class, on the back of issue two, you have quotes from a fellow classmate denigrating your work.

JF: I just copied and pasted those from his response to my work. I don’t think that’s his real name because he’s not on the class roster. Nate Willkomm. He just fucking slandered me and blew it out of the water. He was in my class when I wrote a story for my fictional writing class and it was a story about a guy who got drunk and went on this escapade with Quakers, killing this town full of retards. This was the first story I did for this class, and the way it was set up was, you print off 24 copies for everyone in class and on Wednesday, they would come back and critique the story. So I came into class. This was the first time anyone had read my stuff, and the class flipped. Two guys defended me. Everyone else freaked out, and the ringmaster for that was Nate Willkomm. He wrote on the papers. Every line was like, “This is where I stopped reading,” and blah-blah-blah. “Why are you writing this?” “This is the worst thing I’ve ever read.” “If I wasn’t required to read this, I would burn this right now.” It was fucking hilarious. It was for a completely different story, but I thought it would be funny to put on the back of issue two. The same day that I had that story I turned in, I was the cartoonist for the school paper, and I did this cartoon called ATTACK OF THE FEMINAZIS. Every week, I did an editorial cartoon. [UNCLEAR PORTION; however, it sounds like Filer says the cartoon was about women who refused to take their kids to the doctor because they didn’t want to do what The Man says.] People from lit classes and women studies classes were holding up signs that said this was not funny, that I’m not funny. My email exploded. A professor said I was not funny, and I should do this and this and this. It was this one Wednesday when I had that paper come out and that critique of my retard story . . . I got out of class, and I was like, “Whoa, man.” They were screaming at me. I got back to my place and started reading the reviews I had. The thing that made me the most mad was someone said that Quakers are peaceful people. How dare I make them violent! I was like, what the fuck is wrong with you? What made me madder was that it was in the 2000’s, and this guy [Willkomm] was still wearing elephant pants, and he wore a hat with a big fucking feather sticking out of it. And his unkempt, long hair, and he thought he was really smart. He’s just . . . fuck that guy.

JB: Does he know you used his quotes on your book?


JF: What do you want?

[BANDT?]: I want a picture of a bunch of Power Rangers all strung out on heroin in a methadone clinic, and then the nurse comes in and says, “All right, Power Rangers! It’s morphine time!”

JF (laughing): I’ll do it!

JB: Anyway, you should send him [Willkomm] a copy of issue two and see what he thinks.

JF: He stayed in Whitewater [WISCONSIN] for a while. He liked it there just fine. All the other people I went to school with, they graduated and moved on to other states. That motherfucker stayed in town. I saw him at the post office.

JB: Speaking of the cover, I noticed that the inside front and back cover is blank. I imagine with this kind of material, it’s hard to find advertisers.

JF: I wanted a bike so bad. Someone stole my bike from my garage. So I emailed this guy and said, “So I’ve got this comic. I’ll trade you ad space on the back of my book for a bike. He didn’t do it. Damn it! I could have had an ad in my book and a new bike. It didn’t work out.

JB: Maybe porn companies would be interested.

JF: There you go! Like grizzly bear gay porn.

JB: Just outlandish, weird specialty stuff, like maybe leper porn, or something like that.

JF: I’m going to start making my own ads. I wanted to have Optimus Prime and Megatron on there, saying, “I want to put my Decepticock in your Autobutt.” I think I should also make shirts. [UNCLEAR PORTION] As far as ads go, I doubt I’m going to get, like, Cherrios.

JB: Looking around Artists Alley, you see a lot of the usual stuff. Zombies are really popular now. Just your basic, typical stuff. A lot of cutesy stuff as well. But you bring everything to a whole new level. There are very few edgy books like yours. How do you think the rest of Artists Alley looks at you? Is it one of those he’s-a-sick-bastard kind of things? Or maybe I-wish-I-could-do-what-he-does?

JF: I see people walk by. I try to put up funny signs. Edgy, I guess. And then I judge their body language. If they scowl at having sex with historical figures [HE'S GOT A SIGN UP OFFERING TO DRAW A PICTURE OF YOU HAVING SEX WITH ANY HISTORICAL FIGURE], I don’t need to bother. I’ve had moms rush their family past my table, but then there are others who say they wish they could go that far with stuff. I could probably take it further. I’d just need to think about how I could do it. As I go back through all of the ideas I’ve had, you can see the progression. This is what I was allowed to do in middle school, and then I keep going further and further. It’s just . . . things I find funny.

JB: Last time we talked, we discussed censorship and printers who say, “Oh, we don’t want this kind of thing, we don’t want to be associated with this kind of thing.” There are a few other books around here that are questionable, like PRODUCT OF SOCIETY across the row and DEEP FRIED. Judging how they’re able to get stuff out and you’re hitting that roadblock, do you think it’s because you actually show dicks and tits? Their shit is really awkward and psychologically fucked up. Is it really just a matter of words versus pictures?

JF: There’s a bluntness to my work. The one printer said, “Well, my wife didn’t want to look at it. It’s crazy, but I get why some people would like it.” I have a hard time being subtle. I have ADHD, so everything has a rapid fire quality. My art, my writing, it’s all tied to my personality. More and more stimulation, stimuli, stimuli, stimuli. It’s true to my personality. Go-go-go, more stimulus. It’s going to be hard on some people who don’t think that way. It’s funny to me.

JB: What’s coming up next in GROSS, GRANDPA #3?

JF: The next one is super hyperactive attention deficit. (GROSS, GRANDPA #3 will be after that.) It’ll be all rapid-fire stories. I’ve got the Fire Retard Ant story. I’ve got “Moon Shits” from PRODUCT OF SOCIETY #5. I’ve got a handful of other stories. As far as GROSS, GRANDPA! #3 goes, it’ll be about how Ms. Sprain gets killed. They tie her up like a prize goat and tie her labia and tits into a ball and put horns on her and show her around the fairgrounds. They sell her for top prizes. I don’t have all the details yet, but that’s where it is.

