Saturday, July 21, 2007

Books: Scary monsters and superfreaks.

So you're looking over the stack of unread novels that are clogging up your bookshelves. All those fat and important books from lions in the quality lit game - thick as door stops as if they've literally become bloated by their own sense of self-importance. Or maybe you've got a slew of sci-fi books with covers determined to communicate that sci-fi, for the worse, in no longer about ray guns and bug-eyed aliens. Or, perhaps, you've got a stack of whimsically lock-stepped chic lit on the bed stand, filled with secrets about skin care and shoe design more esoteric than the lore of Masons.

And you think: "Sigh. All these books are good and all. But what I'm really in the mood for is a splatter-punk rewrite of the 1988 cult classic Killer Klowns from Outer Space. With perhaps a dash of gross-out sex. That's really what I'm in the mood for. But where will I, CRwM's finicky little friend, find such a book? Does this magical tome exist? Why am I asking myself these questions when I know I don't have the answers?"

Well, my finicky little friend, you are the very definition of in luck. I'll tackle your questions in reverse order. First, you ask these questions because you've got an innate curiosity about the world around you. It is a positive thing and you should develop it further. Second, the book does exist. It is called The Freakshow. A dude named Bryan Smith wrote it. And, third, you can get it at your local purveyor of vendible literary stuffs for the bargain basement price of $6.99.

You: "It is really a re-write of Killer Klowns?"

Sort of. Think of it as Klowns on meth. The general plot is familiar – circus themed monstrosities from distant elsewhere (in this case a hellish parallel dimension known as "the Nothing") prey upon a small anytown. However, unlike the campy Klowns, Freakshow is dead earnest in it approach, which is best described as "This One Goes to Eleven."

The plot jumps between the stories of several protagonists as they uncover and attempt to thwart or promote the satanic designs of the psycho-circus, called The Flaherty Brother Traveling Carnivale and Feakshow. We've got Heather, who is strives to save her aging mother from the carnivale. Craig, Heather's abusive boyfriend and larval-stage serial killer, who gleefully joins the forces of evil. Josh, one of the few holdouts of town the freakshow attacks. Finally, there's Mike and Jinx, uneasy allies who find themselves trapped in the world of the freakshow.

Smith isn't the most graceful of authors, so the whole thing is a bit of a sloppy mess. In fact, on at least one occasion, Smith confuses his own characters and they swap plot lines for a paragraph or two. Still, it is hard to deny that the whole thing has a propulsive energy that, more often then not, compensates for the lack of structural logic. Freakshow never drags. Smith writes as if he's worried that modern readers have the attention span of a gnat with ADD. After a teaser chapter and one chapter introducing our heroine, the action kicks off and keeps an almost absurd pace throughout. Aside from our main group of characters, other characters are introduced and dispatched with a slaughter-house grade efficiency. And everything is extreme. Smith doesn't tie characters up when he can suspend them from the roof in a bondage harness and shock them with a cattle prod. Character don't just stab one another, they bring out the chainsaws. Finally, nobody has missionary position sex when automotive pseudo-tentacle rape and eye socket penetration are viable alternatives.

You: "Ugh."

Yeah.

You: "You kid."

Here's a sample Smith writing a sex scene at his most typical register. Young children, please leave the room.

Worse still were the moments when that crusty mouth suddenly locked firmly around the socket and slurped at the pooled blood and small bits of leftover optic tissue.

Long sections of the book are like that. When he can't thrill, Smith disgusts – doing both with equal gusto. In fact, he's at his best when he's abusing his characters. The few moments where he stops to catch his breath and attempts deeper characterizations fall completely flat. Smith is a bit of a literary sadist and his characters exist to be put through the meat grinder.

All this adds up to odd book that is compelling at a gut level, but is so clunky that there's little literary merit to it. Cheap thrills aren't anything to be ashamed of. If that's what an author promises to deliver, and the author makes good on that promise, then they are producing honest and effective work. Smith promises cheap thrills and that's exactly what you get. If it isn't your cup of tea, then there's no reason to pick up the book. But if you're looking for a thoroughly disreputable good time, unredeemed by high-faluting artistic aspirations or appeals to good taste, then Smith's thrill ride might be just what you're looking for.

3 comments:

Bryan Smith said...

What the fuck is your name? I'm trying to figure out if I know you from anywhere else online.

If this was an actual review site rather than a random blog, I'd totally use that last line as a blurb.

CRwM said...

I'm glad you liked the review.

I don't believe we've ever crossed paths before - in real life or on the interwebs.

I was a little worried because, in an effort to catch just how balls-out crazy your book is, it might not have been clear how much I enjoyed it. Your book was a utter and complete blast. I'm looking forward reading more of your stuff.

Bryan Smith said...

That's cool, no problem. You posted about Cullen Bunn, who published a couple chapbooks of mine back before I hooked up with Leisure Books, which made me wonder if you might be someone I knew. Anyway, glad you enjoyed the book.