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Book Review: Skullcrack City by Jeremy Robert Johnson

Skullcrack City

“ We finally see Johnson tackle the bizarre in full novel form, and the results are spectacular!”

S.P. Doyle cracked the code, and now he’s going to bring the bank down to its knees. Popping the latest designer drug, Hexadrine (street name Hex), he falls down the rabbit hole, consumed by paranoia and a constant need to masturbate. Doyle follows the paper trail to a shady medical corporation with connections in extreme body modification. Once he hatches his plan to bring it all down, Doyle finds himself framed for murder and on the run from the authorities and gorilla-like bezerkers with detachable jaws hungry for human brains. Doyle falls in with a group of freedom fighters bunkered down all Buckaroo Banzai style preparing for the inevitable war. Thrust into the madness, Doyle finds love, and the will to tighten up his bootstraps and fight the evil establishment. The threat is real, yet with each painful decision, Doyle manages to keep the human race from facing terminal extinction.

Horror comes in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it’s quiet and understated. Often it’s fantastic and archaic, reaching deep into our cultures to reawaken the terrors of our past. Occasionally, as in the case of Jeremy Robert Johnson’s novel, Skullcrack City, the horror is bizarre conspiracy and paranoia written at a drug-fuelled breakneck pace, jittery like James Elroy on meth, explosive and ultraviolent.

Johnson writes bizarro, which by definition makes it a difficult genre to pin down. A hodgepodge of genres including science fiction, horror, mystery, and noir, the genre demands we force a square peg into a round hole. For the uninitiated, bizarro sounds like stories in which the writer creates a world around a weird concept; a toaster embedded in a man’s toenail tells him to save the bees from the wasps. Actually, that would make a good bizarro story, but the idea is only the tip of the iceberg. To write fluently in the genre, there is but one prerequisite; you must know how to write, and write well. Bizarro follows distinct and steadfast rules. Weird and strange is not simply inserted into the story – it is the story. Every character motivation, every plot point, every scene, is propelled by the weird, and it is written in a way that is both accessible and intriguing without ever leaving a bad taste in the reader’s mouth. No stranger to the genre, as proven by his stellar track record with his collections Angel Dust Apocalypse and We Live Inside You, and the novella Extinction Journals, we finally see Johnson tackle the bizarre in full novel form, and the results are spectacular.

The first person narrative starts in hyper-drive, our hero’s mind warped from his growing Hex addiction. Johnson wastes no time getting down to the particulars, constantly pushing the story forward and developing character effortlessly. When writing drug-induced paranoia, pacing the narrative is key to engaging the reader, and it’s here where Johnson really shines. He knows just the right places to slow it down a notch, when to get a little introspective, then how to tie it back into the story with skillful transitions. He provides comic relief with Doyle’s pet turtle Deckard, though it becomes painfully obvious during these interactions that Doyle is more than just a tortured drug-addict; he’s also very, very lonely, surrogating porn and masturbation for the damaged relationships in his life.

The deeper Doyle falls, the more frenzied the action, but not at the cost of losing focus of the character. Once Doyle makes his move, and the drug-induced haze ramps up to overdose levels, Johnson contains the madness without sacrificing the main character’s personality, maintaining the narrative’s sarcastic edge.

I remembered the green car on my trail, hit the kitchen and rifled my utensil drawer for the biggest knife I owned. Ice-hardened eight inch blade. Worked great on lettuce—as long as I was only attacked by salads I’d be fine.– p. 79.

With great bizarro comes great accessibility. Writers of the genre are like circus jugglers, hoisting plot, characterisation, pacing, and the weird and strange all in the air, while refusing to water any of it down to make it easier to swallow. The weird and strange is heavy-duty in Skullcrack City, fostered by a solid mythology that makes the Illuminati seem tame by comparison. There are doomsday cults using ancient voodoo mojo, mixing science and religion and strange weaponry to send intended targets to otherworld dimensions; a reality TV show centred around the most extreme body modifications conceived; mad scientists enslaved to their methods creating human/gorilla hybrids capable of biting through human skulls; hex-addicted tweekers on the front line, sedating the world one mind-trip at a time; evil corporations corrupt from the inside financing the end of the world. Even with all of that craziness going on at one time, Johnson manages to keep it comprehensible and entertaining.

Once Doyle falls in with the rebels and begins to kick his Hex habit, Johnson dials the pace down without losing any of our hero’s personality or acerbity. It’s here that the author also breaks the narrative structure and gives us a peek into the minds of some of the other characters while never really leaving Doyle’s point of view. The transitions to those alternate perspectives are slightly bumpy, and take a little getting used to. Once he hits his stride and we realise what he’s doing, the change is refreshing and quite brilliant in design, allowing him a little space to develop the rest of the cast while maintaining a first person narrative.

Comparisons to David Wong’s excellent John Dies At The End come easy; especially considering Wong provides a blurb for Skullcrack City. Readers will find this book to be an entirely different beast, imaginably raising the bar for horror-fuelled nightmarish paranoid fiction. Another comparison, though a little more out-of-left-field, is how some parts of the story are reminiscent of the Half Life video game series, especially the second instalment of the series. While the specific plots of the two stories follow completely different paths, there are great similarities that give the novel the spirit of the game series, and that’s a very high compliment indeed. Both take place in dystopian societies, both deal with intruders fighting to take over the human race, fostered by government and corporate greed. The relationship between Doyle and Dara aligns with the relationship between Gordon Freeman and Alyx Vance in Half Life 2, though in Johnson’s novel, we see the full effect. Doyle and Dara’s romantic relationship blossoms, while Gordon constantly maintains a professional distance from Alyx. It would be easy to argue that Dara is, in many ways, a spiritual version of Alyx, brought to life on the page, and like her video game counterpoint, Dara is perhaps worthy of adventures of her own, before her time with Doyle.

Skullcrack City is an excellent choice for readers seeking something a little out of the ordinary. Johnson’s bizzaro fictional universes translate nicely in novel form, allowing him to show off his impeccable skills. He makes it look and read very easy, providing action when needed, slowing down the tempo only to ramp it back up again, funneling the story down to a satisfying logical yet completely unpredictable conclusion that both whets the appetite and leaves you ready for the next instalment. The author has hinted at the possibility of revisiting this world again, let’s all hope it doesn’t take him too long to get us there as well.

BOB PASTORELLA

Publisher: Lazy Fascist Press
Paperback (344pp)
Release Date: Out Now

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