Book Review: Entropy in Bloom: Stories by Jeremy Robert Johnson

“With Entropy in Bloom, Jeremy Robert Johnson continues to deliver the very best in short fiction. He seems to have the complete writer’s toolkit; original ideas, compellingly realistic characters, wonderfully vivid language.”

 

When an author receives the praise of Ketchum, Skipp and Palahniuk, that is usually a sure-fire sign that this is one to watch. And that has certainly been the case with Jeremy Robert Johnson. Author of the popular collections Angeldust Apocalypse (Eraserhead Press 2005) and We Live Inside You (Swallowdown Press 2011 (Winner of the 2011 Wonderland Award for Best Collection)) as well as the incredible Skullcrack City (Lazy Fascist Press 2015 (Winner of the 2016 Wonderland Award for Best Novel)), Jeremy Robert Johnson is quickly becoming a firm favourite within the horror and bizarro communities. And, given the quality and widespread appeal of his work, it is very much deserved.

After a very enthusiastic introduction full of heartfelt praise from renowned author Brian Evenson, the first story of the collection is ‘The League of Zeroes’, Johnson’s not so far-fetched take on reality television and our society’s obsession with fame. The protagonist Jamie longs to become a member of Body Modification Royalty with his daring and unique designs. So daring is his idea that most respectable doctors won’t entertain the idea of doing the work, leading him to call on the services of a back-alley butcher by the name of Dr. Shinori (a character recognisable to fans of Skullcrack City). Entertaining and thought-provoking, and not far from our reality.

Told in second person, ‘Persistence Hunting’ tells the story of ‘You’, beginning with a brief history of heartbreak and loss before you found yourself living with Uncle Joshua who shared his morning ritual of running. Love took a backseat as you found other thrills to give you that rush, namely stealing. But as with most addictions, the thefts became more elaborate and dangerous. And then in walks Avarice, an exotic dancer with some dangerous plans of her own. Johnson does a brilliant job of creating a likeable, if flawed, protagonist and perhaps adopting the second person viewpoint leads us to become more invested in their fate.

‘The Oarsman’ is told from the point of view of an unnamed astronaut, sharing a space station in orbit around Earth (Colony 1) with a Russian Cosmonaut, both watching the news transmission from Tibet of a group of monks. But when a sound engineer encroaches on the sacred circle of stones and suffers a horrific end, suspicions are raised. Then the monks begin to sing, and the horror truly begins, affecting everyone on the planet. But not the astronaut, who can only watch. When it becomes clear that no-one is receiving his transmissions, he decides to take drastic action. One of the shorter stories in the collection but no less entertaining.

‘The Gravity of Benham Falls’ begins with a young couple, Tony and Laura, driving to Benham Falls, a secluded beauty spot to do what most young couples do at such places. But we soon realise that Laura’s intentions are much darker than a casual hook-up. She is an enterprising young lady with a habit of seducing small-time drug dealers and robbing them. But she wasn’t planning on being driven to the same place where her brother disappeared from a family picnic many years before. And, once they arrive and Tony suggests they check out a hidden cave, Laura begins to have some serious misgivings about her latest mark. But Johnson ties Laura’s personal childhood tragedy with the events of the present in an unnerving and unexpected twist that is expertly executed.

In ‘Dissociative Skills’, we meet a teenage boy who seems to have grown disillusioned with his existence. An only child to parents who think nothing of having a beer with breakfast and who seem to be floating through life, Curt Lawson has decided to challenge himself by attempting any seemingly impossible thought that comes to mind. So begins his quest to finally see what he looks like, on the inside. Johnson pulls no punches as he takes the reader on a trip to the very depth of Curt’s depression, via the soft flesh of his stomach. This is one slice of body horror that lingers long in the memory, but it is more than that. It is also a character study of a young man who desperately wants to feel something. And, as difficult as it is to believe, the ending is quite heart-warming.

