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  • TITLE: Punktown, including Monstrocity, & xxxxxxxxxEveryone Scream!
  • AUTHOR: Jeffrey Thomas

The short story format is traditionally considered a first step in a career of fiction writing. Most successful novelists have written wonderful short stories, but the reverse is not always true. I am not backslapping a "Kick Me" sign on the budding career of Jeffrey Thomas, but merely an observation that at this point the novels set in his imagined city of Paxton, colloquially named Punktown — Monstrocity and Everybody Scream! —are not of the same progeny as the short story collection of Punktown. Both novels are like assignments in that they appear bound by other authors' works. This is not a criticism per se —indeed, there is a whole Cthulhu Mythos industry out there—but, as enjoyable as they are to read, they still feel like the author is playing with known models to guide him through his writing kinks on the way to a mature style.

Punktown is the nickname for a New Noirish sprawl of a city set somewhere other than Earth. Besides humanoids, it is colonized by dozens of alien species. Some have arrived, presumably, in space ships and have blended or beaten down the indigenous Choom, even ingesting them on occasion. Others have beamed in from other dimensions. There is a sense of all-pervading lawlessness, likening it to a futuristic re-creation of the frontier city of Deadwood during the Black Hills goldrush. With anarchy appearing one gulp away, this melting pot can be poisonous slop for any given character at feeding time.

In Monstrocity, Cthulhu takes on another alias, all the while hoping resurrection lies with the author's un-tethered imagination. Unfortunately, Thomas' cleats are screwed into too many other fantastists' ideas. The story is about a nobody who becomes somebody when he takes up with a Goth girl—“a pale luminescence . . . black hair . . . black garments . . . black gloves . . . black nylons . . . big ugly black boots . . . [and] she had had her chest opened up, and a clear circular window gave one a view of her pulsing heart” (Prime, ISBN 1894815610, c.2003, p.14)—who, by reciting a chant from The Necronomicon, ends up a possessed monster. What follows is a predictable charge into the adversary's realm, a number of victorious battles—and a new girlfriend.

Author-acknowledged borrowings are all about the butchering skills. Monstrocity tries for slicings creatively serrated, but sometimes they end up just over-garnished. For example, in the return-to-the-scene-of-the-crime required staple, our hero finds his gasbag of a girlfriend he's shot earlier to have, literally, “reached all the walls, and her belly was pressed flat against the ceiling, and I wondered if she had even bulged through the bedroom doorway” (p.85). See what I mean by "un-tethered"? In other carvings, his plotting seems superfluous, like the second, grand finale climax that adds nothing but gore and length to the novel. But atmospheric morsels abound. There's a creepy bookstore filled with cobwebbed occult how-to's. There's the Church of the Burning Eye, sunken intact among the abandoned subways by a mysterious earthquake decades ago. There's a RPG-toting Child of the Elders in high heels and a clipped, British accent. Then there's the planet Kali with its Cult of the Outer Gods, explained by a darkly-beautiful female Kalian who incongruously quotes John Muir—"'when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe'" (p.92)—which seems to be justifying Thomas' artistic license as much as making a philosophical pondering.

Everybody Scream!, on the other hand, feels right at home on this planet—if Dario Argento did documentaries for MTV. The novel takes place during the final day of a traveling carnival outside Punktown. It is filled with sideshows, live music, addictive junk food, livestock contests, casual sex, and wild mechanical rides that are very similar to modern-day country fairs. Other aspects present today like drug dealing, weapons possession, roaming gangs, casual sex, and the begrudged intermingling of races and social levels are tweaked with a phantasmagorical pinkbelly congruous and appreciated in this genre. It's a sprawling story with many tentacles tangled together for grit and emotional absolution. Plausibility and depth are not necessarily part of the knottings.

Mummies ride with patrons on the Spinner, while another thrill ride is designed around being swallowed then pooped out by an alien being.

An orbiting asteroid carved into art is the home of a creature big enough to be seen from space, as a Cabaret singer lounges with her Siamese sister's lower end emerging and squirming from her tummy like a blow-up doll for a bellybutton.

Songs like Fuck an Angel by Bruised Lips and drugs like Kaleidoscopes, Red Shockers, and Purple Vortex are chewed by gang members wearing girls' panties "hanging down their chests like ties" (Raw Dog Screaming Press, ISBN 0974503142, c.2004, p.252), while other bangers boast rubber swimming caps on their heads.

