Author: John McNee
Type of Book: Fiction, themed short story collection, noir, transhumanism with a smidge of steampunk, horror
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because it is the first book that contains steampunk elements that didn’t make me want to throw the book at the wall. And he didn’t screw up the transhumanist elements of his stories. Believe me, that’s all very odd.
Availability: Published by Bizarro Press in 2012, you can get a copy here:
Comments: I first encountered John McNee in 2011 when I read a relatively mediocre extreme horror short story collection. His story was the best in the book, a dystopian, transhumanist nightmare that made the rest of the stories in the collection seem almost amateurish in comparison. I wondered how McNee would do in longer form, if he could take the amazing world-building and characterization and keep the intensity of his monstrous characters outside of the limits of a short story length. Turns out he can. If I had been in a position to have a “Best of” list in 2013, this book would have been at the top of the list. I can say with no equivocation that this is an excellent book.
Though this book is released by a bizarro imprint, I hesitate to call it bizarro. It’s noir. It’s trans-humanist. It’s extreme horror. It’s brutal and intense and at times strangely touching. It defies classification because it is a perfect synthesis of so many different influences without becoming a pastiche. This is not an imitation – it’s a creation. Because I am not a person much given to steampunk or noir, I should not have liked this book as much as I do but it speaks to McNee’s skills that he mixed subgenres I don’t much care for and I still couldn’t put the book down.
Quick synopsis of the book: In the city of Grudgehaven, we are presented with a place much like Gotham late at night combined with Sin City at all hours, with some side steps into Blade Runner and Repo: The Genetic Opera as run through a Cherie Priest novel. Criminal syndicates are at war, wreaking havoc. A gorgeous dame sings at a club and forms a strange friendship with a taxi driver. A man fights to keep his ailing wife alive during a riot. A sentient severed hand is on a mission. Human motels, in that they are motels made of human skin, have relationships with real humans. A writer finds herself in a sticky situation when she is hired to write the autobiography of a very bad man. The daughter of a preacher makes a deal with a devil of sorts. A boy made of clockworks longs to be real. And all of these single threads weave the tapestry of The Grudge, a town without pity but with plenty of malice.
Because of that pesky second X-chromosome I have, the story of Louie, his wife, Marianne, and the lounge singer Dolores, was the price of admission part of this book, though the stories of Cynthia, the woman tasked with writing a book about the worst man in The Grudge, and Alesa, the preacher’s daughter, are both excellent. The tale of Louie is such a great story that I am going to discuss it in depth, and mostly spoil it in the process. I don’t like doing that but if I don’t keep myself focused on one story, I would want to write about every story in the book and this discussion would be about 40 pages long. But I also must spoil it because spoiling it is the only way to show how excellent it is.
Louie is a cab driver who is down on his luck. He has a sick wife and he has a lot of trouble making ends meet. He meets a gorgeous club singer named Dolores, who gets him caught up in a surprising double-cross. This is a story that has been told so many times that it hardly seems remarkable enough, on its face, to be one of the best stories in the collection. The delight (and sadness) is in the details. McNee nailed the sort of Double Indemnity noir feeling right out of the gate. The story of Louie, “All the Wrong Parts” begins:
If cab drivers had a Ten Commandments, Number One (in my opinion) ought to be: Thou shalt not fall for thy female fares.
And if there were a commandment I’d break most frequently, that would be it.
I met my wife when she stepped into the back of the cab. Met a hundred or more girls since who offered every kind of temptation. And then… then there was Dolores.
Dolores is young and beautiful, with a look that money helped sculpt, because in The Grudge, bodies are the sums of parts that can be replaced and Dolores has access to lots of money to cover her dark skin in “polished crystals.” She’s not pulling in a good audience for her shows at the Blanko Dance Hall and she’s been sent home for the night. She and Louie have a flirtatious conversation and Dolores recommends he come see her show if he wants to hear her sing, because she won’t sing unless she is paid, but Louie would never be let into such a swank place and Dolores is a bit too young and a bit too naive to understand the wide chasm between the haves and have-nots in The Grudge. She marvels that Louie has been married for fourteen years, he assumes a paternalistic role as he tells her to be careful on the nasty Grudgehaven streets and when she reaches her destination, she gives him a hundred dollars and arranges for him to bring his wife to the club. She’ll put their names on the doorman’s list and she leaves Louie feeling a bit stunned as she walks off into the rainy evening.
