Feb 2, 2014

Four Horrific Authors: Jeremy Robert Johnson, Stephen Graham Jones, John Farris & Dennis McKenna

spines of books discussed in article

Much as discussed in last week's article on caffeine/coffee, tolerance to a drug builds quickly. One needs a bigger hit and more concentrated a dose. When the addiction is to myth - this need to experience fiction as allegory for what lies beneath the veil of Maya - all roads lead to Horror. Whatever your preferred Cosmogony of Consciousness, existence as self-aware entity is not possible without a symbolic system to explain away those moments. You know the ones. The time your walk became a run towards your back against the other side of the front door, slammed shut before the realization struck - you hadn't even looked behind you to see if anything was there. The time you never really could remember that dream but the feeling - and whatever Thing(s) causing it - clung to your day, just under the surface.

Hey, it's okay. We don't have to talk about it if you don't want.

book cover of We Live Inside You by Jeremy Robert Johnson

Jeremy Robert Johnson is an author at the forefront of Surrealist Short Fiction, given to publishing short stories to various outlets before packaging them together in anthology every so many years. Blipping onto my radar with Angel Dust Apocalypse in 2006, tapped by The Mars Volta to tell the story of their 2007 The Bedlam in Goliath LP, JRJ works in (relatively) short bursts of unthinkable imagination, which tend to impact resounding influence. There's a story in ADA, about a guy shooting up the bioluminescent liquid of fireflies, which flavored everything I wrote for months afterward and still finds a place in my idle thoughts. I only read that story once... Seven years ago. So, Jeremy has a talent for getting in close, doing his work and dancing back out, quickly.

It's difficult to review short story collections, particularly when the author can switch voices as often as Jeremy. This most recent collection, We Live Inside You, seems less gruesome and more, um, normal than ADA, but this isn't saying much. The first story manages to end the world with a mantra in five pages or so. There's obviously more than one parasitic nightmare. The apparent centerpiece of the collection is a tightly constructed neo-noir. (A less-edited version is included in the appendix, along with the aforementioned piece commissioned by The Mars Volta.) This story is very good, however, my favorite tale depicted a militantly pro-environment single mother, bent on righting some impending wrongs. I won't spoil it for you but it's worth the price of admission all on its own.

book cover of The Gospel of Z by Stephen Graham Jones

Stephen Graham Jones is a literary phenom, defying categorization, and one of my favorite living authors. [Frankly, I'm trying to ignore the very real possibility that he'll read this.] SGJ types the last sentence of a novel so frequently, it's like he's trying to distract us from some terrible crime he's committed. Or maybe he once dreamt the exact date of his own death and it's all a race. Or, like, he's really mad at trees... But, okay, he works fast. While this creates confusion for an archivist such as myself re: when a book was written vs. when it was finally published, I am definitely not complaining. So, the timeline isn't straight but Stephen's initial "Avant-Garde from the Res" style somehow hit Silence of the Lamb-ish Crime Fiction, memoir-in-disguise, and meta-Horror each on its way to whatever you call the thing he's doing now.

Most of Stephen's books, behind the prestidigitation, are underdog tales. Such is The Gospel of Z. It's also the single greatest zombie book you're ever going to read in your life. With the current popularity of The Walking Dead TV adaptation, there will no doubt be many hopeful additions to the genre but, no, sorry, it's been won. Here's why: SGJ doesn't think zombie stories have to be stupid and he doesn't think we are stupid. The Walking Dead was only good for most of the first season. It's practically unwatchable now because they're clearly applying some sort of formula, viz. how long they can stretch out a subplot before needing to manipulate viewers' emotions through heavy-handed "revelation" or character death. None of that here. Our anti-hero, Jory Gray, stars as the rope in a game of tug-of-war between the semblances of government and religion left in the wake of Z Day, listening to his jackass friend crack wise when all he wants to do is make sure his girlfriend is doing okay in the cult she's joined. Think Clerks meets Full Metal Jacket meets the Heaven's Gate folks, all interspersed with flashbacks leading up to Z Day. You know what Z Day stands for and SGJ knows you know, so he doesn't fuck around with the training wheels. In fact, a lot of the work done here is by forcing the reader to infer meaning from fragmented sentences and bits of dialogue saturated with meaning. There are usually at least five sentences sprinkled through every SGJ book that warrant a full-stop-and-process. This translates into a very satisfying reading experience.