JB: Will it be out in time for C2E2?

JF: I hope so. These things take time. I’m writing, drawing, lettering, and coloring everything myself. Issue one I pumped out really fast. Number two, I’m like, stop, write it, rewrite it, build the world, make the characters. It took me a fucking year to do this one.

Josh Filer's work can be bought here, and you can read his blog here.  My review of GROSS, GRANDPA! #2 can be found here.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


Surprisingly enough, this story doesn’t begin with, “Once upon a time.” Considering the introduction, it probably should. Anyway, once upon a time, magic appeared in this world from the sky, and it entered a select few people and gave them special powers. These people became known as Carriers, and thanks to these powers, they saved the world.

No. Really. They ended war, and everyone lived happily ever after. Well, kind of. In the present day, a queen has taken over, and she is not a very pleasant person. She has a squad that goes out in search of Carriers, so that she can swallow their energy, which makes her appear eternally young. Without this, she starts getting pretty old pretty quick.

This is the premise of THE CARRIERS, written and illustrated by Kevin D. Bandt. In the long run, the idea of using people with special powers as batteries isn’t a new idea, but it’s all in the way Bandt handles it.

One day, a guard named Echo helps a Carrier named Lily escape from becoming psychic food for the queen. He takes her to a former guard named Cypress, who, as it turns out, is funding the resistance against the queen. He quit the guard because of the time he brought a Carrier kid to the queen, who then stripped the poor kid of his magic and his skin. After such a gristly scene, Cypress couldn’t take it anymore.

Now they must join forces to take down the queen and restore peace to the land once again. All in all, it’s a pretty standard fantasy when you look at it like that. However, Bandt brings so much more to it. Rather than the usual archetypes, we get characters we can easily identify with. (Well, except for the evil queen, of course.) His artwork, while a bit stiff at times, perfectly compliments the material. The only part where he truly falters is in the naming of his characters. Echo? Cypress? Really?

But that’s just cosmetic. It’s an enjoyable story, and it will be interesting to see where he goes from here. In the final panel, he suggests something even deeper is going on here, and it’s sure to turn out to be a hell of a tale.

Written and illustrated by Kevin D. Bandt
Published by Kevin Bandt Concepts
22 pages

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Wow. Zombies really are everywhere. Shit, if they could get into the world of STAR WARS, why not Smurfs?

This time, Gargamel has outdone himself. Tired of always losing, he creates a zombie Smurf to loose upon his sworn enemies. In this rather revealing scene, we find out why Smurfette is the only female Smurf: Gargamel created her out of hopes that introducing sexual possibilities to the Smurfs would destroy them over the awe-inspiring power of pussy. How fucking awesome is that?

The zombie Smurf comes upon Vanity Smurf first, and soon, all the Smurfs are being transformed into zombies. They start eating each other in the bloodiest Smurfs tale you’re ever likely to see. A team of Smurfs, lead by Papa Smurf (naturally), hole up in Handy Smurf’s house as they scheme to come up with a plan to get out of this mess.

Writer and illustrator John Hoban, who also did APOCALYPSE CITY, goes balls-out for laughs on this one. If you’re looking for social commentary, what the fuck are you doing looking for it in a book called NIGHT OF THE SMURFING DEAD?! This is clearly a fuck-off book, and it’s great fun. While it’s a bit of a fanboy-ish thing to do, see if you can notice all the homages to other zombie material. In fact, much of it seems to be inspired by NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (obviously), but when Handy Smurf loses his hand (ha-ha, get it?), guess what replaces it? And how about when Papa Smurf straps on a lawnmower for . . . eh, you get it.

The best part is, Hoban has got such a good feel for the Smurfs that they look exactly as they did on the classic show. It looks like this could be an official Smurfs story. It speaks to the child within while appealing to the adult you (supposedly) are.

The only flaw is that the “smurf” thing is overdone. You know. The Smurfs always replaced curse words with “smurf.” Hoban ratchets it up about a thousand times. For the most part, it’s funny, but it gets out of hand at times.

Don’t let that stop you from giving this book a try. Read it. Have some fun. Have a few laughs. It’s worth a few minutes of your time. Just hope that Hoban doesn’t decide to do a sequel. This is perfect as it is; any more would ruin the joke.

[It should also be noted that spell-check has no problem with “Smurf.”]

Written and illustrated by John Hoban
Published by ?????
25 pages
$5 (if memory serves correctly)

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


100 years. 100 stories. It’s been quite the adventure, making my way through these two volumes, and I’m glad you came along with me. I hope you met a bunch of writers you would have never encountered without this anthology, and I hope you became more familiar with a few old acquaintances.

Such a journey would be incomplete without a list of favorites, so here are my top five tales from this anthology. Please don’t ask me to put them in order. It would be a hard task to truly pick my favorite. But if you’re still thinking about stories you’d like to try out, here’s where you can start:

--“Sardonicus” by Ray Russell (1961) (If you really, truly hard-pressed me for a favorite, this one might be it.)
--“The Crawling Horror” by Thorp McClusky (1936)
--“The Night They Missed the Horror Show” by Joe R. Lansdale (1988) (Shit, maybe this one’s my favorite. It’s hard to say. Lansdale is my favorite writer, after all.)
--“I Am Nothing” by Eric Frank Russell (1952)
--“The Box” by Jack Ketchum (1994)

And because I couldn’t stand just leaving it at that, here’s a few more that I really wanted to put in my top five, but the other stories just kicked too much ass:

