Noir classic still thrills and chills

The Killer Inside Me ★★★★★
Jim Thompson
With an introduction by Stephen King
Mulholland Books, 2014 (1952)

Mullholland Books edition (2014)

Mullholland Books edition (2014)

I tip my hat and pretend I don’t hear
grinning like a half-wit from ear to ear
I can think of a thousand ways to say hello
so I start through ’em all, and go real slow.
They listen hard, and act like they care.
How can they be so completely unaware
of the truth the answer is always denied me
So I introduce them to the killer inside me.
(MC 900 Ft. Jesus, The Killer Inside Me)

*****

First of all, a warning: if you happen to pick up the edition I did that includes an introductory essay from Stephen King, make sure you read it after you finish the book. Goddamn it, either the entire principal of *spoiler* completely flies over this man’s head, or he just loves being a bastard about these things. After 2014’s Twitter controversy where he spoiled a major death for fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones series, I’m pretty certain it’s the latter.

It’s not that he doesn’t get it — he just doesn’t care!!!

Stephen King: tossing out spoilers like live grenades since 1972

Stephen King: tossing out spoilers like live grenades since 1972

And he does it here too, spoiling a MAJOR scene from Thompson’s classic noir novel. Thanks a lot, Uncle Stevie!!! I don’t care that the book was published in 1952 — it’s not the same as revealing the Titanic hits an iceberg and sinks or that Janet Leigh gets stabbed in the shower in Psycho! And it’s especially not the same as revealing that Romeo and Juliet die in Act 5. Now you’re just being an asshole, asshole!

Anyway, all wrath and chagrin aside, Uncle Stevie gives great introduction (heh) and this essay is particularly inspired dealing as it does with Jim Thompson, his mark on dark literature, and the enduring legacy of his psychopathic, unassuming small town Deputy Sheriff, Lou Ford.

Told in the first-person, The Killer Inside Me is as close as you’re ever going to want to get to the inner thoughts and irrepressible urges of a psycho killer. The most chilling part? On the outside, Lou Ford is a regular, down home good ol’ boy, with charm and even some wit. But underneath his methodically constructed facade lurks a steel-trap mind and inexplicable violent compulsions. First published in 1952, I can only imagine the impact this book would have had on its original audience. Even to this jaded 21st century reader The Killer Inside Me still holds within its ruthless prose the power to shock and unsettle.

Original cover, 1952

Original cover, 1952

And despite Ford’s obvious dark passenger — his “sickness” — you still find yourself rooting for the guy (that is when you’re not screaming at characters to run for their fucking lives far, far away from the crazy man). It made me consider who I’d take my chances with in a locked room — Lou Ford or Annie Wilkes? ::shudder:: There’s a Sophie’s Choice I’m glad I never have to make.

Without Jim Thompson — and especially without Lou Ford — I can only believe ‘country noir’ would not be what it is today. Donald Ray Pollock, Frank Bill, Daniel Woodrell, Ron Rash all owe a debt to Thompson. And as readers, so do we.

A lot can happen in the middle of nowhere

Revival, Volume One: You’re Among Friends (Revival #1) ★★★★
Tim Seely (Story), Mike Norton (Graphic Art)
Image Comics, 2012

Revival 1This is a re-read for me, in preparation of hitting up Volume 2, and I gotta say, I’m still excited about what this series has to offer. It’s a claustrophobic tale set in a quarantined Midwestern town that has recently fallen prey to a rash of re-animations. The dead are coming back to life, but not in the way you think, or with the same dramatic gore and apocalyptic consequences we have come to expect from the walking dead.

This isn’t a traditional zombie tale. First and foremost it’s a story about a cast of characters thrust into a very unusual and distressing situation. What happens when the dead and gone who have been grieved and laid to rest suddenly barge back into our lives again, not just walking, but talking? With needs, and fears, and memories?

