Book Review: Yes Trespassing by Erik T. Johnson

“Erik T. Johnson delivers a magnum opus of staggering proportions and epic concepts of literary strangeness.”

Collections of short fiction are sometimes difficult to evaluate from a critical standpoint, mostly because of the fact that they are often front-loaded with the best pieces the author has to offer and then the rest of the book is padded with stories that are tepid to downright terrible. So, it adds to the effort because, on one hand, you want to give the author credit where it’s due. They’ve proven with the opening works that they’re capable so completely crushing their abilities would be blatantly irresponsible. But, on the other hand, it would also be remiss not to warn the reader about the drivel that rounds out the collection. But in the past few years, there has been a pleasantly surprising dearth of such works, with an influx of promising young authors such as Damien Angelica Walters, Michael Wehunt, and Daniel Braum embracing the form and producing some of the best work that’s produced in the last few decades, and more voices add themselves to the chorus every day. One such is Erik T. Johnson, author of the Michael Bailey edited collection, Yes Trespassing, from Written Backwards Publishing.

In the synopsis of this collection it winds up with the statement, “This book will change you.” And while that seems like something of a lofty statement, in retrospect one might find themselves nodding their head with a knowing little grin of understanding as they find themselves, with a sense of awe and wonder, asking themselves the proverbial question, “WTF did I just read?” These twenty-eight or so stories—including two that can only be accessed via scannable QR codes—are so varied and different from one another and likely from anything else you’ve read before as too be uncategorizable except in a very vague sort of fashion. They’re transgressive, literary, highly intelligent, but by no means complicated to approach, ranging from straight up horror to magical realism and what could only be categorized as neo-noir. And, as with any Michael Bailey edited book, the layout and design is immensely creative and fun, packed with what are aptly called “scribbles and insanity” drawn and scrawled by the same twisted, delightful mind that penned the stories within.

But, as it should be, it’s the tales that require the most attention here, and that also will capture and retain the attention of any reader who dares enter into the dark, wonderful, and often completely deranged world of Erik T. Johnson’s imagination. Starting off strong with ‘Water Buried’, the reader encounters one of the best things about the book straight after the starting pistol resounds. It’s a short, haunting vignette that introduces them to the enigmatically magnetic and recurring character, Martin Box, a boy who is at the outset waiting in the attic of his home for his parents to return. It’s a story that sets Martin off symbolically on a journey that will enrapture the reader every step of the way and leave them hoping that he remains an element of Johnson’s lexicon for a long time to come.

Next up, we’re given a strong inkling of exactly what sort of weirdness we’re in for with ‘Some Things Aren’t Anything’, which starts out enigmatically enough with the protagonist talking about his grandma’s house:

“There was a special breed of imaginary thing in that house, which could be touched. There was a piano, but my mother hated music, so none of us knew how to play it, so it was an imaginary piano. And there was a fireplace, but my father was too afraid of burning the house down to light a fire in it, so it was an imaginary fireplace. We were always so close to things that could be, but weren’t.”

That little bit of strangeness is just the tip of a haunting lyrical fantasy that sets the stage solidly for what turns out to be one of the best, most beautifully written collections of this or any other year.

We go on to encounter Martin Box again in ‘Pool Day’. Now a private eye who investigates the strange and unworldly, he sets out on a mundane quest to discover the whereabouts of a fake mobile blood bank but finds himself instead taken captive and fighting for his life against horrifying, yet oddly wonderful, otherworldly creatures, including less than helpful rats and a magical bird-BIRD that secrets murdered bodies away to a “place beyond evidence.” As has already been mentioned, Martin is a recurring character who appears again in ‘Krug’s Pen’ where he describes his occupation thusly:

“I’ve worked for gods, monsters, fairy tale creatures, talking books, shady trans-dimensional corporations, you name it.”

He goes on to appear in several other stories, including ‘Brain Scram’, ‘Martin Was Here’, and ‘The Startling Objects’, all of which are addictively engaging and guaranteed to make Martin Box a character you will fall in love with and won’t be capable of forgetting anytime soon. Here’s hoping Johnson has a Martin Box novel in his pen somewhere.

If this were just a collection of Martin Box stories, that would be more than good enough and it’s hopeful that there is someday such a thing. But Yes Trespassing is so incredibly much more than that for too many reason to mention in this venue. Erik T. Johnson has an authorial voice like none you’ve heard before and a mastery of the English language that is rivaled by few, his words nothing less than poetry in splashes of vivid color on the page. Color is something he plays with extensively in his stories with standouts being the magical, haunting, and strangely heartbreaking ‘The Purple Word’, in which the sky first turns purple and then a man, seemingly the sole survivor of a zombie apocalypse, finds himself haunted by a cat with purple eyes. Then there’s ‘Brain Scram’, another Martin Box story and one that also manipulates the color of the sky in tantalizing ways, serving as an intense, scene to scene mood modifier as Martin finds himself in a race to find a book that can alter reality.

Yes Trespassing is a fever-dream magnum opus of almost staggering proportions, sometimes hyper-real, sometimes so surreal that reading back over passages in wonder and amazement, marveling at Johnson’s remarkable alacrity with turns of phrase and vivid, Technicolor imagery reminiscent of the works of Vandermeer, Burroughs, and Bradbury, but fully unique in concept and execution. If you came here looking for vampires and werewolves and haunted houses, you’ve come to the wrong address. But if, like most discerning horror fans these days, you come looking for courageous pioneers, unafraid to forge new paths and cover heretofore unexplored territory in speculative, sometimes exceedingly weird fiction, then you’ve found your destination. With tales like the hilariously heartbreaking ‘Petals and Pistils’, told by an intelligent survivor of inhumane canine experiments, and ‘The Inconsolable Key Company’, a Barker-esque nightmare that demonstrates perfectly this one author’s willingness to kill his darlings in new and imaginative ways, Erik T. Johnson is writing at a level that all authors, new and veteran alike, should aspire to. Because what Johnson has achieved with Yes Trespassing is nothing less than absolute greatness.

Rounding out the collection, ‘Scissors Seldom Come’ is the most strangely transgressive, complex, and difficult story of the bunch, sometimes hard to follow, but in the end well worth the quest. It’s a novella length tale that sometimes borders on outright bizarro horror but never quite flips over the edge, taking you on a surreal literary journey like you’ve ever experienced and delivering you with the firm belief that you’ve just read the strongest, most perfectly executed anchor you could ask for to this remarkable gathering of madness from the marvelously twisted mind of Erik T. Johnson.

SHANE DOUGLAS KEENE

Publisher: Written Backwards
Paperback: (430pp)
Release Date: 11 April 2017

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