Eraserhead Press, 180 pages, trade paperback, $9.00
Regardless of whether short story collections are as popular or as lucrative as novels, they are my favorite literary medium. Fellow Verbicide writer Kris Sevillena recently informed me that Edgar Allen Poe—in addition to writing fiction and poetry—was also a literary critic who expressly read and wrote about short stories, as he strongly disliked the lost momentum when he wasn’t able to finish a novel in a single sitting.
I’ll agree with Poe. I do enjoy novels, but I get the most enjoyment when I can engross myself in an entire story from start to finish in one sitting, and yet still be able to return to the author’s world at a later time.
With that in mind, it says a lot about the addictive quality of Johnson’s writing when I found myself taking in all 18 stories in Angel Dust Apocalypse in only two sittings—granted, I read about 12 of them while on a two-hour train ride to New York one evening, but hey, usually I just sleep.
The unifying factors of the stories in ADA are the surreality of the world in which the characters live and the relentlessness with which Johnson explores the individual psyches of his subjects. Though the majority of the circumstances and settings in these shorts are purely fictitious—even other-worldly—the qualities exposed are pure and concentrated doses of the darkest aspects of humanity that we ourselves are rarely brave enough to face up to. Johnson revels in turning inside-out our innate desire to mask our carnality and brutality.
The best example of Johnson’s sinister mutilation of morality is in the eleventh piece, entitled “Saturn’s Game.” The story starts like this: “You could bite Todd’s nose off. That’s the thought at the back of my head. That’s the thought I ignore. I squelch the sinister sentiment and refocus on my friend.”
The first time I read that opener I knew I was in for trouble. In the ADA author’s notes, Johnson explains himself by stating, “C’mon, you know you’ve had thoughts like this guy. Someone once told me that there’s no such thing as morality, and that it was just a social construct to eliminate a person’s willingness to do hideous things. Or maybe I just made that up.” Even in his damn author’s notes, Johnson makes the reader laugh, cringe…and self-consciously examine himself. So, in regards to myself, have I had thoughts like this? …No comment. (Well played, Mr. Johnson. Checkmate.)
In its most twisted moments, Johnson’s writing (like fellow Portland, Oregon resident Chuck Palahniuk) is too gleeful to pigeon-hole as strictly “horror,” and when he steps outside the gross-out game, he transcends most other straight literary writers.
For instance, “Swimming in the House of the Sea” is one of the longest and most poignant stories of ADA. It centers around a 21-year-old, Wolf, and his mentally handicapped brother (who has an even stranger name, “Dude”). Wolf is an obvious loser who lives lazily on his mother’s coin in exchange for shuttling Dude back and forth along the California coast between his flaky divorced hippie parents. On one such trip, Wolf’s car breaks down in Bakersfield, and the brothers must spend the night in a hotel where Wolf’s attempt to relax in the swimming pool is constantly interrupted by antagonists. After a tense confrontation with a hotel guest that brings to mind Holden Caulfield’s run-in with the pimp in The Catcher In The Rye, the reversal of roles between brothers causes Wolf to reconsider his cynical view of Dude. It is among the most touching stories I’ve read by any author, amazing for a piece of work that begins with the sentence, “The retard is finally asleep, which is great because now I can head down to the hotel swimming pool and relax.”
For all the horror, gore, disembowelments, touching stories of sibling love, and science fiction oddities that are crammed into the pages of Angel Dust Apocalypse, there is one super-short story that stuck with me more than any other: “Branded,” a one-and-a-half-page story that relates the thoughts of a male narrator as he reluctantly performs oral sex on his new girlfriend, “to initiate a sort of deepening of our relationship.” The reluctance is caused by his discovery of a horrible, “raised, ropy-white and red-rimmed” scar on the inside of her thigh that is in “the exact shape of the McDonald’s logo.” So what thoughts invade the imagination of the narrator as he performs cunnilingus? The taste of “fancy ketchup,” “Grimace and the Hamburgler,” “the killing floor for McDonald’s Inc.” Disgusting, even ridiculously juvenile, you might think as you read this story. Then Johnson ends it abruptly with a stab to the heart that defines the callous and shallow nature of so many people, and so many relationships: “She was a wonderful human being, with a laugh that you’d want to hear at the gates of heaven. And I am weak for leaving her.”
Amidst all the material in ADA are two classic short stories that originally saw print in Verbicide, the tale of “body modification royalty” entitled “The League of Zeroes” (from Verbicide issue 11), and the simple, Bradbury-esque tale of the apocalypse as seen through the eyes of a deaf young boy, “Snowfall” (from Verbicide issue 13).
Angel Dust Apocalypse is a nice length; at 180 pages it’s what you could consider a “companion book,” to be brought along in your rucksack on a road trip alongside your Henry Millers and your Hunter S. Thompsons— the perfect amount of short stories to keep the reader engaged through an initial reading, yet eager to pick it off the shelf again in the future. ADA is every bit as smart as it is gut-churning, and every bit as moving and introspective as it is horrifying and humorous. Is Jeremy Robert Johnson the next big thing? I can only hope that people will catch on. If he can keep it up, Johnson will surely earn a place as a classic voice of the contemporary counter-culture.