--“The Whistling Room” by William Hope Hodgson (1910)
--“The Testament of Magdalen Blair” by Aleister Crowley (1913)
--“The Spider” by Hanns Heinz Ewers (1914)
--“The Black Pool” by Frederick Stuart Greene (1917)
--“The Loved Dead” by C.M. Eddy, Jr. (1924)
--“The Outsider” by H.P. Lovecraft (1926)
--“The Red Brain” by Donald Wandrei (1927)
--“Pigeons from Hell” by Robert E. Howard (1938)
--“The Jar” by Ray Bradbury (1944)
--“Shonokin Town” by Manly Wade Wellman (1946)
--“Born of Man and Woman” by Richard Matheson (1950)
--“That Hell-Bound Train” by Robert Bloch (1958)
--“Carcinoma Angels” by Norman Spinrad (1967)
--“Sticks” by Karl Edward Wagner (1974)
--“Within the Walls of Tyre” by Michael Bishop (1978)
--“The Autopsy” by Michael Shea (1980)
--“The Pilgrimage of Clifford M.” by Bob Leman (1984)
--“Stephen” by Elizabeth Massie (1990)
--“The Crawl” by Stephen Laws (1997)

You can’t go wrong with any of those stories. I’m half-tempted to list the worst five, but it’s really not worth it. When I review things, I tend to not mention the stuff that didn’t impress me. I want to introduce people to the good stuff. Besides, if you’ve come with me this far, you probably know the stories I liked the least, anyway.

John Pelan took on a titanic task when he conceived of this anthology, and it is a testament to his knowledge of the genre (and, in a few instances, of other genres). Though he made a misstep here and there, I am overall pleased with the result. While a few editors in the past MIGHT have been able to pull this off, I think he’s the only LIVING editor who could do it, and do it right, no less.

It’s not perfect, but it’s as close to perfect as we can get. If you consider yourself a horror fan, these two volumes need to be in your library. Or hell, if you’re new to the genre and want a primer on its history, this is a good place to start.

Happy reading!

Monday, August 20, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #100: A review of "Reconstructing Amy" by Tim Lebbon

Here we are, at last. The final tale of this anthology. 100 years of horror fiction, and it all comes down to this. Can Pelan go out with a bang?

Death pervades this entire story, but not the protagonist’s. No, Jake suffers more than that. The love of his life, Amy, is dead, leaving him alone, wondering how he’s going to fill the rest of his life up. With every breath he thinks of her, and he knows that’s going to continue happening until he no longer breathes. He’s just got to figure out what he’s going to do with himself until that glorious day when they’re reunited in the Hereafter.

In the meantime, he does his best to dodge all of his friends. They mean well, but they’re all broken records, asking about how he’s doing. How do they think he’s doing?! The only friend he hangs out with is Jamie, who just wants to shoot the shit and drink good Irish whiskey.

Even so, Jake finds he likes being alone more often. And then comes the day he finds a rag doll in the gutter. It has Amy’s nose, and it brings back a memory of her that he’d forgotten about. Unable to let her go, he brings the doll home.

And then he finds another doll, this one with Amy’s eyes. Soon, he develops a collection of found dolls, all bearing features of his beloved and memories he’d forgotten about.

This is a very sad tale, full of grief and woe. But as with many good stories, there reaches a point where one should stop reading them, or the spell will be broken. This is one of those tales. SPOILER ALERT: During a piss-up with Jamie, his friend tells him that Amy used to have a nickname for Jamie. Jamie then tells Jake about a few places where he can find more of Amy. Surely enough, Jake collects even more of these dolls until he has them all. They’re all around his house, breathing new life into each room, breathing new life into Jake.

And it’s then that Jake remembers what Amy used to call Jamie: Angel. [Cue Darth Vader NNNNOOOOOO here.] Ugh. Really? Lebbon is a fantastic writer. He can do better than this. So Jamie was hanging out with Jake because he’s an angel trying to save his friend’s life? Come on. END OF SPOILERS.

If only Lebbon didn’t throw in that twist ending. This story would have been perfect without it. It would have been fine without any explanation, too. This could have been an excellent ending to a wonderful anthology, but we get a fumble instead. “The doll sat in the crook of his arm as if watching the way they were going, ready to object should he take the wrong turn.” If you stop reading after that sentence, you’ll be happy.

Stay tuned for the CBHF wrap-up tomorrow . . . .

[This story first appeared in AS THE SUN GOES DOWN, and it cannot be read online at this time.]

Friday, August 17, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #99: A review of "Mr. Dark's Carnival" by Glen Hirshberg

With a title like that, there’s only one thing that can come to mind: Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. Oddly enough, Bradbury’s novel has nothing to do with this tale, aside from homage.

When we first meet Professor David Roemer, he’s giving a lecture to a room full of college freshmen about the nature of myth. They live in a town in Montana where they have a very heavy Halloween myth about a fellow named Mr. Dark and his carnival to end all carnivals. Every year, some entrepreneur comes along to cash in on the myth with their own carnival dedicated to Mr. Dark, but it’s always just fun and games. Professor Roemer, our narrator, is here to disprove the myth.

You see, no one knows first hand anyone who was ever at the original so-called carnival. Roemer’s family has been in the area for about a century, and none of them have ever come in contact with someone who was there at the carnival. This leads him to believe that the carnival never happened. However, when one of his students asks about the reality of Mr. Dark, he has a different story.

Hirshberg is very good at building suspense by keeping key information from his readers, even though his characters are ready and eager to give away said information. But he falters a little bit elsewhere. We’ll get to that in a moment.

His lecture is interrupted by his boss, who tells him that there’s been a horrible incident. One of his brightest (and most disliked) students has killed himself, apparently at Roemer’s house, and the woman the professor stole from his student, Kate, is the one who found him.

He rushes home to Kate and tries to console her, but she drives him away. Roemer, who has always been a Halloween aficionado, and a huge fan of the Mr. Dark myth, goes out looking for new Mr. Dark carnivals. Instead, he finds a homeless guy on the bridge who presses an invitation into his hand . . . to Mr. Dark’s carnival.

(Incidentally, this is the third story in both volumes of this anthology to reference TREASURE ISLAND. Normally, these tales don’t refer directly to others, but TREASURE ISLAND must have made an enormous impact on horror writers over the course of the century.)