‘Snowfall’ tells the story of a young, deaf boy, Jake, who is awoken in his basement bedroom by a ground-shaking sensation. Deciding it is something best left to his parents to investigate, he manages to go back to sleep only to be awoken again, this time by stifling heat. When he realises that the power is out, not only in his room, but the rest of the house, he goes looking for his family. What he discovers outside is seemingly lost on one so young and so innocent, yet the horror of the situation is immediately evident to the reader. But through Jake’s eyes it all seems so beautiful, thanks to Johnson’s ability to tap into the innocence and deliver it with such wonderful prose.

Perhaps Johnson’s best-known short story (the short film adaptation from director Anthony Cousins has garnered much praise and won many prestigious awards), ‘When Susurrus Stirs’ tells the story of the blossoming relationship between a parasite and its human host. Told in first person from the human protagonist’s point of view, we hear how the parasite converses with the human, describing the beauty of its existence. While the doctors do little to assuage his concerns about the enormous parasite growing within him, he becomes more comfortable with the idea of his passenger, possibly due to its proximity to his brain. Before long we are treated to a front row seat as the parasite begins to take over and, again, Johnson doesn’t shy away from the deliciously disturbing imagery. You may feel queasy. You may heave. But you won’t be able to look away.

‘Luminary’ is a very different story to ‘When Susurrus Stirs’ and displays Johnson’s range as an author. It certainly has horrific and fantasy elements as it begins with Pete recounting the story of how his brother, Marty, burned to death in 1967. The reader is immediately gripped by this opening and Johnson only pulls us in further with the likeable narrator and the love with which he recalls his older brother and his experiment with fireflies. It is reminiscent of a style sometimes adopted by Stephen King when a narrator tells a fantastic story from their youth, often including an older sibling as a ‘hero-figure’ and some fantastic turn of events. Johnson delivers a compelling and moving tale with a wonderful cast of characters.

‘Trigger Variation’ sees a group of tough men known as the EndLiners organising pillow fights. This may seem like a good-natured story, but there is a sinister and seething undercurrent. The group is led by one man, Frank, and feels very much like a cult. Their one ideal is survival of the human race. In this respect they have more in common with Nazis and their ideal of survival of the fittest. The protagonist is a young man called Jackson who is having doubts about the group and Frank. Added to this he has a difficult relationship with his estranged, alcoholic father who only ever seems to show up or contact him when he needs something. The story culminates with the third pillow fight, where the true nature of the EndLiners is revealed with widespread brutality, and a very personal confrontation for Jackson. Only once we reach the harrowing end do we see the direction the story was heading in, Johnson doing an excellent job of keeping our attention without giving away too much.

Amelia, the protagonist of ‘Cathedral Mother’, is a former member of a hippy commune who got out after giving birth to her son and finding that he needed more than the lifestyle could provide for him. But, unable to shake her hatred for ‘The Machine’ she joins a group known as The Assemblage which works to undermine the government by sabotaging projects which they deem harmful to the environment. But, when Amelia accepts a mission to retrieve samples from some of the tallest redwoods in Portland in order to prove their status as home to rare species, she finds more than she bargained for. Johnson explores similar territory here as he does in the parasitic ‘When Susurrus Stirs’, without seeing the body horror all the way to the end. But he still manages to elicit the same skin-crawling sensation in readers while describing Amelia’s torment.

‘Swimming in the House of the Sea’ explores yet another facet of horror as we meet Wolf, a self-absorbed, self-described bum who is transporting his differently-abled brother, Dude, between their estranged parents. As small children, the brothers were very close. But as they aged and Wolf developed into a young man while Dude languished behind, and their mother found religion and left their small-time drug dealer father, the divisions became all too clear. Now Wolf has grown to resent Dude, but will put up with him on these once-monthly trips. But when his car breaks down they are forced to endure an overnight stay in a hotel. After a confrontation with two men in the pool area where Wolf tries to wash off the grime of a long day, he is forced to face up to his horrible treatment of his brother. This emotionally-charged story adds yet another string to Johnson’s bow as an author who is more than capable to explore the horror of the human condition as well as the horror of the gruesome.

“You could bite off Todd’s nose.”

