Review by Tony McMillen
I am a notorious late adopter. If I get into a band you can bet that they just broke up or the original bass player just o.d.’ed, if I get into a director it’s only after they made their return to form movie 15 years after making their early acclaimed work. Same thing with authors. I’ve only been on the ground floor for two things in my life as an audience member and they were Image Comics and The X-Files when I was 12 years old. Go 90s.
So I hitched my space wagon to the Jeremy Robert Johnson planet caravan only recently with last year’s full length debut from the man, Skullcrack City. Skullcrack was the rare work which exceeded my stupidly unfair expectations. It even stuck its ending’s landing which is a personal pet peeve of mine when books fail to deliver all the way to the last page. But you might be asking yourself, if that’s his first novel and you read it when it came out originally how exactly are you a late adopter?
Because Johnson has been churning out literary, surreal, beautiful and repulsive word filth for more than ten years with his short fiction. Entropy in Bloom is his new collection which gathers all of these juggalos (the best of them, the Violent J’s, no Shaggy 2 Dope’s) and also features a brand new novella entitled “The Sleep of Judges” that reads like David Lynch’s take on Straw Dogs.
The one advantage to being the last one to know about something is you don’t have to wait. You get to binge read. And I freebased this book like the shit just got made legal.
Entropy in Bloom has a varied yet well-curated mixtape feel to it. Each story that follows the last one is a complete tonal shift with a different genre and sometimes different style but what remains is a singular voice. Kind of like how Led Zeppelin can record a reggae jam but you still know it’s them the minute you hear Page’s lick or Bonham’s groove.
When I say voice I don’t just mean the syntax. What links these stories is a sense of damage appraisal and bittersweet heart. Even in the most phantastic and otherworldly stories there is a sense of real, lived in hurt and longing that centers the more extraordinary decorative elements of each piece. When Johnson is talking about weird interdimensional viruses or some other high madness he’s really talking about the monsters within us all. Addiction, splintered and disintegrated families and their non-exist homes all seem to be a through line and constant landmark in the topography of Johnson’s fiction. The humor he employs regularly instead of disarming the darker moments and sentiments of each story accentuate them by merit of the contrast alone. Like hearing terrifying and violent lyrics only sung in a soft beautiful voice with an inescapable melody over soothing acoustic guitar. Both elements, the soft and the hard, are amped up by their uneasy juxtaposition.
Here are my thoughts on each of the stories:
- The League of Zeroes: We open with a story involving some of the body modification characters from Johnson’s novel Skullcrack City. This story came out well before the novel and the actions depicted therein also predate the events of the book so it’s sort of a first appearance/origin story for a new reader like myself. The story is equally funny and sad and does some interesting exploration of reality TV, celebrity worship and the ways we’re willing to mutilate ourselves if we think we can carve ourselves a new home. A theme returned to a lot in this book.
- Persistence Hunting: I like to run myself so a good story about a runner is something I’m always game for. This piece is a very grounded bit of “regular guy tries out crime with varied results” type of story with a fucked up but sympathetic main character. Sort of Portland hipster noir in the best possible way.
- The Oarsman: Sci-fi horror story about the isolation of space. Sort of had a Bradbury vibe to me.
- The Gravity of Benham Falls: This one felt like a Stephen King short story, that’s a compliment. Another interesting grifter type of main character.
- Dissociative Skills: An exercise in how much visceral assault you can handle as a reader. Reminded me of a shorter dose of the sustained brutality of Stona Fitch’s excellent novel Senseless. Like that book, Johnson’s tale isn’t disgusting for its own sake, it serves to carry the even more painful truth about wounded, anemic families and the various addictions which rot them from the inside.
- Snowfall: A short dark beautiful vignette. I won’t ruin the surprise.
- When Susurrus Stirs: I was waiting for this one. Having heard about the short film based on this I was expecting a full on bizarro gross out fest, and there is that but more than that. There is poetry to the imagery describing terrifying body horror stuff. And even better than that there are some very post-human apocalyptic transcend musings here that remind me of some of my favorite bits about Skullcrack City. Some of the writing in this is reminiscent of the best dreamslurry wordplay of the band TV on the Radio.
- Luminary: Here’s one of my favorites. A beautiful, almost Spielbergesque story about fireflies, siblings and the childhood obsessions of magic and death.
- Trigger Variation: Another favorite. Although at the start I thought it might be too close to a Palahniuk Fight Club retread with its male bonding over violence, albeit this time using pillow fights (which is a brilliant twist on the ol’ Chuck formula.) But thankfully I was wrong. The real story surfaces soon after this set up and what’s there beneath all this ornate garnishing is another well-crafted story about addiction’s wrecking of families and how impossible forgiveness can be. The end was unspeakably brutal but also the only way this story could have ended.
- Cathedral Mother: A would-be eco-terrorist tries to reconcile her misanthropy with her motherhood and unwaveringly love for her son. Some fantastic imagery enhances this bent portrait.
- Swimming in the House of the Sea: A character study about two brothers in a hotel that avoids being saccharine with material that a lesser writer would easily make that mistake with. This felt real and unafraid to be heartfelt.
- Saturn’s Game: This also felt real and that’s what made the story so horrifying. A story about how some people just have something wrong with them and they hurt people even when they don’t mean to. About how crazy people aren’t evil, they just have problems we can’t relate to.
- The Sharp Dressed Man at the End of the Line: This to me is the most bizarro story here—though I don’t know really know what bizarro is, I haven’t read a lot which has been categorized as such—but my idea of bizarro is essentially shit like this. And yet—the thing that keeps me from picking up a lot of bizarro books is that from the descriptions it doesn’t sound like the stories will have any heart—and this story had tons of heart. It wasn’t just some absurdist weirdo shit that’s cool at first than gratuitous and boring after a while. It had something to say about the human condition. And at the same time it was one big joke complete with a perfect punchline. I loved this story, read it yourself to find out what the sharp dressed man wore.
- A Flood of Harriers: One of the darkest stories in here in an ink bowl full of them. The story asks the reader some hard questions about race relations in America specifically about American Indians and white people and the results of the genocide of the native people we stole this land from.
- States of Glass: Yet another favorite. A small character focused piece this time about a grief and sexual desire and how fucked up it can feel when the two mix and how that’s natural but maybe so is our subsequent guilt.
- The Sleep of Judges: And then we get to the aforementioned novella that caps off the book, The Sleep of Judges. Entropy goes out on a high note with one uncomfortably close deep stare into the fragility of masculinity, the fragility of family and the illusion of safety from the evils of the outside world. This story is a great encapsulation of the themes of the entire book. There’s the surreal hidden type of horror, the everyday malaise and panic of “normal” life, and a focus on the cracks that start to show in both. It’s about a family that has their house broken into and what it means to have your sanctuary violated like that. The story seemed to articulate the question the entire collection asked me: are we just faking it? Every day with living our boring, safe lives, are we faking it to ourselves? Because part of us knows there’s something watching us that wants to invite us to stop faking it. To finally be the monsters we know that we really are.
Purchase Entropy in Bloom.
Tony McMillen is the author of the novels Nefarious Twit and the upcoming An Augmented Fourth from Word Horde.
He is also the artist behind both books’ artwork, you can check out more of his lurid scrawling and scribblings at https://www.tonymcmillen.com/
If you just wanna party with Tony find him on Facebook. If you are David Lee Roth time displaced from 1984, don’t worry, he’ll find you.