Book Review: Doom Cabaret by John McNee

“Although there are only seven stories, they showcase a great range of horror … while they differ in levels of darkness and subject matter, they are all truly horrific and pitch black in tone.”

 

Doom Cabaret by John McNee - coverJohn McNee lives on the west coast of Scotland, journalist by day and author of strange and disturbing horror stories by night. His published work includes a novel, Prince of Nightmares (Blood Bound Books, 2016) and two books, both published by Rooster Republic Press (Grudgepunk in 2012 and Petroleum Precinct in 2016) set in Grudgehaven, the fictional city of his own creation. His short stories have appeared in various anthologies from presses such as Corpus Press, Sinister Horror Company, and Blood Bound Books. Doom Cabaret is his first collection.

‘Bebbel’ is actually the name of the character through whose eyes we watch the story unfold. Bebbel is a member of a travelling troupe under the leadership of Sally and her sidekick, Fat Charlie. Theirs is a dark and twisted display, hidden within the larger funfair of rides and stalls, hiding this one, lonely tent that caters to an exclusive clientele. Well-dressed men and women watch as creatures once human, since transformed by Sally’s cruel hands, are paraded onstage, showing all signs of transformation. Bebbel is hung from an overhead crane, wires fed through hooks embedded in skin. All the while, Sally holds sway over the congregation. However, the true horror really occurs with the audience participation. McNee has a flair for the theatrical (as evidenced by the promotional videos he uploaded to social media to promote the book) and this is evident in his writing. From the grandiose dialogue of Sally, to the descriptions of the stage and surroundings, it makes for beautiful prose, even when he describes the alterations to Sally’s stars.

‘Dead Deanna’ is a change in style from the last story. The sentences are short. The inner dialogue of protagonist Ray is abrupt and tinged with seething anger. When he reaches the bar, the tone gets a little sleazier, as barmaid Deanna turns on her charm, in a far from subtle way. It isn’t long before they are rolling around, tearing each other’s clothes off. But then it takes a sinister turn. Ray is twenty-five years her senior, and was unhappily married when he first met her. What began as a steamy affair went off the rails when Ray began to voice some doubts, causing Deanna to make some serious allegations. Ray’s life fell apart, and he has harboured some dark thoughts ever since. We can’t really say what happens after the events at the bar without giving the whole thing away, but McNee gets to stretch his extreme-horror muscles with some of the gruesome descriptions, leaving nothing to the reader’s imagination. Deanna seems to take great pleasure in making Ray squirm and, presumably, so too will McNee when he hears that the ending to this one gave us goose-bumps. Wonderfully horrifying.

Reviewer Ben Walker likened ‘Man Holding Razor Blade’ to the movie Candyman, and we’d definitely agree. Hannah escapes an abusive relationship by sleeping on the couch in friend Nasreen’s council flat. From the kitchen window, they can see a mural on an exterior wall, depicting a disturbing scene of a man with a razor blade, standing before a bonfire, surrounded by hideous creatures. Hannah feels herself drawn to the painting and discovers upon investigation that the artist is an asylum seeker from Belarus who lives on the housing estate. He claims he is compelled to paint the mural by an unseen force, which only adds to the tension. Soon, the line separating reality and fantasy becomes blurred, and Hannah isn’t sure what to believe. This gives her an opportunity to deal with her own problem. But it comes at a price. It isn’t a brand-new idea, but McNee puts a wonderfully dark and bleak twist on it.

‘Slaughterhouse Sweetheart’ takes place in Norway, where producer Miletto has ventured to meet reclusive Dr Olaffson. He arrives just in time for dinner, the meal deliciously described, before McNee drops the bombshell that they are eating human. It comes up fairly early in the story, so isn’t spoiling anything. It turns out that Miletto has developed a taste for human flesh, and Dr Olaffson is something of an expert in trading it. As it happens, he has developed a way to biologically grow humans like cattle, at an accelerated rate to meet demands, and offers to give Miletto the grand tour. Most of the subjects are docile and cattle-like in their demeanour; eyes devoid of intelligence, simply moving along a conveyer belt. But one of the subjects catches Miletto’s eye, one deemed surplus to requirements. Against Olaffson’s better judgement, he allows Miletto to take her away. Naturally, disaster strikes. It is an unusual concept for a story, quite grotesque in a way, as Miletto oversteps a terrible boundary with his new pet. But the truly terrible horror comes at the end when Miletto must face the ramifications of his actions.