Roving death-packs of snipes—feral scavengers akin to coyotes crossed with wolverines--viciously surprise bystanders while gun battles break out in the parking lot, the promenade, and on rides using pulse guns firing acid-plasma bullets, virus capsules, and old-fashioned lead.

There are so many deaths from overdoses, insults, ritual sacrifice, vendettas, creaking carny machinery, alien and animal attacks, fright, and just bad luck, that this carnival has its own morgue.

The characters are more allowed than distinguished by a structure built around an Alex Haley-like merry-go-round where people jump off and on when needed. The most developed character is Del Kahn who is an ex-superstar musician and married to the boss of the carnival. His wife, Sophi, calls him "some real pitiful prima donna" (p.214). His moment of enlightenment comes when he kills another man. And that's about the extent of the charms hanging on any character. They are certainly serviceable, as the story is much more intimate with events than insight.

Because any understanding of this "hunger without a soul" (p.132) that is so ravenously presented here seems deeper than the desire for carnival ride thrills or the sugar fixation of a cone of candyfloss. It begs for more than, as one character sums, "just a matter of quiet animals and wild playful animals . . . Animals. We are just that" (p.240). If this is it, then Everybody Scream!

In Punktown, thankfully, Thomas cuts deeper meanings through his skins, fusing them like a bony spine on an anorexic. Short stories don't need the intricate plotting of novels, nor do they require a steamer trunk full of history, culture, ecology, and artifacts. Character studies become short, sharp introspections about loss and dreams and the investigations of emotional travels either completed, destroyed, or abandoned. Humanity is extracted amidst this rubble of unwritten bewilderments.

The Reflections of Ghosts, the lead story, is about a clone artist who falls in love with his own work. But when his creation takes on a life not of its own, he realizes the true, self-destructive conflict between masturbation and art.

The chilling realization that, for the pharmaceutical industry, keeping you sick is keeping them profitable, is ghoulishly glimpsed in Pink Pills, a dedication to the despair of finding yourself host to a growing tumor mass the size of a beach ball.

Memory. Wouldn't we all like to erase painful incidents from our minds or enhance selected thoughts or experiences to complete, recoverable clarity? The Flaying Season uses a primitive alien practice to ingeniously illustrate why we should remember the monstrous things, as the protagonist disintegrates into the lost holes in her memory due to voluntary, surgical removal. On the other side, The Library of Sorrows —possibly the best story of the collection, or, at least the most moving—charts a burned-out police detective equipped with a photographic memory chip as he fevers through the grisly crime scenes of his career while emotionally dealing with his mother's demise. The concept of loss becomes a consuming horror when it can't stay lost, or "worst of all, there were no mysteries revealed . . . no enlightenment from his privileged vision . . . only what he'd seen all along, but immortalized in a limbo where it never faded, where the dead could never find rest from their haunting" (Prime, ISBN 1894815742, c.2005, p.199).

While sometimes weighted with a heavy syntactical hand, Punktown exhibits a talent in melding conceptualization to metaphor, thereby creating ingeniously creepy yet poignant visions of the human predicament. Furthermore, these considerations are depth charges of emotional impact ticking away inside the characters, and the fun is anticipating which way they'll explode. Will they blow out the mouth, the genitals, the heart, the soul? Union Dick and The Pressman spews out angry verbiage about the proletariat's livelihood being destroyed by robots, but far deadlier is the festering ulcers of loss of identity, honor, and pride of workmanship. The ignorant but natural bridge to Racism is ignited in Precious Metal, further complicating the theme of robotic alienation, while Sisters of No Mercy boils the blood with the psychopathic antics of a true misandrist.

Fear, self-loathing, the corruption of power, racial hatred, violence and arrogance, are all ingredients of Thomas' bilious stew, but his better renderings pull deeper through the melancholy of misfortune—real or imagined—and screw the essence of what makes us quiver. He guides us to the festerings—those lossy dishevelments and insidious sublimities—the innards, yet giving "the structure a darkened blurry look, smudged, as if it had been caught in a photograph while moving very quickly" ( The Palace of Nothingness , p.147).

And that is worth a lot of novels.


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