That hundred dollars serves Louie well because it allows him to go and visit “The Guv.” Louie tells the Guv he needs a particular item, a “screw-in size 9 copper-plated filter head.” It’s a pretty expensive part.
I sighed through my nose and produced a stack of ragged bills, with Dolores’ crisp hundred on top.
Guv went into one of the many safes behind the counter and came back with a small brown box. “Y’know, if it’s a circulation problem, a new filter head’s only a short-term solution. Probably rot clean out in a year, then you’ll have to buy another. What you might need is a new converter. And that I can do a deal on. Say… twenty-seven hundred.”
“Payments by installments?” I said.
He made a face. “You know how I feel about that sort of thing.”
I put the money on the counter. “Then I guess it’s just the filter head.”
As an aside, as a person who has spent a bit of time in her life in a place wherein a blown rod or a bad alternator equals financial disaster, I read the exchange between the Guv and Louie with some tension. Patching things up and making do, never able to spend enough to fix a problem wholly but just enough to keep limping along, is a tiresome dance I am grateful not to have to do any longer. But it wasn’t Louie’s car that he was buying that filter head for. It was Marianne, his wife.
He trudges up twelve flights of stairs to his apartment and finds Marianne in the dark, as he left her, three locks on the door to try and keep her safe. He has to keep her safe because Marianne couldn’t defend herself on a bet.
The light was on in the bedroom, so I walked in. “Marianne?”
Her eyes were closed. A dog-eared paperback was splayed open on her chest. Less than half of her lay in the bed. Her legs had been bolted into a truss and tilted towards the ceiling. A drip tray positioned under what remained of her ass caught the trickles of corrupted mercury that oozed every so often from the cracks under her thighs. Pieces of her back, stomach and groin – the more aesthetically pleasing, though not essential parts – had been cut away and now littered the room, strewn across sheets stained with oil and anti-freeze, between discarded tools, tattered instruction manuals and more than a hundred screws of varying size and importance. Plastic tubes connected to crudely carved holes in her neck connected to bottles of lubricant and ethanol, strung up over the bed – part of a clockwork mechanism drip-feeding her rusted veins every couple of hours, designed to keep her tired heart pumping in relative comfort.
This was the way I’d left her when I headed out to work in the morning. The way I’d found her every night I’d come home for close to four years.
Every time I saw her I wanted to weep.
Louie, the cab driver, the guy who could fall in love with every fare if he let himself, is a stand-up guy. You may sort of dislike him for dreaming of other women as he drives, contemplating falling in love with all his female fares, but what he does to try to fix Marianne redeems him and makes him vulnerable to the allure of the violent underworld in The Grudge. But then again, in noir, all the heroes are flawed, and Louie is no different.
Marianne is tired when Louie gets home, but he insists on working on her anyway, hoping that this new part may give Marianne some relief, repairing her in some way.
Installation instructions were printed on the inside of the filter head’s box and I was careful to follow them as I identified and unscrewed the old part. I had to put in a little more effort than should have been necessary working it free, and when it finally slid out of its hole I saw that the open end had been worn down to the nub. I tossed it and pressed down on the nearest valve. Black bile bubbled out of the hole in a long, guzzling stream and poured into the lid. The stink of it – like rotting meat and vinegar – was ferocious, but I held my breath and turned my head to the side, trying not to let my revulsion show. Marianne was deeply embarrassed by the smells of her own sickness.
McNee knows how to use the visceral nature of body horror – even body horror as applied to living cyborgs – better than anyone else in the bizarro genre. Possibly better than any writer short of Caitlin R. Kiernan, really. He uses gore judiciously and in a manner that doesn’t overwhelm his plot or, worse, become the purpose of the plot. It’s a thing of beauty when the repulsive is still human and the disgusting has a reason to exist outside of the desire to create a sort of prurient lust for gore. I’ve lost my taste for a lot of bizarro and almost all extreme horror because the more I read, the more I thought the genres were becoming little more than repositories for nasty stories with no eye to plot, characterization, common sense, or even decent writing. McNee puts paid to the ideas that rough content cannot be literary and that it cannot be strangely beautiful.