What happens when the outside world beyond the borders of your sleepy little town becomes fearful and paranoid and only wants to contain whatever mystery is unfolding in your backyard, holding you under scrutiny and behind roadblocks leaving your town to not only fend for itself but ride out whatever traumas yet to unfold?

Officer Dana Cypress is caught right in the middle of the inexplicable “revivals” along with her sister Martha (or Em) who has a terrible secret. Then there’s the rookie journalist May who senses there’s much more going on in the town than meets the eye.

revival 1 sceneThis is a story that takes its time, and by the end leaves you with way more questions than answers. But the pull of the mystery is so addictive, you’ll be desperate to get your hands on the next volume. It’s a story that’s rich in atmosphere, a creepy-crawly sensation of impending doom, but doom that’s on a more personal scale of individual tragedy, rather than unleashing a free-floating anxiety for the fate of the entire human race.

The graphic art is crisp and clean and terrifying where it needs to be. The nature of small town life is realistically portrayed and the panel after panel of snow and cold had me thinking of Fargo and that a lot can happen in the middle of nowhere. My one complaint is that the three main women characters (Dana, her sister Em, and reporter May) are very similar in appearance, at least at first glance. I was better equipped to tell them apart this time around, but it still took some practice. It’s a shame that they should be artistically rendered so similarly, because as characters, each woman is very different with her own distinctive voice and personality.

Do yourself a favor and give this one a try.

Everybody’s working for the weekend

Severance Package ★★★
Duane Swierczynski
Minotaur Books, 2008

severance

EVER WANT TO KILL YOUR BOSS? WELL GUESS WHAT, THE FEELING IS MUTUAL.

This was my Saturday to work, and you can bet I would have much rather been goofing off. But as Saturdays go, it wasn’t too bad, and compared to the Saturday Swierczynski writes about in this book it was heaven on earth in the library stacks this afternoon.

It’s summer. It’s hot. It’s Saturday. But Jamie DeBroux’s boss has called a special meeting for all “key personnel”. Locked in a conference room with cookies and champagne, Jamie and his fellow co-workers soon discover they have been assembled in order to terminate. Permanently. Who will survive this bloody Saturday, and what will be left of them?

Severance Package is a wickedly adrenalized, pulsating, page-turning piece of pulp. Like seriously, WTF? Everything is exquisitely exaggerated and unleashed in comic technicolor. I would love to have seen this as a graphic novel actually (or a slick Tarantino cinematic production), since so many of its best characteristics are both visceral and visual.

This novel IS NOT grounded in realism, flirting much more with parody and noir. And what can I say? I loved it! It’s bloody and ridiculous. Unbelievable and silly. Yet still manages to keep you riveted and rapidly turning pages to see what the freakin’ hell is going to happen next.

Awesome for summer. Brain candy of the sweetest kind (that will rot your brain if you consume too much) … but this … this is the perfect amount presenting the perfect escape from life’s stresses (and asshole bosses). Even though I haven’t figured out how to pronounce his name yet, this won’t be the last Swierczynski I read. In fact, I have it on very good authority that his Charlie Hardie series is outrageously violent, action-packed and very addictive.

A noir horror piece (about amputees)

Last Days ★★★★
Brian Evenson
Underland Press, 2009

last daysWow! What a darkly disturbing yet strangely delightful romp of a book. Last Days is a marvelous mash-up of hard-boiled detective noir, literary mystery and straight-up horror that never comes across as messy or confused. Evenson’s prose is sooooo tight; not a single word is wasted, the narrative action propelled along at a break-neck pace, every other chapter ending on a nail-biting cliffhanger, the dialogue smart, snappy, and at times very funny. I blew through its 200 pages in no time at all, and I bet you will too.

It’s easy to draw parallels to the noir greats here, but since I just finished reading several Cain novels I will repeat what I wrote in my review for Double Indemnity because it applies just as well here:

It all starts with a delicious chill up your spine, your eyeballs riveted to the page, your breath held, the “gotta know what happens next” monster rattling the bars of his cage….[Cain’s] ear for dialogue is enough to make grown men cry and women purr. It’s sharp, with staccato beats and primal rhythms.