So begins ‘Saturn’s Game’ as Tyler tries (and fails) to ignore this compelling thought. A man seemingly driven to act on this impulse by an overpowering scent, Tyler flees the scene of the crime. Despite continuing to experience these flashes of violent suggestions, he repeatedly declares his apologies for what he has done to his friend. As he attempts to dull his sense with alcohol and hide from the police in a park, he realises his only chance is to seek refuge with his sister who lives nearby. It is here that we discover the tragic origin of Tyler’s violent tendencies and the role of Saturn. Johnson uses this story to explore the horror of addiction and the devastating effect it can have on families, even many years later. A heart-wrenching tale.

‘The Sharp-Dressed Man at the End of the Line’ began as a short story written by 12-year-old Jeremy before evolving into this story and forming the basis of the novella Extinction Journals. It is as strange as it is wonderful as one man, fearing the impending apocalypse as he watches his president strut on TV and provoke the leaders of other nuclear superpowers (sound familiar?), decides to create a special suit that will withstand the atomic blast and the devastation that will surely follow. As ridiculous as the suit may seem, it is difficult to fault his logic. The story ends when he ventures into the street and meets another survivor wearing a similarly effective suit, constructed of very different material. It is a very entertaining story, displaying Johnson’s writing ability and dark sense of humour. But there is something a little prescient about the content, which leads us to wonder if we should get the black light and practice our sewing…

‘A Flood of Harriers’ follows a young couple as they pass through a Native American reservation on their way to a music festival. The driver, Darren, having heard horror stories about the locals, and sporting a ginger mohawk, doesn’t fancy sticking around long enough to make a scene. But when his girlfriend, Sage, desperately needs a toilet break, he can’t refuse. And thus begins Darren’s nightmare. Confronted by one man from a jeering group, Darren is injured before they can escape the reservation. Following a break-up at the festival and experiencing some horrific visions after ingesting mushrooms, the couple are struck by tragedy. Driven on by grief and the visions, Darren returns to the reservation. The ending is brutal, the depiction of violence unflinching.

‘States of Glass’ begins with Elloise Broderick receiving some tragic news about her husband from a coroner in Washington. Refusing to believe what she is being told, Elloise instead convinces herself that it is a terrible mistake but travels to the coroner’s office so that she can set them straight. But from the very start she exhibits some strange behaviour in response to the news, specifically the feeling of being aroused, a feeling that doesn’t diminish after her visit to the coroner’s office to identify the body. It is often said that each of us deals with grief in a unique way, and Elloise is no exception. The horror of her grief is palpable, and realistically depicted by Johnson, but by the time we reach the ending we feel that Elloise can come to terms with her situation.

‘The Sleep of Judges’ tells the story of a home invasion that has more than just a lasting effect on Roger and his family. Upon discovering the break in when they return from a party, Roger sends his wife and young daughter off to his in-laws while he investigates. But from the minute he sets foot in the house there is something ‘off’ about the whole scene. He hears voices, the movement of giants. And his interaction with the police, from the operator to the single attending plain-clothes officer, leaves him confused. In the following days, while he tries to distance his family from the incident and turn their home into a fortress, he is haunted by weird occurrences and visions. He is eventually visited by a neighbour, Clem, who has a warning that the occupants of a strange nearby house are to blame, and that they are more than human. Despite Clem’s warnings, Roger feels that he has to make a stand for his family, and maybe to prove to himself that he can do it. But this ultimately leads to a tragic and gut-wrenching ending. There is more than a hint of bleak, cosmic horror to this story, something that we don’t readily associate with the work of Jeremy Robert Johnson. But he does a masterful job of telling this character-driven and creepy tale. The antagonists are especially chilling.

With Entropy in Bloom, Jeremy Robert Johnson continues to deliver the very best in short fiction. He seems to have the complete writer’s toolkit; original ideas, compellingly realistic characters, wonderfully vivid language. There is such a broad range of horror on display throughout the collection that we have to wonder if there is anything he cannot achieve once he puts his mind to it. From body horror to psychological to cosmic, every story hits the intended mark and leaves the reader wanting even more. And we cannot wait to see what Jeremy Robert Johnson comes up with next.

THOMAS JOYCE

Publisher: Night Shade Books
Hardback: 280pp
Release Date: 18 April 2017

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