‘Skunk Jr’ takes us to some small, rural area in America, where local police officers respond to a terrible car crash. The passenger was heavily pregnant at the time of the accident but, when emergency services arrive, she is dead and her baby is missing. What follows is a desperate manhunt into a heavily forested area, while the leader of the small group, Lieutenant Teddy Warner and his men discuss the inhabitants of the shacks on the creek, specifically Skunk Arlen and Lynne Tavish. Their personal and family history is complicated, to put it mildly. The group are greeted by something disturbing in the woods, which leads them to a final confrontation with the one who took the baby. Bloody and gory imagery abounds in this prime example of extreme horror, and a fine example of McNee’s range in horror fiction.

In ‘Repulsive Glamour’, Agbal is a man who from a far-off country who claims to have a drug that does not affect your mind, but will alter your body. He has built up a cult around the drug, Munzur, and those who know of the drug and worship it congregate at a nightclub called Cathedral. Two early users of the drug, Pox and Degradatia, lord it over other followers, proclaiming themselves gods, even toying with Agbal. But he soon has his revenge when he unleashes something even worse on them. A moral tale of being careful what you wish for, as well as a take on what greed can do to the human mind, it is another gore-splattered affair, with some gruesome visuals, as well as a great setting.

‘The Lullaby Man’ concerns a monster who stalks the dreams of the innocent, transporting those who sleep to his labyrinthine Muddle House and tormenting them with childish rhymes. Jenny discovers an artist, Heather, whose only subject for her canvas is the delightfully creepy Lullaby Man. Jenny wants to find out what Heather knows about this bogeyman, so hangs around after an exhibition. The action cuts between their conversation, and Jenny’s appearance in the Muddle House, at least proving the existence of some place with a creepy man stalking her. But how real is he? And what are Jenny’s intentions? This story felt very cinematic in its style, like it could be easily adaptable in film, possibly as an episode on the new iteration of Creepshow. While creepy creatures haunting the dreams of the innocent is far from original, we found McNee’s take on it truly terrifying, and the descriptions of the Lullaby Man eerie. The way he builds the tension, flitting between the two scenes, is excellent, and the pacing of the final confrontation is brilliant.

The final story, ‘Midnight at the Doom Cabaret’, concerns the eponymous club, and its latest recruit. Street performer Natalie Bell is approached by a mysterious and alluring woman, Carmen, while she is playing violin on the streets of Glasgow. She is invited to audition for an exclusive club that very night but, upon arrival, she is greeted by the creepy Mr Bramwell and thrust straight into that night’s performance. She finds it difficult at first, unable to fully understand the music or concentrate when the beautiful Carmen is onstage. But when Bramwell appears, she finds she can play the music effortlessly, along with the rest of the small group of musicians, although she can’t quite explain why. Despite her reservations, she accepts the full-time employment, which comes with the caveat that she must stay in the underground club and not venture outside. It soon becomes clear that this cabaret is even stranger than it first appears, but her growing feelings for Carmen force her to stay. Until it brings her into confrontation with Bramwell. It is another deliciously dark tale, reminiscent of the first story, and again benefiting from McNee’s theatrical voice. The way the ending calls back to the beginning of the story is also very well done, and makes for a very strong finish to the collection.

Although there are only seven stories, they showcase a great range of horror, from the theatrical tales that bookend the collection, to the more extreme ‘Dead Deanna’ and ‘Skunk Jr’, even these differing, with one more sultry and intimate, the other action-packed. Then we have the cinematic and nightmarish with ‘The Lullaby Man’ and ‘Man Holding Razor Blade’, the fantastical ‘Repulsive Glamour’ and the disturbing cannibalism hinted at with ‘Slaughterhouse Sweetheart’. While they differ in levels of darkness and subject matter, they are all truly horrific and pitch black in tone. The imagery is strong throughout, McNee seemingly free to paint the most terrifying ideas from his imagination directly into our own. It speaks to McNee’s strength as a storyteller that there isn’t a dud amongst the stories, and more people ought to be reading his work.

THOMAS JOYCE

Publisher: Sinister Horror Company
Paperback: 196 (pps.)
Release Date: 24 April 2020

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