Written by: James Keen
“There are places underneath despair.”-‘Wetbones’
Tom Prentice is a young, not so hot screenwriter living near Hollywood, not entirely enamoured of the “false intimacy” of the movie industry there and certainly wary of the constant cajolement of his aspirations by those with no interests other than their own, “Hollywood was a place where you could die of encouragement”. We first meet Prentice grieving in a morgue, he’s there to identify the oddly emaciated body of his estranged wife, Amy. It quickly becomes obvious to Prentice that his once manic-depressive wife might have perished due to rather more nefarious circumstances than mere weight loss and narcotic dependency.
Shirley’s secondary protagonist here is a reformed alcoholic and drug addict – working at overcoming addictive behaviors, now a minister involved in the rehabilitation of others mired in the seemingly endless and miserable cycle of dependency. This is Garner, sole parent to his teenage daughter Constance, a bubbly girl of whom he has high hopes she’ll manage to avoid the pitfalls of self-destructive drug use.
With the introduction of Ephram Pixie, “a squat little man, with a soft wheel of fat around his middle, his oversized head mostly bald,” Shirley’s narrative takes an unnervingly steep nosedive into the weird and horrifying. Ephram’s motivations are driven by an addiction to something far more frightening than man-made drugs, a supernaturally extracted narcotic of the deeply monstrous kind.
And then things get seriously weird.
The author rapidly builds a narrative so fleet-footed in pace that by the time he’s properly established his secondary characters, the reader is already figuratively gripping the vibrating seat-restraints of a literary rollercoaster whose admirably unrelenting momentum is by turns both exhilarating and terrifying. Shirley’s thought-provoking story of a reality that exists just below the level of human perception is -at times- used as a slightly cumbersome metaphor for the dilapidation of the physical and the spiritual, but the compelling narrative rhythm he adopts here doesn’t allow the reader to worry too much about the overt symbolism.
There’s a quote by the noted American author and essayist John Rechy used at the opening of ‘Wetbones’ that speaks of the writer’s obvious shared perception of the nature of Los Angeles, “You can rot here without feeling it.” Shirley’s had a diverse career thus far, a screenwriter (you may have heard of ‘The Crow’), Bram Stoker award winning novelist, singer, songwriter (he’s penned lyrics for the band, ‘Blue Oyster Cult’) and continues to produce works of bewildering and challenging creativity. Arguably there’s a patina of verisimilitude evident in ‘Wetbones’, a work steeped in ruminations on the vapid nature of Hollywood and the debilitating impact of interminable drug abuse and partying culture. In less talented hands this social commentary element is often prone to authorial pretension, open to the dangers of being wearisomely preachy and over-bearing. Shirley skirts this tendency for the most part, nicely presenting the reader with a sub-text that doesn’t scream out its message, but simply and effectively whispers it throughout this imaginatively rendered story.
Clive Barker, whose recommendation for this novel reads as follows, “John Shirley is an adventurer, returning from dark and troubled regions with visionary tales to tell. Wetbones is a wild and giddy ride, confronting the reader with marvels and horror in equal measure.” And Barker’s right on the money here. I envy those who have not read this excellent tale yet, as it’s this reviewer’s contention that it’s one of the most rewarding ‘horror’ experiences you’ll have had in quite a while. The outline listed above is, to use the tired cliché, ‘only the tip of the iceberg’ in terms of the horrific delights that await the discerning reader, but if you’re strong of stomach and eager to be taken for a riveting and unnerving literary ride then you can’t lose picking this one up.
Order Wetbones here.