One more thing: if you haven't read Demon Theory and are at-all interested in Horror, do yourself a favor and buy at least two copies of that book before you do anything else in life.

book cover of Sacrifice by John Farris

John Farris, I don't know much about. I've had Son of the Endless Night on my wishlist since that list was written on an actual piece of paper I kept somewhere on my person at all times in case I happened to be near a bookstore. I still haven't gotten my hands on a copy of that book. When my local used bookstore back in Missouri had a going out of business sale, I settled for Sacrifice. This was a really well-performed example of the type of Horror I get the feeling everyone thinks Stephen King is writing, except Stephen King's writing is childish-as-fuck. [This isn't debatable. How many King novels have playground-like lyrics/rhymes spoken or even sung by a character?] Sacrifice is only worth writing about when it's human, obviously, but this story is told through multiple narrators, so who's getting sacrificed here? And why? Well, that isn't so obvious. Our first narrator is a man, a husband and father, who's just been shot in the head while jogging, albeit, only an accident involving some neighborhood children. For a long time, Sacrifice, is comfortable hanging out right there, dealing with Average Joe dealing with being shot in the head and, oh, what dreams he's begun to dream... I'll be looking for more Farris as soon as I find a good used book shop here in Nashville.

cover of Denis McKenna's Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss

Dennis McKenna is Terence McKenna's brother. I know a little bit about being introduced that way, like the only reason you matter is that you're related to someone else. But, hey, sometimes that's the way it is. I'm fascinated with Terence and if I wasn't then I would never have heard of Dennis. There's a famous chapter in the lives of both men: they went to South America to learn about a specific preparation of DMT but instead took a shitload of psilocybin mushrooms. They came under the delusion they'd been chosen by The Universe to immanentize the Eschaton and it's all fascinating to read about. Fascinating, that is, unless Dennis is the one writing about it, apparently. Though titled The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss, this book is included here not because of the horrific tales within but because of the unintentionally horrific experience I had trying to read it. I'm panning this one, which, you know, can be fun but I do wish the book was good.

The only remotely interesting disclosure is that Terence McKenna's father caught him and another neighborhood boy doing something vague with each other's genitals (and maybe poop?) in a sandbox, obviously non-sexual, being that they were young enough to be playing in a sandbox. But, yeah, Terence's father wildly overreacted. Dennis is a little vague as to what their father did, exactly. Whatever it was, Terence apparently became a sullen youth, enacting his many frustrations upon the younger Dennis. Here is depicted such unbelievably cruel psychological torture as convincing Dennis that their house was haunted, that Terence stood over his bed while he slept, in full readiness to attack Dennis with tickles should he happen to wake in the night, savoring the joy of knowing how much terror it would bring to Dennis. Basically, Terence McKenna was an ordinary older brother and Dennis comes off like a huge wuss.

A major problem with The Brotherhood is not just that it is fucking huge (approx. 500 pages) but that Dennis is given to MUCH tangential writing, musing on his favorite sci-fi novels, different times he got stoned ("majorly toasted") with different friends, political arguments in favor of legalizing hallucinogens, etc., everything except what any reader would assume to be the crux of the book, The Event at La Chorrera. When it comes to this section of his life, Dennis gives maybe 60 pages to the entirety of their time spent in La Chorrera, and most of those pages merely detail the voyage to the rainforest mission. Dennis glosses over his fragmented memories of their experiences before literally telling us to go read Terence's account for the definitive version of events. Dude... No shit... The only reason anyone would be reading this 500 page abortion is if they've already read that book! Nobody who hasn't read True Hallucination knows who the fuck you are!

Even more frustrating is that The Brotherhood seems to mostly concern itself with detailing Dennis' level of happiness/unhappiness as affected by whether he was/wasn't balling some girl. And the way he talks about these women... "Whatever Deborah's faults - and she had her share, as I would learn - she enjoyed sex!" Imagine a bald hippie saying that to you because that's who's saying it. Yeah, creepy. In the same paragraph, he sends Deborah away on a Greyhound bus and he's done with her. This comes only four pages after Dennis writes, "My longed-for love, Peggy [...] left for New Mexico in the spring." Fickle lust and an immature attitude toward women do not make for good reading.

Friends, if you ever write a book, know at least two things:

1) Do you have a story? If yes, focus on that and very little else. If not, go do something else.

2) Never choose a friend to be your editor.

Thank you for your time. Are there any questions?



  1. Anonymous7:05 PM

    Have you read any Thomas Ligotti? Seems like you would enjoy his works.

    1. I have not. I'll look into it.