Filler content with Skipp and Goodfellow

Here’s a double whammy of reviews that appeared in Black Static #16, minus any and all editorial changes and corrections that I didn’t mark up at the time:-

CODY & CO

Black Static readers will probably know Cody Goodfellow best from his story ‘Atwater’, which appeared in #4, and older hands may recall ‘A Drop of Ruby’ from the dog days of The Third Alternative. Both these stories and thirteen more are bedded down between the same covers in SILENT WEAPONS FOR QUIET WARS (Swallowdown Press paperback, 197pp, $11.95), providing a showcase for Goodfellow’s distinctive talent.

While the label on the tin might say ‘A Bizarro Book’, and certainly Goodfellow has that off the wall literary sensibility which fits well under such a banner, there’s enough of the true grue in his oeuvre to merit the interest of the horror purists. Case in point, opening story ‘Baby Teeth’ in which David returns to the family home after the death of the father he ran away from many years ago, only to find his replacement waiting for him. It’s a ghost story without a ghost, a garish mix of Frankenstein and Herbert West Reanimator, with a strong subtext of guilt and chickens coming to roost bubbling away beneath the surface horror and madcap invention which is a hallmark of Goodfellow’s work.

Initially ‘A Drop of Ruby’ brings to mind recent stories in the media, with firemen rescuing a twelve year old Jane Doe from the cellar of a house where she appears to have been kept prisoner all her life, but then the psychiatrist assigned to her is able to glean some knowledge of the dark truth behind her captivity. An intriguing variation on the vampire theme, this is a story in which moral values are challenged with the revelation that sometimes terrible things are done for good reason. Our knee jerk sympathy for Jane Doe is transferred to Dr Shields, as we realise that she has become the victim of a suicidal infatuation, one that drags her down into an abyss of false hope.

Doorstep evangelists have often seemed to me like fit subjects for horror fiction, and Goodfellow delivers on that promise in ‘The Good News About God’ in which a father and son call on the wrong house. The faith and/or self-delusions of these true believers is challenged by an encounter with a Goddess, and a descent into a hellish basement where sights reminiscent of Clive Barker’s oeuvre await. The son learns the truth about the father, with a stripping away of all certainty and the destruction of the false reality in which the pair have lived for so long. They must confront not only horror, but each other in this powerful tale.

‘Magna Mater’ is set in a sex emporium, with one of the coin operated video booths as the porn industry equivalent of the wardrobe that opens onto Narnia. A female employee wonders why the men who go inside never come out again, and decides it may be the perfect solution for disposing of her abusive husband, only she then recants. Despite the sleazy background there is something touching about this story, a deep and abiding sympathy for the victim, and examination of the female masochism that allows her to fulfil that role. As in so many of these stories, the chickens come home to roost, but here there is an element of redemption, with Violet finally securing from Wade the unconditional love that she needs and is entitled to expect, thanks to a twist that came out of left field but feels entirely right in the context of the story.

‘Atwater’ is a tour de force of relentless invention, the prose pyrotechnics and in your face imagery that is a vital component of the other stories here bubbling over like the lava flow from a misbehaving volcano. Howell finds himself trapped in the town of the title, a reality that is one part Silent Hill to two parts the organic equivalent of a Transformers movie, with the reader as gob smacked by what’s happening on the page as the character. Goodfellow pulls it all together with a double whammy of an ending, at first offering us one explanation of what’s gone down and then adding a final twist that pulls the rug out from under everyone’s feet, with a philosophical subtext about the nature of reality.

A musician’s devotees try to raise him from the dead in ‘In His Wake’, with the magical ceremony going slightly wrong for the ringleader of the cult. The set-up here is carefully planned, with the various pieces of the puzzle slotting together and hints of a convergence with real life events (e.g. the death of Michael Jackson), but what comes over strongest is our obsession with fame and the hero worship it entails, and beyond that the effect it has on those who find themselves the focus of such attention.

‘Losers, Weepers’ is set in a huge sprawling rubbish dump where nothing is quite what it seems and a hired hand must fight for survival against the forces that inhabit this alien environment. Again, as with ‘Atwater’, Goodfellow brings this blighted landscape to compelling life, with magic of a kind insinuating itself among the things, and people, cast off by society, and then uses it as the perfect setting for a strange tale of redemption.

Set among the longer stories that are the meat of this collection, are shorter pieces, flash fiction in some cases, where Goodfellow shows his ability to say much in few words. ‘Champagne Room’ looks at the way a customer is exploited by the sex industry, his delusions of want and need, and being drained even as he revels in what is happening. In ‘Hinterland’ the duality of pedestrians and motorists is examined, with the fear of one for the other at the story’s heart. Moral issues, the demands the state may make on those under its protection, is touched on in ‘Conscientious Objector’, with its chilling, albeit perfectly acceptable to the characters in the story, depiction of how those who are unwilling to fight can also contribute to the war effort. Last story in the book, ‘Batteries’ offers a new and environmentally friendly power source, though its nature, and the effect of its use on energy industry workers who must maintain the service, is morally ambivalent, and the workaday dialogue juxtaposed with a situation that is far from normal gives the questions at the story’s core real bite.

John Skipp provides the introduction for Silent Weapons, but he takes a more pro-active role in THE DAY BEFORE (Bad Moon Books paperback, 139pp, $17.95), co-writing the book with Goodfellow. The central premise of this short novel is that just because the apocalypse has been and gone there’s no need to stop making films about the end of the world. In fact, the sub-genre might be more relevant than ever.

Armageddon has happened, with most of the world left in ruins. Hollywood scriptwriter Peter Kornberg gets scooped up by producer Julian Harvey, who has plans to make a film detailing the events that led up to the nuclear holocaust and its aftermath. They circumvent all sorts of problems, such as the machinations of a rival producer, savage biker gangs and rogue military units, shooting the final scenes in the high radiation epicentre of Los Angeles, even though the stars are certain to die as a result. From being an unwilling participant, Kornberg grows to care about the film and see just how it can be used as a symbol around which the survivors can rally.

This is a very short novel, only 140pp and reading much quicker than that thanks to judicious use of white space, but it is also one that packs a hell of a punch. There is some wonderful satire here on the theme of Hollywood, with larger than life characters, an assortment of users and sleazebags, and yet underneath it all the writers find a kind of redemption. As Gore Vidal did a couple of generations before with Myra Breckenridge, the book celebrates Hollywood’s status as the dream factory, providing the myths and archetypes of the modern world, and even though it remains cynical about the motives of people like Julian Harvey, it concedes that there may very well be something honourable at the heart of what they do, almost as a by-product.

Some of the scenes, such as the madcap soldier who wants to break into the movies as an action hero, and the over the top rival producer who is looking to pull a fast one on Harvey, are hilarious examples of black comedy, that make you laugh even as you want to cry at the absurdity of it all. But there are also moments that are quite touching, as with the clapped out actor who falls into the role of the man responsible for the nuclear holocaust, and accepts the burden of guilt to become a celluloid scapegoat, a sacrificial victim to appease whatever gods remain, or the actress who will give up everything for this last chance at stardom. It also marks human nature at its worst, with savage and moving depictions of the killing that takes place, and how standards of civilisation, always arbitrary at best, can get thrown out of the window when it suits people to do so.

Sarah Langan’s cover blurb – ‘The end of civilization has never been so much fun’ – is on the money, but there’s also a serious side to this book, one that will possibly linger long after the laughs have stopped. Writing, like making films, is a serious business, and that is the kicker.

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