In his wonderful introduction [which you read after or you will be entirely spoiled], Peter Straub compares Evenson’s snappy dialogue to not only the Marx Brothers and the “patter of 1930s” vaudeville and burlesque, but to comedic teams like Abbott and Costello and their “Who’s on first” routine. Even with all of the dreadful mutilations and creepy fanaticism running through the story, there are unexpected moments of brilliant levity which made me grin and snicker. As I found myself grinning and snickering, I was reminded of The Pilo Family Circus, another great piece of writing not to be missed that’s a genius blend of genres containing the blackest of humor.

Saw_l

Dr. Lawrence Gordon braces himself to do what must be done | SAW (2004)

But now a short word on the dark heart of Last Days, because in some respects what we have here is a non-supernatural horror novel. At times, the story flirts dangerously close to parody: it’s so over the top in places that you can’t help but wonder if Evenson is just pulling your leg. No he’s not. If you’re not careful, he just might cut it right the fuck off.

There’s something so unbelievably creepy and sinister to me about the lopping off of body parts (either against one’s will or voluntarily). Several films that come to mind are: Boxing Helena (dreadful!) and the Asian flick Audition (chilling!). And who could ever forget poor old Lawrence being forced to hack through his own foot in the original Saw movie? (bloody brilliant!):

“He doesn’t want us to cut through our chains. He wants us to cut through our feet!”

Evenson takes the essence of this celluloid horror and transforms it into something grittier and more nuanced. There’s a depth to Kline’s descent into a dizzying maze of mysteries. We are as in the dark as he is, as frustrated and frightened. Something sinister is afoot (no pun intended), and madness lurks around every corner. Looking for something different? This is it.

Funland – not as much fun as it could be

funlandFunland ★★
Richard Laymon
Leisure Books, 2010 (1989)
Available Now

No, no, no, no…bad Laymon. Baaaaaad. Okay, this isn’t the worst book I’ve ever read, but for a Laymon book, it’s distinctly horrible, in extremely bad taste, and too dull in too many sections to give it that zap! and zing! I’ve come to expect from him.

The late Richard Laymon is always my go-to guy for a pulpy, sometimes sleazy, never politically correct but always satisfying horror romp. There’s just something so delightfully wicked and deranged about his straightforward, shoot from the hip, slice like a razor blade prose that puts you right into the action and hardly ever relents until the last page is turned.

Once upon a time, Stephen King referred to his own work as the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries. Not a chance Mr. King; even on your worst day you offer up something rich and tasty with complex flavor profiles that linger long in the memory luring readers back over and over again for repeated tastings. Laymon’s books, however (and I love them for this) are a cheeseburger and fries that you wolf down and perhaps groan in pleasure while doing so, then lie back for a satiated moment of stoned out bliss. You’d never want to subsist entirely on a diet of Laymon books, but Jesus, who doesn’t get a craving every now and then for an injection of grease and carbs?

But god help you if you get a bad burger and spend the night in the john or grasping that bottle of Pepto Bismol in your weak and shaky hands (I’m definitely taking this metaphor too far, but seriously, I feel like I just ate a bad burger, and I’m not happy about it). The indigestion is leaving me a little pissy and put out.

This book has its moments that salvage it from the garbage heap completely — the last section in the Funhouse is pretty messed up and unfolds nicely with Laymon’s characteristic cinematic style. Why more of his books have not been made into movies is beyond me. They are the perfect fodder for the slasher crowd. But for the most part, this book is too slow to really get started. The characters are mostly terrible and so dislikable it kept making me curl my lip in distaste.

