Book: Tales of the Macabre and Ordinary
Author: Chris Mikul (longtime readers here may recognize his name – he is the publisher of the excellent ‘zine, Biblio-Curiosa)
Type of Book: Fiction, short story collection, horror
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because Mikul actually does manage to combine the macabre and the ordinary in each story.
Availability: Published by Ramble House in 2009, you can get a copy here:
Comments: The book does what it says on the cover. It delivers macabre (and gross) tales that are also very ordinary in some manner. It’s a very interesting way to tell stories, to permit the narrative to fall flat in some manner, or to tell a story most people know and do it in such a creepy way you make it your own, or to tell a very simple story that seems like it is telling you everything but is really telling you just enough to ask more questions. At times Mikul denies the reader the catharsis often expected at the end of a tense story because he doesn’t spell things out, and in other instances the narrative ends in a manner that is blunt and horrible. Sometimes the simplest subversions of the traditional story-telling method are the most effective, and each of these stories in some manner are indeed macabre and indeed very ordinary.
The collection has nine stories, and I want briefly to discuss each one. I’ll do my best not to spoil the endings but in a collection like this one, avoiding spoiling endings may well be impossible. Metaphorically, how do you spoil a door slamming in the middle of a sentence? Still, I’ll be careful.
First story, “Dead Spit,” is Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley dropped into the Outback. I don’t think I have spoiled it by describing it this way because, again, the ending will deprive you of the momentum you think the story is gathering. The best part of this story, for me at least, was when I realized that I had created a big mystery clue/red herring due to my own ignorance. I don’t use canola oil because the word canola disgusts me, so I was not aware it comes from plants that collectively are known as canola. I guess I thought canola oil was a mixture of crappier oils and that the trade name for such oil was “canola.” Who knew? Well, evidently everyone else on the planet knew, but that is a detail in this story – working in a canola field and it distracted me from what was really happening.
Jesus, “A Cut Above the Rest” is Peter Jackson’s earlier films with a touch of “Evil Dead” thrown in. Gross, sort of dumb, quite funny and also gross because I need to emphasize how gross this story was. This story also brings to mind Richard Olen Butler’s Severance, which I should mention I have discussed on this very site. Quick synopsis: fat man tries to win maiden fair by losing weight the hard way.
“Meet Me at the Shot-Out Eye” is a great sort of gritty mystery. Too international for noir but still has that grimy, double-crossing dame feeling. Hero goes to Prague and meets up with a lovely Czech woman with a penchant for sketching people, even during the most inappropriate of moments. Given the length, it’s surprising how layered this story feels when finished. Excellent writing in this one.
Those who regret bitterly their goth years will despise “Blood Sport” but, if you just concentrate on the story instead of your own deep embarrassment at having worn the same Bauhaus t-shirt for years while denouncing Love and Rockets as total sellouts, you can find this story pretty funny at times. Heroine is a teenaged goth with a terrible home life who meets a self-proclaimed vampire (who does not shimmer or glimmer or whatever it was Edward Cullen did) who betrays her. She takes revenge in a very organized manner, killing two birds with one stone, as it were.
“Deddybones” is my favorite story in the collection and I don’t really know why. Les is hired to clear out a creepy old house after the owner dies. The owner had left the home as a sort of unclear monument to a life that never happened when his wife left him. The house is filled with small details that never knit together to form a coherent picture of what awaits Les, and that makes it all the more disturbing. Les falls victim to the house (and takes others down with him as he falls) in a sort of insanity that left me wondering exactly what it was that happened. I mean, we know what happens in a physical sense but never quite get what it is that makes Les go mad, what made the previous tenant go mad, and in turn, that made me feel unsteady, groping for a reason for why things happened as they did. It could be mystical, it could be that sometimes single men lose their bearings. This story is enjoyably frustrating and comfortably familiar in how Les handles the problems that come up as he deals with the fall out from his decisions. I was certain a search on “deddybones” would show me some aboriginal lore that would explain it all but to no avail. Ninety percent of all search results led to this story or to a freelancer in Indonesia. Nope, I am left to wonder what exactly drives Les mad, or if anything drove Les mad.
“The Petrol Run” is an effective story with an abrupt ending. A cult leader goes to prison for child molestation and the cult member left in charge stages a disturbing public reaction to the sentence. This one was probably more effective to me because I had been reading The SCP creepypasta just before reading this story, most notably the notorious SCP-231. Sometimes the external influences are what make a story disturbing, and that was certainly the case for me with “The Petrol Run.”
“Mountain Devils” is close to “Deddybones” in terms of excellence. An older widow paints children’s faces at a local fair, and one boy asks to be painted as a devil. That boy is later a victim of a terrible crime, and the crime doesn’t end with the perpetrator’s death. This is a relatively disturbing story, and the heroine’s end seems abrupt, but when you consider what happens in the story, it actually makes perfect sense when you realize the only person who was affected by the criminal and who did not die was a man in the throws of dementia.
“Barbecue at Nev’s” is some heavy stuff, gentle reader. This one has a pretty solid ending, but one that left me asking all kinds of questions. Family and friends gather for a cook-out and mete justice to one of their own who has stepped outside the boundaries of moral behavior. There are some pretty loathsome details in this one – putting cigarette butts out on cockroaches, for instance. And I don’t think I am giving too much away when I say this story isn’t told in third person, despite all initial appearances that it is. This story is really disturbing in its implications and was skillfully written.
The last story in the collection is “The Wonders of Modern Medicine” and it’s also pretty disturbing. A young woman sleeps through the last stop on her train and finds herself with a dead cell phone and attacked by strange men. And it just gets worse for her from there. This story borrows heavily from urban legend and what is happening is telegraphed pretty clearly but at the same time it’s a nasty little story.
All in all, this was a solid short story collection. Mikul tells you exactly what he plans to do from the outset – he mixes very obvious and at times pedestrian story-telling with extraordinary details, plots and characters. The result is generally that even as you think you know what is coming, you really don’t. And when you do manage to guess, you end up second-guessing yourself. This is a maddening, interesting, entertaining, at times gross and at other times even grosser collection. I liked it a lot. Highly recommended.