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
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
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
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.
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