Though Roemer suspects this is another hoax, it seems like an impressive one, and he rushes back to Kate to tell her about it. Kate, who shares his interest, seems eager to forget about her dead ex-boyfriend and hit the road to this new carnival with her current boyfriend.

This is where Hirshberg falters. The dialogue between Roemer and Kate during this drive is all exposition. You know how in comic books, when a writer wants to make sure his readers are on the same page, he has his characters telling each other what happened in the previous issue? That’s how this conversation feels. It’s here that Roemer gives up all of his information about the real-life Mr. Dark, who was a judge in territorial days who perhaps unfairly executed a Chinese criminal by hanging. It’s good information to know, but it’s a shitty way to convey it.

Not only that, but Kate has completely forgotten about the body of her ex-boyfriend. She’s mirthful in the way she encourages Roemer’s information-spouting ways. That’s not really what a grieving person would do.

Also, he never makes any connection between Mr. Dark (or more suitably, Judge Dark) and the so-called carnival. In fact, he never explains the carnival at all, which seems like kind of an important thing to do. He vaguely makes reference to missing cattle and children, but that’s it.

As Roemer and Kate approach the carnival, they start getting the sense that something’s not right. They run into one of Roemer’s students, a girl named Tricia (who, naturally, every boy in class has an interest in), and they discover that there’s a funhouse. However, nightgown-clad ushers separate people from their dates and make them go through the funhouse either alone or with someone else entirely. Kate is taken away from Roemer, and later, he and Tricia are put through the funhouse.

SPOILER ALERT: As you can imagine, the funhouse isn’t all that fun. It’s very much a real haunted house, and Roemer and Tricia are put through the wringer. They’re pursued through the house by a judge-thing, and they have to be careful where they step because some of the floor is . . . boggy, almost like quicksand. They wade through a pool of severed thumbs. All the while, Roemer marvels at how good a hoax this is, and he can’t wait to talk to his students about it on Monday.

And then, he realizes it’s not a hoax, when he finds Kate, who opens up her coat to reveal there’s a giant hole blown through her stomach, a hole her ex-boyfriend made before he shot himself . . . .

That’s a pretty decent twist, and it goes a far way toward explaining her gleefulness earlier in the car. What comes next is unforgivable, though. It highly suggests that Roemer, our narrator, was killed by the ghost of Judge Dark, even though this tale is written in the past tense. END OF SPOILERS.

There is a lot to be said for this story. There’s a lot of good fun to be had. However, the bad points are so terrible that they kind of ruin the good points. In the long run, you should probably give it a try, but you’ll probably be frustrated by the end.

[This story first appeared in SHADOWS AND SILENCE, and it cannot be read online at this time.]

Thursday, August 16, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #98: A review of "As Above, So Below" by Brian Hodge

So far, Pelan has done a good job of avoiding religious horror. You know the kind. If you don’t believe in God and Satan and all of that crap, you won’t be horrified by such a tale. Hodge presents an interesting alternative, though. It is a religious horror story, but it’s not quite what it seems. In fact, it has more in common with SF than horror, but there is still plenty here to horrify.

When you get down to it, this is the story of Austin and Gabrielle. When they were kids, they were the closest of friends. When they grew up, they became lovers. And then they became separated so badly that they go eleven years without seeing each other. But even though they’ve found new lovers, they can’t stop thinking about each other. This is the story of how they came to love one another again.

Gabrielle is now on the masthead as a reporter for a big New York magazine. One day, she gets a call from Austin, asking her to come to the unapologetically named city of Miracle, UT. She thinks it’s just some bullshit excuse for him to try to get back with her, but he says it’s a huge story, and she should write it off as an expense with the magazine. With great reservations, she goes along with this and is very, very pleasantly surprised.

It should be noted that Miracle is one of those New Age-y cities from the ‘Nineties, the kind where they go on and on about how special they are, how magical their environment is, all that stuff. There are even stories about how an angel has been seen there. People seeking hope flock to Miracle, but eventually the bottom falls out when people realize it’s a pipe dream. Except . . . it isn’t. Only Austin knows this, though. On a walk in the wilderness, he comes upon Memuneh, who he first believes to be an angel. He later discovers that this creature is actually something called a Kyyth.

As it turns out, this isn’t the first Kyyth he’s met. In a flashback to his childhood, we witness him and a youthful Gabrielle playing on a beautiful summer day. They decide to hop a train just for fun, and she does so successfully. Austin . . . not so much. He slips and falls under the train’s wheels, and to the best of Gabrielle’s recollection, she saw him cut into pieces.

But Austin doesn’t remember this. He comes back to himself in a cave where they used to play, but someone else is keeping him company. Another Kyyth. It is this fellow who enlightens Austin as to the nature of the universe, about how we’re all more space than matter, and that we can will anything to happen. That’s exactly what Austin did: he willed the separated pieces of his body to come back together.

He uses this information throughout the rest of his life, dying several times and always managing to reconstitute his body through his willpower. At the same time, he realizes he’s mustered some kind of small control over nature, as well. He can manipulate windstorms to a certain degree.

But now that he’s met Memuneh, he wants to let the rest of the world in on the secret, which is why he invites Gabrielle out to Utah. Her being a reporter, and all. And at first, she resists the truth of the matter, but she is easily convinced by Memuneh. At the same time, she’s kind of terrified because the Kyyth doesn’t seem to have all the answers. The fact that a kind of creature more powerful than humans still doesn’t know everything throws her off. She then learns that there is a god, but he has abandoned creation, leaving the Kyyth in charge.

This is some pretty deep stuff, and it’s hard not to be preachy with this kind of story. Yet Hodge seems to pull it off. It’s a pretty scary thought, a world abandoned by its creator, but it’s also empowering, thanks to the Kyyth’s message that you can do anything you want. Even if you can never escape your natural body’s death, you can still form yourself and, to a certain degree, the world around you.

