The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre
If I had to choose the publisher in the Horror genre that had most impressed me, from all of the titles that I had read in 2018, it would be a tremendously difficult choice – but I think the winner would be Muzzleland Press. Although I only discovered the publisher earlier this year, browsing through the selection of Horror titles on the Kindle marketplace, I’ve rapidly become a massive fan of the publisher and the direction it’s going under the guidance of editor and author Jonathan Raab. Muzzleland Press seems to be the home of titles that have a particularly quirky brand of weird and darkly humorous horror that can still disturb the hell out of you. From impressive, carefully-curated anthologies such as Terror in 16-Bits and High Strange Horror: Weird Tales of Paranoia and the Damned through to novels like Mer Whinery’s magnificent weird western Trade Yer Coffin For A Gun, I would struggle to name a publisher who’s output has impressed, entertained and creeped me out more than Muzzleland.
I made it a personal mission to review every single publication by Muzzleland Press before the end of 2018, and I think I’m on course to achieve that singular goal. Next up on the list are the works of Jonathan Raab himself – novel The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre and novella The Lesser Swamp-Gods of Little Dixie. Both titles are inter-connected and part of a wider series, sharing the same cast of characters – but I’ve enjoyed them both so much that I’m dedicating a separate blog post to each one in turn, especially as to me they are the exemplars of what Muzzleland embody. First up is The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre, and although it was published in 2015 by Literati Press, I still include it amongst my Muzzleland Press reviews because I consider it to be a key part of the Muzzleland canon – and in many ways the most pure expression of what the publisher aims for.
As with so many titles, it was the cover that attracted me to the title – and while I’ve seen a great many excellent pieces of cover art in my time reviewing books, rarely have I come across a piece that is simultaneously of such high quality that I’d like to have it as a print on my study wall and so perfectly evokes what’s to be found within the pages of the title it’s representing. A stark black background sharpens the dark green that dominates the cover; in the centre is protagonist Sheriff Cecil Kotto, looking like the epitome of badass, with dark aviator shades, combat helmet, a shotgun slung over one shoulder and a cigarette dangling from his mouth. A UFO hovers above his right shoulder in the cover of night, while loose bullets form a semi-circle around him, jugs of poisoned moonshine on either end. Underneath him a pitchfork and chainsaw cross-over each other, framing the book’s title and author name, which are in three-dimensional yellow-on-red text that evokes old-fashioned movie posters from drive-in cinemas and late-night TV runs. It’s an absolutely classic and iconic cover by artist Pete Lazarski, and I will be seeking out a physical copy of it at some point.
So the cover is amazing and attracts the reader in – and the cover blurb absolutely seals the deal. How can you not love a book where a small, isolated town in Western New York is suddenly inundated with a population sent mad by poisoned moonshine that makes them susceptible to mind control? Where a lone, paranoid, conspiracy theorist radio broadcaster – recently made Sheriff in the aftermath of a drug bust that led to the arrests of most local law enforcement – is the only one who can stop the chaos? And where it turns out that every single conspiracy theory you could ever possibly imagine is not only 100% true, but all blended together into one overarching and overwhelming conspiracy theory? I will readily admit that In fell in love with the idea instantly, and I think anyone even vaguely interested in weird horror, or who’s ever listened to an Alex Jones podcast and frowned in bemused confusion, will do exactly the same thing.
The novel has one of the strongest and most engaging openings to a horror story that I’ve read in a long while. In a backwoods trailer park, a heavily militarised SWAT team stack up and then assault the trailer that supposedly contains an illegal moonshine still. Only something goes terribly wrong; instead of arresting the moonshine producer, weird, occult-like things happen and the SWAT suffer heavy casualties. It’s a cracking scene, well-paced and deftly described, with Raab rapidly demonstrating his skill as a writer. He has a keen eye for detail, and it shows in the depiction of the raid itself – not only do we get a great, almost innate, sense of the area and its atmosphere, but we also see the tense, frayed relationship between local law enforcement, the SWAT members, and a mysterious Federal agent supervising the raid. This is one of the main themes of The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre and it’s fascinating, particularly as someone from another country who’s only ever witnessed this strange, quasi-militarised police officers on the TV or in movies. Raab underscores the ridiculousness of these heavily-armed, armoured and testeroterone-charged officers stacking up on the rickety stairs of a trailer that could have been visited by a single Sheriff, and then highlights how all the weaponry and ex-US Army vehicles are utterly useless against something occult and deeply wrong. It’s police officers playing at being soldiers, and the horrible truth underlying this novel is that this is absolutely the reality of the United States – and it’s only going to get worse.