I’ve pretty much gotten used to Laymon’s standard sex-obsessed male adolescent who ogles all the female characters and thinks nasty, inappropriate things about them in his mind. Doesn’t matter if death is breathing down your neck or some monster is crawling up out of the floor, if there’s any chance of getting laid, these male characters will never pass up an opportunity to cop a feel or make out. This time the level of inappropriate hormone-driven angst is ridiculous, and insulting. The comments made about the girls drove me bananas! Maybe I’m just getting too old for this shit. All I know is my tolerance for blatant male chauvinism bordering on misogyny has whittled down to zero. Laymon tries to balance this with “strong” female leads who are the heroes of the story, but it wasn’t enough to tip the scales for me.

Furthermore, there are huge, long, meandering sections supposedly reserved for “character development” but do much more to bog the story down than enrich it in any way.

Sorry Laymon my man. Rest in peace and all, but this one is a real miss.

All roads lead to the Donnybrook

We got no jobs, no money, no power, no nothin’, nothin’ to live for ‘cept vice and indulgence. That’s how they control us. But it’s falling apart. What we got is our land and our machines, our families and our ability to protect it all, to keep them alive. We got our hands. Ones who’ll survive will be the ones can live from the land. Can wield a gun. Those folks’ll fight for what little they’ve got. They’ll surprise the criminals with their own savagery.
~ Donnybrook: A Novel, Frank Bill.

donnybrookDonnybrook: A Novel ★★★★★
Frank Bill
FSG Originals, 2013
Available Now

I was already familiar with Frank Bill’s writing after surviving a close encounter with his debut — the short story collection Crimes In Southern Indiana. Upon finishing those stories, my only thought was: “Jesus Christ, this man is a lunatic” — and then immediately, “I want more!” For sure the stories are raw and unpolished, and perhaps a little too overeager to tell rather than show, but there is also an urgency, a ferocity to the writing that refuses to be ignored. It’s so in your face that at times it feels like an assault. I loved it!

So you can bet when I heard this guy was about to publish his first novel I became very afraid, and very, very obsessed with getting my hands on it to read it.

Usually my eyes tend to glaze over and ignore most book blurbs because they always seem so generic and at their worst, sycophantic. But at their best, book blurbs can capture in a few short phrases the very tail of the beast itself and show you its face. As much as I loathe the majority, there are some that do their job so well, they deserve to be recognized along with the book they’re blurbing. I only say this now to emphasize that Bill has attracted the attention of authors I love and respect and if you’re not going to listen to me when I say this guy’s the real deal, then maybe you’ll listen to them:

Donnybrook is vivid in its violence, grim in its grimness. It reams the English language with a broken beer bottle and lets the blood drops tell the story. — Daniel Woodrell, (Winter’s Bone)

With action like a belt across the face and vivid prose like a stroke up the neck, Frank Bill’s astonishing novel…renders you punch-drunk. Here’s the writer to watch: mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Megan Abbott, (Dare Me)

I also like this one by Bonnie Jo Campbell: “Don’t poke this book with a stick or you’ll make it angry.” And trust me — you won’t like this book when it’s angry. Goodreads friend Jacob writes in his review:

something this good should be illegal, because the act of hunting down a banned copy and hiding from the censors and morality police to read it is the only goddamn way it could get any better. Donnybrook is a relentless, no-holds-barred, total fucking mind-fuck of endless violence…

Frank Bill (author)

Frank Bill (author)

Yeah, like that. But now you’re looking at me tapping your foot impatiently saying: “Yeah, but what the hell is this book about?” I could give you the plot summary lowdown — about bare-knuckle fighting in the backwoods of Southern Indiana, about desperate family man Jarhead Johnny Earl who’s going to steal a thousand dollars to cover the entry fee into the infamous annual Donnybrook tournament.

Then there’s meth-making brother and sister Angus (nickname Chainsaw) and Liz who put the F.U.N. in family dysfunction. They’ve just lost their last batch of dope and are determined to recoup their losses, no matter who gets in their way, even if it means each other. Like any great rural crime story, you’ve got the steely, determined deputy Sheriff following a trail of dead bodies into a trap he has no idea lays in wait for him. Last but not least, there’s Chinese “collection agent” Fu, who’s about as badass a dude as you’re ever going to meet. He is awesome.