But there’s always a snake in Eden. SPOILER ALERT: Austin and Gabrielle fall back in love with each other, and now they have to tell their lovers about it. Gabrielle plans to tell Philippe about this, but she never quite gets around to it. Austin, however, does indeed tell Scarlett about his plans. What he doesn’t count on is that Scarlett is one of the Kyyth. She doesn’t take too kindly to being spurned, so she goes back to Gabrielle’s B&B and murders her, cutting off her feet to deliver to Austin for reasons that are apparent to people who know the story.

This causes Austin to flip out. He loses his shit as Memuneh reveals himself to the people of Miracle, creating an orgy of love and fellowship, all while Austin is grieving the loss of the person he’s loved the most his entire life. When he finds out what happened, he sets loose all of his primal energy and wipes out the entire city of Miracle, except, as it turns out, for Scarlett. She comes to him and tells him what the Kyyth really do: they spur humanity on, molding them into better creatures. That sounds too inspiring, though; Hodge makes it very clear that the Kyyth see people as beasts of burden that have to be whipped into shape. Without their help, people would still be miserable monkeys.

She then marvels at Austin’s resistance to death, but now that Gabrielle’s gone, there’s only one way to find her. Austin finally lets go, and the atoms of his body come apart. He is the first to take the next step of evolution: moving beyond the need for a physical body. He soars through the multiverse, seeking out the love of his life.

Which was Scarlett’s plan all along. She needed humanity to make that next step, and Austin was the only one capable of doing it. Now that he’s succeeded, she hopes that others will follow his example. Very 2001-ish of her. END OF SPOILERS.

This is really a work of genius, a brilliant horror story that only an SF writer could bring us. Pelan expresses a jealousy of Hodge in his intro, and by the time readers are finished with this story, they would most likely tend to agree.

And even if they’re done with this story, this story won’t be done with them. Read it and find out why.

[This story first appeared in FALLING IDOLS and cannot be read online at this time.]

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #97: A review of "The Crawl" by Stephen Laws

It was only a matter of time before we got to slasher horror, but unlike most tales of its ilk, there is something deeper going on here, something that maybe all of us can identify with. It’s a terrifying character flaw, but it’s also a survival tactic. You’ll see.

Paul and Gill are a married couple with a few problems, but nothing too big. While visiting her parents in an isolated setting, Paul has a few too many and lays into a dinner guest pretty harshly. As a result, the trip home the next day is terse, to say the least. They get into a big argument, and Paul sees that they’re in danger of hitting a pedestrian. He warns Gill, who is driving, but it’s too late. They think they hit the man—bad enough to bust in the windshield—but when Paul glances back, he sees the guy just standing by the road, doing nothing.

Infuriated, he marches over to the guy to give him a piece of his mind, but when he gets closer, he sees what he believes is a scarecrow, a mask for a head, gloves on its hands, straw everywhere, propped up by the side of the road by a scythe. He starts to feel foolish for yelling at an object, but then . . . it starts walking toward him, scythe ready to kill.

What ensues is a white-knuckled, relentless chase scene. Paul and Gill’s car is so fucked up that all it can do is crawl, and the scarecrow follows after them, never quickening his pace (Jason, anyone?), giggling at the prospect of using its weapon on the couple.

It’s a pretty harrowing tale, but that’s not what makes this story one of the best in the anthology. As stated earlier, it goes deeper.

On two occasions, they run into people who can help them. The first time, it’s a tow truck driver who seems willing to help at first. But Gill is so far gone, she won’t stop the crawling car for anything. When Paul mentions the fellow following them, the driver decides that this is a domestic dispute, and he wants nothing to do with it. He abandons them. The second time, it’s a hitchhiker who, upon learning of their predicament, decides to leave well enough alone. He has a run-in with the scarecrow, but the villain seems to want one thing and one thing only: Paul and Gill dead.

And then a third person comes along . . . . SPOILER ALERT: The car finally grinds to a halt, and the scarecrow is gaining on them. Paul then gets the bright idea to put the car into reverse and run the scarecrow over. This plan works pretty well, and he feels like celebrating, until his wife sees the scarecrow directly behind him. The slasher presses the scythe’s handle against Paul’s throat and starts turning the point of the blade toward his victim’s eye when a farmer happens upon them and demands the scarecrow to stop.

He does, and when he starts advancing on the farmer, the poor bastard’s bravado disappears. He begs Paul and Gill to help him, and while Paul wants to, he feels a great deal of relief. He and his wife are safe. The farmer, on the other hand? He’s fucked. Better him than us.

How many of us would have done something different? How many of us would have had the courage to take on such a single-minded, relentless bad guy? A bad guy who has a scythe while you have nothing but your fists? You may think you have the guts, but should this ever actually happen to you, you might surprise yourself.

It haunts Paul, and it destroys his marriage. And every night, he lays awake, listening for the scarecrow’s return . . . . END OF SPOILERS.

That’s a pretty nasty little story. Nothing very different happens in the story, but somehow, it sets itself apart from others of the sort. It carves a special place into the heart of a reader, and it most certainly belongs in this anthology.

[This story first appeared in DARK OF NIGHT, and it cannot be read online at this time.]

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #96: A review of "Tears Seven Times Salt" by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Pelan must really, really, really like this story. It’s not the first time he’s chosen it for an anthology (although he doesn’t seem to mention that in his intro). He edited an excellent book called DARKSIDE, which also contains a great Edward Lee story called “The Stick Woman.” But the real question is, does this story deserve the attention?

Jenny Haniver is a troubled young woman . . . or is she? When we first meet her, she’s sitting on a soggy mattress in a dank apartment room, surrounded by a bunch of aquariums. There is something wrong with her legs, as pus constantly oozes from beneath the bandages wrapped around them.

We then learn that she hangs out with a goth crowd, except she really hasn’t been out in a while. She runs into a friend who wonders why she hasn’t been around, but Jenny remains stand-offish. Almost lost in the moment is a reference to someone named Ariadne, who disappeared into the tunnels, where no one ever comes back . . . .

