You might not be familiar with the works of David J. Schow, though he’s had a long and varied career: there’s his work in the horror film industry, his long-running “Raving & Drooling” column in Fangoria, and his fiction, which won both the Bram Stoker Award and World Fantasy Award in 1987. That was around the time he helped define the splatterpunk movement—hell, he coined the name for it after all. And while he’s often branded as a horror writer, he’s moved on to writing a number of novels that fall into crime/noir territory—which reminds me, maybe you know Schow for his Hard Case Crime novel Gun Work, or more recent titles like Internecine or Upgunned. It’s been a few years coming, but Schow’s latest collection is about to release through Subterranean Press, packing in the usual 13 stories plus 13 nonfiction pieces, articles and essays and interviews.
“Now Hold Still” is the perfect first story for this collection. It’s a strange tale narrated in second-person, a ferocious, almost stream-of-consciousness flow directed at you, the captive audience. It keeps you as the reader on the back-step, trying to figure out what’s going on, trying to make sense of the many diatribes on love, or the requests to think of everyone who’s ever hurt you, or the story-within-a-story about a couple who decides to take their love and dedication to the extreme by murdering all of their ex-lovers. By the end you realize who the narrator is, a knock-your-socks-off revelation. It’s a smart, suave, and brilliantly executed piece, a slick-as-hell gut punch. That’s pure Schow. Pretty much the entire volume is like that.
I’m torn on how to describe Schow’s writing for the uninitiated, without resorting to a big block of quotes. It’s hyper-literate, smart enough to have more diplomas than you; it has a biting cynicism, especially in the non-fiction essays like his spot-on “After 9/11” interview. Actually, most of the essays speak with the bitter authority of an insider, so the non-fiction pieces are often as engaging as his fiction. His essays usher forth acerbic commentary on the sad state of the industry compared to its heyday in the ’70s and ’80s; much like his stories, they offer a grim view on the human condition and attack the stagnant status quo. Fango article “Death to Decaf” slams the recent crop of mindless Hollywood remakes, bloated CGI tentpoles, and premature sequalization; the book review “38 Days Later” covers the short life of Features of the Black Lagoon, a volume burnt at the stake for its obscene plagiarization. Even lesser pieces—the introduction to the indie comic Sonambulo, or the blurb for Mulholland Books’ website—become fascinating little histories of noir.
Schow is most often labeled as a “horror” writer—being the guy who named a subgenre “splatterpunk” will do that to you—but most of the stories in DJSturbia defy categorization. Some are horror, others venture into noir/thriller territory, all of them weird and macabre but altogether brilliant. “Graveside” features a man who fears to sleep at night, because when he sleeps, he sees out of the eyes of others—a non-stop train of misery, an irredeemable humanity without virtue. “Denker’s Book” is about a mad scientist—or was he really mad, it asks, questioning reality and sanity in a Lovecraftian vein. When science failed Denker, he turned to a tome of forbidden knowledge to power his devices, replacing science with sorcery… and ultimately seeing his Nobel Prize revoked. “Warbirds” is an excellent piece, a World War II bomber pilot’s flashback to a strange and hellish encounter over Europe. “Gunfight” is an awesome little crime homage to Don Westlake that takes a Parker-esque character through a brutal shootout; it brings back fond memories of Schow’s Hard Case Crime novel, Gun Work.
Reading through the collection, you might notice the strong theme of monsters—and if not, well, Schow brings it up in the afterward. Between the psychological thrillers and creepy tales there’s a number of good creature features, owing no small debt to the B-movies of yore. “Blue Amber” follows two cops who arrive at the scene of a pod-person-type invasion, where deadly alien spores have infected the local populace and turned them into zombified spawn; it’s creepy and fun and hits all the right beats, even if it doesn’t do anything new with the trope. On the other hand, “A Home in the Dark” is an excellent Lovecraftian explanation for LA’s seismic disturbances, and “The Finger” is a twisted love story about one monster’s love for its adopted human”parent. Godzilla even appears in the gonzo “Two Scoops,” and stars in the authoritative “We Have Always Fought Giant Monsters” essay that retells the history of 1950s monster movies.
These stories are all dark and twisted inside, bleak little gems where monsters and murderers play, almost all of them standouts (and the rest are still very good). The nonfiction pieces seem like an odd addition at first, but they work well in tandem with the fiction… after all, they cover the same themes: giant monsters, L.A. noir, snakes, death. DJSturbia is an excellent collection, full of biting black humor and criticism, chills, thrills, and authoritative scholarly analysis, which is a rare combination indeed. Schow’s fans probably already know this, just as they’ve probably already have their own copies on preorder. (They’re still taking preorders for the signed limited edition hardcover, at $40; once that print run of 1,000 is gone, everyone else will have to make do with the ebook.) So this is really going out to everyone else: if you’re a fan of horror or crime fiction with an interest in film history and haven’t read any David J. Schow before, you need to fix that situation and fast. DJSturbia is a must-read collection of slick stories, written by one of the genre’s best. I can’t recommend it enough.
DJSturbia releases at the end of March; I received an e-ARC from the publisher and NetGalley, and yes, I ordered a hard copy.
Author: David J. Schow
Publisher: Subterranean Press
First Published Date: 31 March 2016
What I Read: ebook
Price I Paid: $0 (e-ARC via NetGalley)
MSRP: $40 signed LE hardcover / $4.99 ebook
ISBN/ASIN: 978-1596067721 / B01AYNKA98