Into this tense, charged and rapidly disintegrating environment is cast Abraham Richards, former National Guardsman recently returned from a tour in Afghanistan. It’s a clever character to bring in, allowing Raab to deftly juxtapose the discomfort and dislocation of returning to a supposedly peaceful United States – which is still alien after years fighting and bleeding overseas – only to find out that in many ways its just as militarised and oppressive as the country Richards has returned from. Raab takes some time to lay out just how difficult it is for Richards to start readjust to civilian life – friendships renewed with difficulty, the lack of jobs for ex-soldiers, the horrific memories – and then starts to subtly blend in the conspiracy theories. Strange lights, people going missing, fights randomly breaking out at a ski resort – it isn’t long before Richards is thrown full-tilt into a rapidly-expanding situation that threatens to overrun the entire county.
Into the void steps Sherriff Cecil Kotto – a character that I have absolutely no doubt in proclaiming the best new character I’ve encountered in 2018 – and quite possibly the whole time I’ve been reading, even beating titans like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, who remains one of my favourite authors. When Kotto is first encountered, it’s easy for the reader to laugh at him – and, to be fair, Raab deftly brings out all of the humour and befuddlement to be found in the copious conspiracy theories that proliferate the internet and other forums like bars and outdoor gatherings. Kotto is the living embodiment of a typical conspiracy theorist, effortlessly throwing out barbs about the Illuminati, the Trilateral Commission, the faking of the Moon Landings, and a thousand other kooky theories. There’s an element of subversive humour here, with Raab often gently poking fun at these theories and the people who espouse them, but it never feels like he makes a judgement or outright condemns Kotto or his fellows, particularly given the nature of the plot.
On the one hand, Kotto is the embodiment of the wry (and often outright comedic) sense of humour that runs throughout the novel, and it would have been easy for Raab to write Kotto as some skin-deep paranoiac fighting aliens and masonic lodges. But the genius of this novel, and ultimately Raab’s writing, is that he goes deeper – much deeper. He’s rapidly fleshed out as a three-dimensional, evolving, character, with some interesting thoughts on the situation that unfolds. A scene that’s stuck in my head for a long while after finishing the book is where Kotto first takes Richards on as a deputy; after some basic physical training, he suddenly confronts the veteran with a ‘thinking’ task, giving him a series of envelopes with strange contents – newspaper clippings, internet articles, dollar bills and the like. It’s all the sort of fodder that conspiracy theorists come up with every day, and Kotto has Richards use a draft board, pins and red thread to try and put them together. Mystified, he does so, and there is a great element of comedy here as he tries to make sense of it all; but while a lot of it is paranoid ranting and nonsense, Kotto quietly points out that he’s put together some basic, uncomfortable truths – linking money to politicians, for example, and connections between power, funding and the use of drama in news reports. It’s a thoughtful take, and to me highlights something crucial – that there can be elements of truth in conspiracy theories, it just gets buried under nonsense and paranoid rantings.
So there’s a great sense of humour running through the novel, and also some brilliant characterisation, particularly with Kotto, Richardson, and the relationship that develops between them. But this isn’t just a character study title – Raab also seamlessly integrates a complex and detailed plot that draws on practically every trope associated with weird horror, and conspiracy theories in general, and mashes into a gigantic, terrifying and often darkly humorous plot. He’s an excellent horror writer, which is amply demonstrated when the moonshine begins affecting enough of the population that they turn into blood-thirsty mods. There are some great action scenes, some quite gory in ways I hadn’t expected, and Raab also takes the opportunity to highlight the inadequacies of the militarised SWAT that work in the county – despite all of their advanced weaponry and thuggish tactics, they’re completely ineffective against the crazed citizens. The craziness escalates quickly and smoothly, and Kotto is such an engaging, original and outright enjoyable character that you’ll happily follow him as he struggles to end the chaos. There are so many fantastically witty lines and unhinged scenarios that I alternated between cringing at some outright body horror and laughing at a quip or inference made by the Sherriff. For example, I’d never heard of the Red Cross being accused of mass murder before, but despite being an insane theory, the way Raab blends it in with Kotto’s other rantings made it hilarious.
This review hasn’t even begun to dig into the depths of The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre, and as much as I want to go into more details – the aliens, the surprising empathy shown to the main antagonist by Raab, the character development by some of the other cast, the incredible scene where Kotto and Richards take mushrooms and acid in order to travel into another dimension to locate the moonshine still – that would take an entire essay. I might actually write that one day, because god this book got under my skin in the best possible way. But I’ll finish up by proclaiming this to be one of the best books I’ve read in 2018, if not for many years in the past. Brilliant characterisation, great action scenes, deft development of atmosphere, and a constant, unsettling barrage of horror blended with conspiracy theories and a wickedly sharp, dark sense of humour all blend into one fantastic creation. I’ve read it several times now, and I can only urge you – fellow reader – to do the same. You absolutely won’t regret the decision.