Next, we learn about Jenny’s past. Her grandmother has an odd ability to speak to the fish people who live under the city by talking into drains. The old lady then tells a young Jenny that she will be able to do it, too, when she gets her first period. Apparently, Jenny’s father, a sewage worker, actually found her underground when she was a baby and raised her as his own. Her grandmother believes she’s one of the fish people who live in the sewers.

Is this true? Who knows? Maybe it’s just the ranting of an old lady, but it’s enough to haunt Jenny for the rest of her life. It even reaches the point where she, too, can speak with the fish people.

It turns out that Ariadne helped Jenny work out some of her issues by hanging her from piercings and cutting on her. The infection, it would seem, came from when Ariadne unzipped Jenny’s legs with a scalpel and sewed her back together. Apparently, Ariadne is the only one who knows about Jenny’s past, and now she’s disappeared beneath the city. Jenny wants to find her friend and see if she’s discovered anything.

SPOILER ALERT: Big surprise. It’s all true. There are, indeed, fish people under Manhattan. (Do you think they ever ran into the beast creatures from Johnson’s “Far Below”?) Ariadne has been living among them, her body a necrotic mess of rotting flesh. It’s also apparent that she’s a junkie from her track marks. Jenny has, in fact, brought some heroin with her to bribe her friend with for info on the fish people and whether or not she belongs with them.

Ariadne tells her to go fuck herself and then bites, her, infecting her with whatever it is that’s killing her. Jenny flees, but it’s no use. The infection burns through her, and soon she can’t move her legs. At the very end of the tale, she crawls toward the river and drops herself in, letting the current take her where it will. END OF SPOILERS.

It’s a very moody, very well-written tale. Kiernan hits all the right notes, and she has a great handle on disturbing images. She even tells the tale in present tense, making it all the more immediate (which none of the other tales have done yet in this anthology). The drawback: Aside from the fish thing, Jenny isn’t all that different from many ‘Nineties horror protagonists. Many writers gave their characters an alternative environment to capitalize on the goth scene. It paid off pretty well for them, but it watered down the genre considerably with imagery that was supposed to unsettle readers, but through familiarity, had very little effect.

That’s not to say that Kiernan’s story isn’t effective. She stands a head and shoulders above many of the writers who did this. It is a really good read, but Lee’s “The Stick Woman” would have been a much better choice for 1996.

[This story, as noted above, first appeared in DARKSIDE and cannot be read online at this time.]

Monday, August 13, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #95: A review of "The Toddler" by Terry Lamsley

Pelan really outdoes himself with this choice. What we have here is one of the most intricate ghost stories ever written, and if you read it halfheartedly, you’ll miss a lot. Lamsley’s a tricky writer, as you’ll see in just a moment.

This tale is told in two parts, and at first, a skilled writer reading this would wonder why Lamsley didn’t just tell part two and sprinkle important information from part one over the course of that story. However, by the end of “The Toddler,” it is very apparent why Lamsley chose to tell it this way.

A female cook in the 16th Century toils away in the kitchen of her master, whipping up a meal for his cousin, Sir Rufford de Quintz, the most hated man in all the countryside. He’s a coarse, scarred fiend with a taste for fucking everything that moves. He goes as far as capturing one of the maids and keeping her prisoner in his rooms while spending weeks on end raping her. He only gives her up when her younger sister comes along, begging for the poor maid’s freedom. In turn, he takes the younger sister and keeps her around for longer. Both wind up pregnant (several times, in fact), but he lets the younger sister keep one of them. However, the kid turns out to be . . . off. She doesn’t say anything, she’s ugly as sin, and she wanders around the house without any supervision. All she does is suck her thumb and avoid people, hanging on to a doll just about as ugly as she is. De Quintz is put off by this, so he ignores the kid. Oddly enough, though, he accepts this one as his own, whereas he refuses to acknowledge all the dozens of other kids he has by other women.

He’s a weird fellow, himself. Some of the older servants swore they saw him visit this place 60 years or more ago, and he looked now exactly as he had back then. Most decide that he just looks a lot like an ancestor who had come visiting. Of course, any avid horror reader knows something is amiss here.

The woman, who also happens to be the younger sister aforementioned, cooking in the kitchen (remember her?) puts the finishing touches on the meal and delivers it to de Quintz. She then goes back to the kitchen and puts the rest of the dinner in a cupboard, along with the doll the toddler used to go around with.

Whoa. Wait a minute. Upon closer reading, it seems that the cook has just fed de Quintz’s strange daughter to him. Now, she is hiding the cupboard away, where workers will seal it in the wall tomorrow.

Wow. What at first seems to be a polite horror story has taken a sudden, dark turn. That’s some TITUS ANDRONICUS shit right there. And that’s just the end of part one.

In part two, we meet Myra, an archaeologist who is excavating de Quintz’s old habitation. She’s got a few problems of her own, as her daughter has recently died, and she’s haunted by the ordeal. She buries herself in the work of digging up people’s secrets. Lo! and behold! She has just discovered the cook’s secret cupboard, and upon opening it, she finds nothing but the doll within. However, a cloud of dust emerges from the cupboard, and workers are convinced that it was in the shape of a girl. It touches Myra’s skirt, and later she discovers it has left a hand-shaped print there. In the meantime, she is aggravated by a scarred old man who makes lascivious motions at her. The workers try to catch him, but he gets away.

In the meantime, Myra tries to solve the mystery of the doll. The harder she works at it, the more crept out she gets until one night, she wakes up to feel someone holding her hand . . . . Before long, she gets the distinct impression that someone is keeping her constant company, even though she can’t see who it is. All she can hear is the sound of a toddler sucking its thumb, and she starts to suspect it’s the ghost of her daughter.