See? Louie is a stand-up guy. A man who can ignore the reek of rotting meat and vinegar to save his broken wife’s feelings is a man of substance. It’s that detail that showed me all I needed to know about Louie.
Back to the story. Poor Louie, struggling for a buck, overhauling his wife with parts he knows won’t last for long – he’s a sitting duck for a scam and Frank comes knocking at his door. Actually, Frank slips into Louie’s apartment. Frank is the King of Broken Glass (I won’t spoil what that means exactly but he is but one king struggling for control in The Grudge) and he and Louie go way back. Louie was once a hood, but went straight when he met Marianne. When he asks Louie to take part in a robbery at the Blanko Dance Hall, the King of Eye’s legitimate business. Inside the club is a vault that is a repository for his vast fortune. All he and Louie need to do is find a way into the Blanko to case the place before the heist. And that’s when Louie starts to laugh…
Dressed in his only suit, ill-fitting and out-of-style, Franks finds the bouncer with the list and gets inside because Dolores, true to her word, indeed remembered to set things up for Louie. Louie catches Dolores’ show and she comes to sit with him, and besotted with her youth and beauty, Louie tells Dolores about Marianne.
It was painful to see the pity in her eyes, so I turned away, looking to the dance floor, which was filling up now that the house band was playing.
“She’d have loved this.” I could feel myself slipping into melancholy, which came as a surprise. Usually it doesn’t hit till I’m on my sixth or seventh drink. “We used to go dancing all the time, back in the day. Not to any place as nice as this, but some real jumping joints. She could do them all, the… jitterbug, the slow drag, the breakaway, the jive… Boy, but you should have seen her.”
When Dolores asks him to dance, he eventually relents and as lovely as Dolores is, he imagines his wife when he dances with her.
But the good time cannot last and Louie cases the place so that the following night he can return to the Blanko as Frank’s getaway driver. Gang riots have set Grudgehaven alight with fires and Louie’s tense as he imagines Marianne, helpless against rioters or encroaching fire. Finally Frank rushes out with a bulging bag, and Louie gets him out of there. And because this is a noir novel as much as it is anything else, there’s the double-cross. There was no safe. It was an assassination. Frank killed the King of Eyes’ daughter, Dolores. There is no take for Louie, just the knowledge that he helped kill an innocent young woman. Dolores is dead and he is no closer to rebuilding Marianne.
He does not react well and Frank, the King of Broken Glass, doesn’t last very long to feel Louie’s wrath. Louie stuffs him in the trunk with Dolores’ body and tries to get home in time. He doesn’t make it. Of course he doesn’t. There’s seldom a happy ending in double-cross-gangster-transhumanist-steampunk(ish) novels. Well, if there is a happy ending, it’s not the one you expect. Though I’ve mostly spoiled this story as I praised it, the discovery that Marianne fell to the fire is not the end of this story or of the book, though we’re talking just two more pages. In this discussion I left out a couple of important plot points, points that don’t seem important until you reach the real end and see how neatly McNee brought the story full circle in a manner that is more pleasantly familiar than it is hackneyed.
This seems like a novel, but this really is just one story. It is 25 pages long and just one part of this book that tells the stories from The Grudge. Nine stories in all, and all can stand alone, but together they create a world that the reader sort of knows, but really doesn’t. I think this is how fans of the space-western felt when they first saw Star Wars. It was a a revelation, yet strangely familiar.
This book has some of the finest characterization and dialogue that I have seen in this genre, because even though I don’t label this book as bizarro, it’s marketed as bizarro and published by a bizarro imprint. As bizarro, this short story collection stands heads and shoulders above most of its genre brethren.
But even outside the various labels we use to classify books, Grudgepunk is a book you need to read. I suspect that McNee’s writing has a bit too much brutality and a bit too much body horror to be able to cross over into literary fiction, though some writers manage it. And perhaps it is unfair even to bring up literary fiction because I see no signs that McNee would want to be such a writer, but it still has to be said that at times genres are ghettos, however deserved or undeserved such designations may be. It would be a terrible shame if this book went overlooked because of its genre labels.
It’s not often that I can look at a story, think the writer would be amazing in longer form, and be proven right. Highly recommended.