This mad, manic mélange of murderers, misfits and miscreants will eventually descend upon the Donnybrook — a three day stint of brawling, booze and drugs run by a man named McGill, who makes the Governor from the Walking Dead comics look like Mr. Rogers. But it’s not about the final destination folks, but the journey to get there, and (to quote one of my favorite movie taglines ever): who will survive and what will be left of them. Reading this book I couldn’t help but be reminded of the lucid insanity of some of Tarantino’s best work — the ensemble characters, the multiple plot threads, and how it all comes crashing together in the end with defined, divine purpose. Hells yeah, people. This is the good shit. Heisenberg grade blue.

Frank Bill is a writer you want to watch. You can find out more about him at his blog House of Grit or follow him on Twitter @HouseofGrit. And as my mama always told me — never trust a man with two first names.

This review also appears at Shelf Inflicted.

Frank Bill takes us on a crime spree into the heart of Southern Indiana

Crimes in Southern Indiana: Stories ★★★★
Frank Bill
Crimes in Southern IndianaFSG Originals, 2011
Available Now

Iris kept driving….He reached over and rubbed Spade between his black ears, not knowing where he was headed, but knowing he wouldn’t stop until he was several states shy of the crimes in southern Indiana.

This book ::flails helplessly:: How do I begin to review these raw and ruthless stories and do them justice? I probably can’t ladies and gents, but I want to try goddammit. Frank Bill’s collection of crazies and crimes in southern Indiana deserves that much at least.

This is prose that sings — not with the sweetness and harmony of a Mama Cass, but rather a whiskey-soaked growl and feverish screech of a Janis Joplin. It’s jagged, fragmented, and toothsome; ready at any point to tear a chunk out of the reader and leave him or her panting and bleeding like the sordid cast of cutthroat characters that populate the pages of these 17 inter-connected stories.

The stories piece together a harsh portrait of poor, scrabbling, backwoods people — where victims become victimizers, and the brutalized do their fair share of brutalizing in return. As Frank Bill weaves together his tales of madness and mayhem, he is not interested in telling mere exploitative snapshots of gratuitous violence; his carefully crafted stories resonate with gritty themes of PTSD, poverty, domestic violence, addiction, greed and corruption. Each story flashes bright and fierce, a powerhouse on its own, but when melded with its brethren featured in the collection, the sum definitely becomes more awesome than the parts.

Frank Bill is writing Southern Noir and making it his bitch. This is Quentin Tarantino meets Cormac McCarthy. For make no mistake Frank Bill convinces his readers that his Indiana landscape is also no country for old men.

Jagged marrow lined his gums like he’d tried to huff a stick of dynamite. But when he stuttered into Medford’s ear he sounded like a drunk who had Frenched a running chainsaw.

This isn’t a collection to love per se; it certainly won’t leave you with the warm fuzzies. It will shake you up and smack you around a bit though, and you definitely won’t forget it easily. It also made me green with envy over how easy Frank Bill makes it all seem. What he accomplishes isn’t easy; if it were we’d see the likes of this kind of writing more often. Bill’s prose is rough; there isn’t the same kind of lyricism to be found in these stories as is in the work of Daniel Woodrell, Tom Franklin, or even his closest kin Donald Ray Pollock. However, if you have a penchant for the raw and brutal side of life, this collection is required reading in my books.

If that doesn’t whet your appetite, look for Bill’s new novel hot off the presses called Donnybrook. Word on the street is that it’s even more an orgy of violence than the short stories that appear in Crimes. I’ve got a copy in my hands as I type this and you can bet I cannot wait to crack it open and see what carnage awaits me inside. Stay tuned!

This review also appears on Shelf-Inflicted.

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