Okay, that’s pretty creepy, but what makes this different from any other ghost story? SPOILER ALERT: The workers confront Myra, demanding to know why she’s abusing this little girl. This confuses her, as there is no little girl, only what she thinks is a ghost. Others can very clearly see the toddler, though, and they’re threatening to call the police on her. She says they should do that, and she sits to wait for their arrival. In the darkness, she feels someone touching her knee. She thinks it’s the toddler again, especially since she can hear the thumb-sucking. But then, the hand goes higher. And higher. And higher. It clutches at her sex, and she hurriedly turns on the light to get her first glimpse of the toddler. Sure enough, it’s de Quintz’s daughter . . . but she’s not alone. De Quintz, the same pervert she’d seen earlier, kneels at her side, grabbing her pussy, continuing his usual crass, evil habits.

Father and daughter, ghosts together. In fact, de Quintz has always been a ghost as evidenced by the older servants in his cousin’s house. You see, the servants had tried to get their master to kick de Quintz out, but nothing ever got done because, and you can only get this if you read between the lines, the master had no idea that de Quintz was there. It seems these ghosts can make everyone except for ONE person know of their existence. END OF SPOILERS.

With a twist like that, it’s hard to not see why everyone proclaimed Lamsley as the greatest writer of ghost stories in decades. Read this tale and find out why.

[This story first appeared in GHOSTS & SCHOLARS, and it cannot be read online at this time.]

Thursday, August 9, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #94: A review of "The Box" by Jack Ketchum

In many regards, Ketchum is a lot like Simon Clark: they’re both great novelists who are kind of iffy when it comes to short fiction. However, while some of Clark’s short stories can be decent, Ketchum has one that is an absolute masterpiece: “The Box.”

The unnamed narrator of this one is a family man: a wife, a son, and twin daughters. They are traveling on a train at Christmas time when they encounter a stranger clinging to a gift-wrapped box. Danny, the son, is excited to find out what kind of gift someone else is getting, so he asks the stranger what it is. The narrator tries to get his son to back off, but the stranger says it’s okay. He opens the box just enough so that only Danny can see in. What he sees . . . changes him.

He’s still his usual affable self, but for some reason, he’s stopped eating. At first his parents think that it’s normal (even though their Depression-era parents would have forced-fed them in their youths), but when he goes five days without eating, it unnerves them. He’s not in pain, and he seems content in himself, but he just won’t eat. And he’s starting to waste away.

They take him to the doctor, who can’t find anything physically wrong with him, so they take him to a shrink. This guy knows there’s a problem, but he doesn’t think he can get to the bottom of it without seeing Danny everyday until he starts eating again, and then twice a week thereafter.

Then, one night our narrator overhears his son talking to the twins about the box, but when he intervenes, he learns nothing. The very next day, his daughters stop eating, too. And next his wife Susan stops eating. The narrator talks to Danny, trying to figure out what is going on. He knows it has to do with that box, but all Danny will say about it was that it had nothing in it.

Holy fuck. Could you imagine that happening to your family? And what the fuck was really in that box to completely rewire an entire family’s way of thinking?

SPOILER ALERT: They eventually admit Danny to a hospital, where an IV somehow fails to give him the nourishment he needs. So he dies. They hook up the twins to IV’s, and they, too, die. Lastly, Susan dies shortly afterward, leaving the narrator alone in the world, wondering what the fuck could have possibly done this to his family. He starts riding the train, looking desperately for the man with the box but never finding him. He’s losing weight, but not because he’s stopped eating; he’s just eating poorly. To quote the final line of the story, “I’m hungry.” END OF SPOILERS.

This is possibly the most unnerving, most maddening horror story put to paper. You never get answers. In all likelihood, Danny was telling the truth about there being nothing in the box. But what about that situation made him stop eating? What about this made him stop desiring to live? And what about this made his sisters and mother stop eating, too?

You’ll never know. And because of this, “The Box” will haunt you for the rest of your life. You’ll never forget it. It will change you. Ketchum’s short fiction isn’t usually impressive, but he more than makes up for it with this one. It’s been reprinted enough; there is no excuse for you not reading this one.

[This story first appeared in CEMETERY DANCE, and it cannot be read online at this time, sadly.  But fuck, man.  It's been reprinted SEVEN TIMES.  How hard could it be to find?]

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #93: A review of "The Family Underwater" by Lucy Taylor

This is probably the strangest tale that Pelan has ever selected for any anthology he’s ever done. Right off the bat, you should be warned that it doesn’t belong in this book. That’s not to say it’s a bad story; in fact, it’s brilliant. Back then, it’s no surprise that people would have labeled it a horror story, but nowadays, we know better; this is a prime example of what we know of now as BIZARRO FICTION.

The unnamed narrator of this one comes home from school one day in her fifteenth year to discover that her house is entirely filled with water. No, there hasn’t been a flood. It is only her house full of water. She peers in the window to see her mother and sister swimming around, living their regular lives as if there is nothing wrong with this situation. She then sees her drunken father arrive home, sloppily make his way up the walk, and open the front door. Instead of creating a drain for the water, this shows a watery portal, kind of like the wormhole in STARGATE. He walks in and then starts swimming around, doing the stuff he usually does, like beat his wife.

The narrator goes in and is surprised to find that she can breathe in this water. Before long, she acclimates herself to this strange lifestyle. Babette, her sister, finds this odd because their house has always been filled with water; apparently, our narrator has never noticed this. And then comes the day that their father turns into a shark and eats poor Babette whole . . . .

How is that for a fucked up tale? It seems nonsensical at first, but there is a deeper meaning. That’s where most bizarro writers fuck up: they spend so much time trying to impress a reader with how weird a story is that they forget the entire point of writing it. Taylor isn’t a fool; she knows what she’s doing.

SPOILER ALERT: The narrator escapes from the house, where the shark can’t follow her, and she grows up to adulthood living on dry land. But the problem is, she never seems to fit in. She misses too much of her upbringing. To seal the deal on this story, Taylor depicts the narrator running into a sneering, cruel young man on her way home, and he just gets her all wet and horny and ready to fuck. When he takes her back to his apartment, she sees that it’s full of water. They fuck like fish, and she feels like she’s come home.

