Book Review: The Gulp by Alan Baxter

“Baxter has crafted the literary equivalent of a Venus flytrap and, by the time we feel the descent towards our own doom, the trap is already closing, and we are perfectly poised for the next volume of tales from The Gulp.”

The Gulp by Alan Baxter - coverAs Alan Baxter has himself said, he is yet to meet a genre he doesn’t like. A brief look at his back catalogue will show perfect examples of horror mixed with noir, supernatural, science fiction, cosmic horror, and even a creature feature. He has proven himself an accomplished storyteller with a broad range of dark fiction filled with enthralling characters in riveting situations. For his latest project, he has created a collection of five novellas sharing one setting (the fictional rural Australian coastal town of Gulpepper) and all of its strangest inhabitants. Bringing together many different sub-genres from his personal playbook, he has delivered five independent tales which, when read together, create an overarching narrative of pure dread and existential horror.

Baxter makes a great choice with his protagonist for opening story ‘Out on a Rim’. By using the point of view of an outsider visiting The Gulp in rookie delivery driver Richard Blake, the reader is introduced to the weirdness of the town, without the weight of prior knowledge to get in the way. Just like Rich, we see The Gulp’s slight idiosyncrasies and slightly odd behaviour of the locals and, although unsettled, we can’t say with any certainty that the causes are paranormal or horrific in nature. But, of course, this is a horror book. Route-learning with experienced driver George, Rich ignores the warnings about The Gulp when an unfortunate accident by George strands them in the small coastal town overnight. While the seasoned driver refuses to even leave the cab when the sun begins to drop, the rookie heads into town to experience the hospitality. Unfortunately for him, he finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and is soon introduced to criminal kingpin Carter. The suspense felt by Rich—and, subsequently, the reader—is reminiscent of Baxter’s books featuring Eli Carver, but the main take-away from the story is the strangeness of the town. Whether it is something consciously or subconsciously perceived by Rich, or something hinted at in the brief glimpse of the town and its inhabitants, the weirdness makes the skin crawl and is suggestive of a deep-rooted horror that yearns to be explored.

That exploration continues in ‘Mother in Bloom’, taking a more personal tone in the form of local teenage siblings Maddy and Zack. It quickly becomes clear that their mother has died, leaving them to fend for themselves. The thing is, they aren’t exactly grief-stricken by their situation as we learn that their mother was domineering and vindictive. And she is still in the house. Sick for quite a while and bedridden for months, she refused medical attention, relying on sixteen-year-old Zack to care for her while Maddy worked and refused to see her. Now the siblings must figure out how to maintain their living arrangements for six months, until Maddy turns eighteen and can legally care for Zack, without any outsiders enquiring about their reclusive mother. But this is only the beginning of their problems, as their deceased mother’s body exhibits strange alterations. What follows is a great examination of a strained relationship between a loving brother and sister, as Zack struggles to deal with the guilt of their mother’s death and longs to make it right, leading to some gruesome choices. It also perfectly displays the effect that living and growing up in such a strange and haunted environment as The Gulp can have on a sensitive person. Also, we begin to glimpse a larger mystery that seems to lie at the heart of all that is wrong with the town. A great mix of horror and drama that makes for an excellent standalone story, but also further whets the appetite for more details about the town.

‘The Band Plays On’ duly delivers with more intriguing hints at the bigger picture of what is happening to the town. This is shown through the eyes of travelling Irish backpacker Patrick. He and partner Ciara have met fellow travellers Torsten and Simone, siblings from Germany, and they are all journeying together in a camper van. But the opportunity to stay in a motel in Monkton leads them to a gig in a local bar by cult favourite Aussie band Blind Eye Moon. Immediately swept up in the music and the euphoric reaction from their cult following, the travellers accept an invitation from the band to continue the party at their luxurious manor. In nearby Gulpepper. What begins as a good time soon takes a more sinister turn as Patrick experiences vivid dreams about the history of the town and the role played by the members of the band. Patrick’s desperation to escape and fight the urge to fall under the spell of their charming hosts is palpable, and leads to some startling revelations about the town. The horror of this tale is more cosmic in tone, hinting at the greater arc and secrets buried in the town’s history. The descriptions of the more sinister elements of this story are great, as is the development of Patrick’s character.

’48 To Go’ begins with Dace, running an errand for his boss, Carter, and trying to hook up with Sasha at the same time. Everything is going great, until two armed robbers hold him up and he must return to his boss with his tail between his legs. Carter gives Dace forty-eight hours to reimburse him for the lost merchandise, hence the title. We proceed to follow the inexperienced criminal as he spends the next two days descending into a hellish nightmare scenario. The small-town setting offers little opportunity for him to come up with such a large sum of money in so short a period, but he finds out about an old couple who have little faith in banks and horrifying secrets to keep. Unfortunately for Dace, he’ll find himself intimately acquainted with all of them before his time is up. What begins as a weird and almost funny series of events (the hapless Dace does offer some much-needed light-hearted relief) grows increasingly disturbing and stomach-churning as the story progresses. Baxter’s ability to seemingly blend sub-genres with little effort makes for a gripping horror story full of nightmarish elements. The connection to the greater story arc of the town and the larger horror plaguing the dreams of the inhabitants seems tentative at first, until an action-packed finale leads to a stunning revelation that forces Dace’s actions front and centre of the bigger picture. The transformation of his character from meek delivery boy in the beginning to his final stature through the gauntlet Baxter made him run is excellent, and well-earned.

In final story ‘Rock Fisher’, local fisherman Troy prides himself on knowing the best places from which to fish to get the best catch in The Gulp. But he doesn’t reckon on catching something not fishy, utterly mesmerising and utterly out of this world. He takes it home gently places it in his aquarium, much to the amusing disapproval of the other inhabitants. But he feels it calling to him and, despite his own strained relationship with his own parents and siblings, and the fact that he is newly single, he feels a paternal pull to the item, longing to nurture it. And the longer he spends looking at it, the more time seems to slip away. Then events really take a turn for the bizarre. Baxter weaves elements of body horror and despair to deliver a truly terrifying conclusion to the story, and the book in general, as characters from previous chapters are mentioned reacting to the horrific events unfolding thanks to Troy’s actions. It certainly left this reader with a longing to hear more about the Gulp, what happens next and, perhaps, what happened before.

Five novellas that weave in and out of each other, with recurring characters and one immensely creepy setting. Opening with the story told from the point of view of the outsider is a great way to introduce us to the town, and the finale of the closing story gives an overall fitting conclusion to the book as a whole, but the stories in between could be read in any order. Each story has a unique narrative, some more bizarre than others, some more gruesome. And every story evokes a chilling sense of dread in the reader, which is credit to Baxter’s knack for a creepy tale and his wonderful storytelling ability. Stories of strange little communities often reflect on the ugliness of the place, drawing comparisons between the hideous scenery and equally hideous people. When we think of beautiful sunshine and golden beaches and the vast surrounding greenery of trees, we often consider it heavenly and calming. We let our guard down. Baxter has taken that sense of calm and used it against the reader, to great effect. The Gulp has a habit of swallowing people. It feels like Baxter has crafted the literary equivalent of a Venus flytrap and, by the time we feel the descent towards our own doom, the trap is already closing, and we are perfectly poised for the next volume of tales from The Gulp.

THOMAS JOYCE

Publisher: 13th Dragon Books
eBook: 243 (pps.)
Release Date: 12 January 2021

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