Dybbuk Press have just made Michael Boatman’s collection God Laughs When You Die available for free download, though I’ve no idea how long that offer will last and it could very well be over by now (I’m posting in advance).
Regardless, the book is well worth having and the asking price more than reasonable.
Here’s my review from Black Static #2, minus any corrections made by the editor because I’m too lazy to look those up:-
Michael Boatman had already staked his claim to fame as an actor (his best known role is as Carter in Spin City) before adding another string to his bow with the publication of God Laughs When You Die (Dybbuk Press paperback, 147pp, $12.75), and 2008 should see his first novel hit print. Boatman’s work seems informed by a splatter punk sensibility, with the gore laid on thick and an unforgiving savagery that brings to mind not only the early fiction of a writer he admires, Joe R. Lansdale, but also the black comedy of such cinematic delights as Evil Dead and Return of the Living Dead. Psychology is thin on the ground, as Boatman’s characters are too busy running for their lives or, more likely, screaming as they die horribly, to spend much time reflecting on what is happening to them. God Laughs When You Die is a RSVP card for those who thought Richard Laymon was a big girl’s blouse, and it’s also a rather nice thing in its own right, with a cover ‘adapted’ from Hieronymus Bosch and a fine selection of interior illustrations that capture the mood of these ‘mean little stories from the wrong side of the tracks.’
While nearly everything here has a touch of the horrific about it, it would be incorrect to say that all of these tales are horror stories. Boatman casts his net wider, taking in television, comics, SF and fantasy, placing the whole gamut of the modern media landscape and entertainment industry on his rack, and stretching it until new forms emerge. Take ‘The Tarantula Memoirs’ for example, a superhero story that brings to mind Martin’s Wild Cards series, but casts a sardonic and world weary eye over the old stereotypes, as an ailing mystery man is given the opportunity to die in combat, fighting against an evil nemesis, and along the way the story asks questions about how such vigilantes would really fit into our society and what is evil anyway. ‘Bloodbath at Landsdale Towers’ poses these questions more directly, getting right in the reader’s face and rubbing his nose in the reality of vigilantism. Two super powered beings take on a drug dealer and his gang, showing no restraint at all, with bodies pulled apart and blood spraying everywhere, as if Boatman’s intent is to challenge the ingenuity of some film company’s sfx department. The scene is set, a question is asked, the answer is refused and mayhem ensues, and that’s all there is to it as far as plot goes, though we do get the suggestion that this incident is part of a bigger picture. It’s in our own response that the shit really hits the fan. Initially we are repulsed by the criminals and look forward to seeing them get their comeuppance, but the response is so over the top, so heavy handed, that we are again repelled, perhaps even come to sympathise with the criminals, fighting a battle they can’t hope to win and being slaughtered indiscriminately.
Alien invasion is another recurring theme, with ‘Dormant’ the shortest tale in the book at only three pages and also the weakest. The protagonist is infected with an alien parasite, one that explodes out of the body if treatment is not forthcoming in time, and the man cannot afford treatment. The story is well written and there’s a gory scene in which a parasite does ‘explode’, but the story has no real raison d’etre, is simply shock for shock’s sake, as if somebody had filmed John Hurt’s death scene in Alien and decided to not bother with the rest of the movie. The aliens in ‘The Last American President’ are much more substantial, reminiscent in their otherworldliness of the Iad Uroboros from Barker’s canon, creatures who have turned our world into their personal playpen. The story is told from the viewpoint of a certain politician, who records their antics in his self serving memoirs, Boatman pulling out all the stops with a rich vein of invention and satire, while underlying the narrative is a righteous anger at what we had done to our world before ever the aliens set foot on it and the hypocrisy of our leaders. In the mould breaking ‘The Ugly Truth’ Boatman presents a story that’s part high fantasy, part martial arts spectacle, part romance, part gorefest and all fun. A lowly stable hand wins the heart of the princess when he saves her from a monstrous zombie, something beyond all the royal champions regardless of their bone crunching prowess. So far, so fairy story, but in this instance there’s a considerable amount of take no prisoners style mayhem to be got through before we reach the happy ever after, as if Tarantino had decided to remake The Princess Bride.
‘Folds’ is set in the world of daytime TV reality shows, as an assistant producer comes to suspect that there is something not right about the incredibly fat boy who appears on the show. Further revelation leads him to a horrific discovery about the child’s abilities, one that brings to mind an old episode of The Twilight Zone, but Boatman has grounded his story in the present day media world, satirising its worst excesses and asking who really are the monsters here, the fat boy, who has an agenda of his own, or the millions watching who do so simply to feel good about themselves. Generally though it’s the horror stories in this collection that are the most conventional, as with ‘The Drop’, in which a jealous husband plans to kill his rival in a boating ‘accident’ and vice versa, but both their plans are cast awry by the intervention of an unexpected third party, the story well written but not really going anywhere interesting, with the outré element too intrusive and arbitrary to work. ‘Katchina’ is another story that addresses old tropes, but does little more than that, with a wife discovering that her bullying husband is a serial killer when his victims return to claim what is rightfully theirs. More substantial is ‘The Long Lost Life of Rufus Bleak’ in which a black preacher is brought back from the dead to serve an otherworldly power, reflecting on his past and questioning his reason to be, realising that he has become every bit as monstrous as the Klansmen who murdered him.
God Laughs When You Die is an impressive collection. While some stories may seem a little lacking in substance, and the level of violence may deter some readers (not so much X as Generations X/S), there is no doubting the prose skills of the writer, his flare for a telling line or metaphor, the anger that informs his work and willingness to push at boundaries.