This is a truly brilliant depiction of an abusive home and the lifelong results of living in one. Of course our narrator winds up with someone exactly like her father. Of course she feels alienated by the regular world. This story is a shrink’s playground. END OF SPOILERS.

Should Pelan ever edit a book called THE CENTURY’S BEST BIZARRO FICTION (and what a slim volume that would be!), he should include this tale there. While it really doesn’t belong here, it is a story you’ll never forget.

[This story first appeared in CLOSE TO THE BONE and cannot be read online at this time.]

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #92: A review of "Calcutta, Lord of Nerves" by Poppy Z. Brite

[WARNING:  The link above will lead to a NSFW picture of Poppy Z. Brite.]

Anyone who has read Brite’s work in the past knows she can get down and dirty, possibly even nastier than most of her fellow horror writers. Does she live up to expectations in her entry in this anthology?

The unnamed narrator of this piece was born in Calcutta, but his mother died in labor the night the entire hospital burned to the ground. His father, an American, takes him to the US and raises him as an American boy. However, when the ol’ man croaks due to his boozing, the narrator decides to check out his homeland. He finds it to be a hellhole, but kind of a beautiful hellhole. It would be interesting to see what a guy like Campbell or Ligotti would do with Brite’s Calcutta.

Unfortunately, while he’s in Calcutta, the zombie apocalypse begins. In Calcutta, though, it doesn’t seem to be much of a big deal, since most people were walking dead anyway. It also seems that the only people who are in danger are the ones who have given up on life and the ones who are infirm. Strong young men like our narrator will probably be fine, just so long as he continues staying in his flat on the second floor (zombies aren’t good at climbing stairs) and keeps his door locked (they’re not good with the metallurgic arts, either).

These zombies are so slow and ineffectual, the narrator wanders the city in the daytime, oblivious to the undead eating, say, a baby fresh from its mother’s arms. Here is where Brite gets particularly ugly. She gives us a couple of hideous images that alone earn her this spot in Pelan’s book. Apparently, the choicest bits of humans for zombies to eat are the genitals. Male or female, it doesn’t matter. They’ll spread a victim's legs and just bury their choppers into soft, pink sex organs and they’ll gnaw away until they’re deep into the body. In another moment, Brite describes the zombies biting into a new mother’s breasts, bursting them like the udders they are and lapping at the blood and milk that pours from them.


Anyway, our narrator likes to hang out at the temple of Kali and marvel at the gifts people have left her. Mostly, they’re stuff like the flowers he brings, but there are also things like fingers and ears. He had once left a bit of his own blood, so he can only assume that people chopped these pieces off of themselves for their goddess of destruction.

For the most part, this story meanders, describing the beauty and gore of one of the filthiest cities in the world (Brite has one of her characters call the world a whore, and Calcutta her pussy). In parts, she overdoes it a little. But in the end, shit gets real. That’s where the meat of the story happens. SPOILER ALERT: What kind of god do you think zombies worship? After everything described here, any answer other than Kali would be silly.

During a late-night rambling session, the narrator comes to the temple of Kali from another, unfamiliar angle, and when he walks in, kind of crept out by the fact that he’s never been here after sunset, he discovers that the dead have gathered around the idol of Kali, leaving all sorts of gruesome sacrifices for her.

And Kali is very much alive. Her tongue lolls from her wet mouth, and when she sees the narrator, she opens her legs, showing off a pussy unlike any seen before. The narrator wants to shove his head in it and keep going until he reaches the center of the world.

Instead, he flees, and wisely so. END OF SPOILERS.

While the story itself wanders a bit too much from the point, the ending more than makes up for it. Even without the ending, though, some of these descriptive scenes would be enough to get Brite into this book. Don’t pass up this little gem.

[This story first appeared in STILL DEAD and cannot be read online at this time.]

Monday, August 6, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #91: A review of "The Glamour" by Thomas Ligotti

This is one of the more unusual urban horror stories in existence, mostly because it starts off in that realm, but it doesn’t stay there. By the end of the story, you have something that resembles “The Testament of Magdalen Blair” and “Carcinoma Angels” more than anything else.

An unnamed narrator (some things never get old in this genre) tends to wander at night when everyone else is asleep. He’s drawn to movie theaters, and tonight is no different. He walks in an unfamiliar part of town, where he encounters a rundown old theater touting a screening of something called THE GLAMOUR. Intrigued, he investigates only to find an empty ticket booth. However, a stranger inside the building tells him that admission is free. This place is under new management.

He heads in to the main theater, where he sees a crowd, but he likes sitting alone. He takes a seat near the back, even though this place seems to be in poor repair. There are cobwebs everywhere, but after a moment, he starts to realize that they’re not cobwebs but something more . . . sinister.

And then he feels like someone is sitting behind him. It gives him The Fear, but when he turns, he sees no one. Suddenly, things get really weird. SPOILER ALERT: Our narrator suddenly goes on one of the most insidious trips ever put to paper, something that Crowley reaches for and Spinrad almost attains. The cobwebs turn out to be hairs, hairs that insert themselves into the narrator’s fellow moviegoers. He feels them trying to get to him, but he manages to break away from them. As he flees the theater, he sees a woman who seems to be controlling the hair and feeding off her audience through it. END OF SPOILERS.

There is a lot to recommend this story. Ligotti’s description of the lonely city at night is amazing, something Campbell would be envious of. And the mindfuck of a theater-trip is something to behold. Yet it seems like this story goes nowhere. It depicts the scene, but it’s kind of on a passive basis. Nothing is resolved, nothing is changed, everything is pretty much the same way as it was when the story began. Even the narrator remains the same, even though he has this new knowledge of the strange corners of the world.

This tale isn’t a waste of time. It also doesn’t have a lot to it. It does look pretty, though. And it’s unlike anything you’ve read before.

[This story first appeared in GRIMSCRIBE:  HIS LIVES AND WORKS and cannot be read online at this time.]