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.