[Please note that the author sent me a review copy of this title in exchange for a fair and honest review]
Although it’s been nearly two years now since I took a dive into the Horror genre, I’ve admittedly been fairly conservative in my exploration of the genre. In my very early days I cast my net very wide, and came away rather shaken after encounters with the likes of Edward Lee and Matt Shaw; that led me firmly away from subgenres like Bizarro, Splatterpunk and Extreme Horror, and towards the safe grounds of Weird Horror and Occult Horror. And I think it would have stayed like that permanently if I hadn’t stumbled across author Douglas Hackle on Twitter, and seen a Pinned Tweet advertising his latest addition to the Bizarro subgenre. The title – Terror Mannequin – sounded interesting in a vaguely baffling way, and the cover art was absolutely fantastic: against a dirty, shadow-wreathed background, we see the titular Terror Mannequin itself – a misleadingly amusing contraption formed of a gaping-mouthed statue holding a ventriloquists dummy, which in turn holds a puppet, which grasps a jack in the box. I have to admit that I was entranced by the work of illustrator Hauke Vagt, and that combined with the back-cover blurb made me cautiously optimistic.
I’ll be quite honest and state that I had no idea what to expect story-wise from Terror Mannequin, both in terms of the novella itself and the Bizarro subgenre in general, and I wondered whether Hackle would immediately plunge into bizarre, disconnected weirdness like some titles in the subgenre I’ve seen. The opening chapter is certainly odd in certain ways – the concept of a rich, lonely old man turning his familial estate into a Halloween spooktacular, accessible only by a canoe drifting on a river that drifts through his front room is certainly eyebrow-raising; but it wasn’t that weird. And instead of mind-melting strangeness that might have immediately alienated me as a cautious reader, Hackle instead provided a first-rate opening chapter that featured some gory, artfully-described murders and made the potentially-laughable concept of the Terror Mannequin into something that is genuinely creepy and unsettling. It’s a fantastic set-up, and made me determined to read the rest of the novella.
After that creepy opening, Hackle does begin to introduce the bizarro elements, introducing our reluctant protagonist – Gront, a man who literally works in the best job in the world, a cubicle worker in a corporation where fun is mandatory and getting fired is almost impossible. He and his co-workers do nothing but nap, play video games, lounge around naked, masturbate openly, and indulge in every possible hobby, entertainment and perversion known to man. But Gront, amusingly enough, is burnt out by not working and longs for nothing more than the crack of the corporate whip, dreaming of a dangerous, ill-paid and misery-inducing job. It’s a great concept, and although played for any number of laughs and gags throughout the novella, it does introduce some bizarre and even quietly disconcerting imagery through the prism of a building full of people unrestrained by social, cultural and financial mores; and it becomes difficult to escape the observation that such a ‘dream job’ would slowly but surely degrade people with access to it to such a base and animalistic level.
As the novella continues, the strange, the weird, the unsettling – yes, the bizarre – only increases until it dominates the novella to such an extent that it becomes the normal. Not only is there an inept narrator who keeps breaking the fourth wall, but Gront’s social and family life is just straight-up fucked to key a phrase. He lives with an elderly mother who seems to possess every lethal illness known to man yet hasn’t died, and is determined to date a sewer-dwelling cannibal neceophiliac racist despite Glont’s best efforts. There’s a lot to unpack there, but Hackle barely pauses before introducing Glont’s two nephews, Tom Two and the Membrane, two literal monstrosities who are so reviled and hated by the surrounding population that they must remain indoors all year. The only exception is Halloween, when Glont must reluctantly lead them around town performing Reverse Trick or Treat, where they leave sweets and candy; failure to do this will result in exile at best, and death at worst. The night of Reverse Trick or Treating finally comes, and Glont becomes embroiled in a plot that involves his awful neighbours, the Terror Mannequin, and a whole host of Bizarro stuff happening in short order.
The plot goes to some bizarre, weird and even fucked up places at times, but I still found it immensely enjoyable all the same, and that’s all down to Hackle’s skill as a writer, and his mastery of the concept of Bizarro. While there are a lot of stomach-churning and grimace-worthy events in Terror Mannequin, they never seemed over the top, out of place, or – even more importantly – written with the sole intention of grossing the reader out, unlike many writers I’ve seen in the genre. Indeed, approximately half-way through the novella I thought I had the measure of the plot, and expected something that was weird and comedic than anything else; but then Hackle masterfully pulled the carpet out from under my feet and dumped me into a blood-stained and horrifying end-run towards the last pages of the novella.
But it’s not just the plot itself, or Hackle’s ability to master pacing and writing, that makes Terror Mannequin such a great book. Instead, that greatness comes from the subtext that Hackle weaves into the plot, and the social and cultural commentary that all good Horror fiction should provide regardless of subgenre. While Tom Two and The Membrane are horrifying monsters in appearance, they’re still just kids at heart, and actually pretty cool once you get to know them; certainly there seems to be no reason for their neighbour’s intense, unjust hatred which is based purely and solely on how the two nephews look. Their near-incomprehensible nature is integrated into the concept of a family, and caring for your family against outsiders, and the cruel and abusive reactions to them garner nothing but sympathy for them. And while Glont has some deeply disgusting personal habits, and is rather anti-social, he cares deeply for his mother and nephews, and rails against a society that treats them like pariahs for things they have no control over.
Terror Mannequin is weird, bizarre, humorous and very often horrifying, and despite the plot going to some incredibly strange and uncomfortable places I enjoyed it immensely. It’s superbly plotted and written, and with some important points to make once you get past the concept of Glont, Tom Two, The Membrane and even the Terror Mannequin itself. Having now read it several times for this review, I consider it the perfect introduction to the Bizarro subgenre, and would recommend it to anyone wishing to get to know Bizarro without being immediately swamped by the subgenres peculiarities. All of the key elements of the subgenre are to be found within Terror Mannequin, but Hackle deploys them in a deft and sure manner, building up the weird and horrific elements slowly but surely until it reaches a gore-stained and near-incomprehensible crescendo that you can’t escape – and don’t want to regardless – because of just how damn good it is.