C.V. Hunt (Ed.)
I’d heard a lot of good things about Grindhouse Press and the titles that they have released, but before now I hadn’t actually had the opportunity to hunt out any of the publisher’s titles and review them, although they had been on my (very long) list to review in the future. That all changed, however, when I came across the Horrorama triptych as I was scrolling through the latest Horror genre releases on the Kindle. As with so many books that I end up reviewing on this blog, it was the cover art that caught my eye and drew me in. Created by the hugely talented author and illustrator Rachel Autumn Deering (check out my review of her phenomenal novella Husk here), the cover is fashioned to resemble an old VCR tape and its cover, complete with multi-coloured bands across the front, hand-written notes, and the tape itself peeking out the side of the cover. It’s an incredible piece of cover art – one of my favourites of 2020 so far – and really brings to life that slightly grimy, slightly gritty, B-Movie feeling of the grindhouse films the three stories in the collection are based around. That’s a theme that editor C.V. Hunt follows up in her Introduction to the triptych, a short but intriguing section that talks about her hopes and aims for Grindhouse Press, and also the kind of stories to be found within Horrorama: straight-to-video films, the old ‘video nasties’ that had an ultra-low budget and amateur acting, but a passion for horror that was unrestrained by the diktats of a production company demanding rewrites or scenes being left on the editing room floor. While I haven’t shared any of the sort of experiences that Hunt writes so vividly about – drive-in movies and horror show hosts on local TV networks – I was taken in by her obvious passion for the subject, and was intrigued to see what the three authors would come up with.
The triptych opens with A.S. Coomer’s Store-All Self-Storage which sees a frustrated writer, stymied in the writing process and looking desperately for some kind of inspiration, taking a night watchman job for the titular self-storage location. Owned by a pair of terse, unsettling brothers, the location consists of a series of storage lockers and lock-ups that people rent; renters can access the storage site at any time by driving or walking in, and it’s made very clear to the protagonist that whatever the lock-ups are used for, and whatever happens in them, is absolutely none of his business. His job is purely to manage the gatehouse and ensure people can go in and out, and do a brief walk-around to make sure nothing’s been vandalised. It sounds like a simple job – low-paying but also low-effort – but of course, our protagonist doesn’t want a dead-end job, he wants inspiration for his writing, and soon finds himself lured into the lives and activities of many of the clients renting the lock-ups. What begins as brief, voyeuristic glimpses from hidden positions behind walls and the sides of buildings progresses into full-blown investigation, resulting in the protagonist becoming embroiled in the explicit, terrifying and consistently surreal activities taking place within the storage park. All three stories within the triptych are absolutely first-rate horror stories, but I think Coomer’s just about takes the first prize – his prose is tight, focused and darkly lurid, and it draws you into the story in a manner that almost feels unsanitary at times with the situations and characters that he describes. It’s a weird, unsettling and often deeply transgressive story that feels like a perfect blend of Weird Horror and Bizarro Horror – in fact, there are times when it feels like Coomer is deftly switching tracks and writing about a different subgenre in each of the different lock-ups that the protagonist enters. It’s an absolutely fantastic horror tale, one of the finest that I’ve read in 2020 – and sometime before that, in fact – and is worth the price of admission to Horrorama all by itself. It’s then followed by Lucas Mangum’s Primitive , which retains that distinctive Grindhouse feeling transferred from celluloid to print, but takes it in a very different direction – this is as much a character study and examination of male friendship and bonding as much as it is a horror story, and all the better for it. Four old friends decide to take time away from their lives to go camping, leaving behind jobs, spouses and regrets to focus on beer, food, campfire stories and an attempt to renew the friendships they possessed in older times. Mangum gives us a nuanced and complex, multi-layered narrative as the story progresses, combining the stresses and anxieties of modern-day life with an examination of the core concepts of masculinity (or at least the American version of it) and the complex and surprising fragility of male friendships once you burrow underneath the shallowness of sharing beers and meat over a campfire. Mangum also makes a point that’s incisive but also difficult for anyone to admit – just how well do we know our friends, and especially those we’ve only really kept at arms-length over the years? It’s a gritty, vivid and often discomforting story that examines toxic masculinity, the deterioration of friendships and even the secrecy of sexuality – and that’s before the monsters arrive. Because just as things are coming to a head between the four men, clumsily manoeuvring between the horrors of social interactions and the tripwires of posturing masculinity and egotism, Mangum completely subverts expectations by introducing an entirely new element to the novelette. Beers, campfires and hunting rifles take an unexpected turn when the men suddenly encounter a young woman chasing after what appears to be a strangely feral child, and her bizarre and unsettling story leads them into a terrifying new reality. Who is this woman, really, and why is she so intent on killing this child? The four friends are drawn into a weird and macabre reality that integrates Bizarro and mythological elements to create a horrifying yet compulsive narrative. Mangum has created a story that blends an intimate examination of masculinity, sexuality and friendship with violent, gore-soaked and thoroughly shocking mythological elements, in order to create an utterly brilliant narrative that helps to reinvigorate a staple of the horror genre that has recently become quite stale and boring.
The final story in the triptych is Matt Harvey’s The Vessel, sees a young woman become ensnared by the occult machinations of a strange cult seeking a vessel for their ‘Master’ to enter and inhabit until it comes to maturation and emerges into our reality, and the long-running pursuit of the cult by a grizzled, obsessive cult deprogrammer who aims to stop the cultists at any cost and through any means possible. I have to hand it to Harvey – he has a brilliant way at evoking a disturbing and grim atmosphere, ensuring that it pervades the entire novelette as the story progresses. There’s a really disturbing element that underlies the entire narrative – suspicion, paranoia and bone-deep weariness can be found on almost every page, and it really anchors the entire story and gives it and the characters more depth as a result. This is an incredibly creepy story, moreso than the other two novelettes in the collection, and it’s the one that’s remained lodged in my head the most despite the stiff competition. Whether it’s the incredibly nauseating and disturbing imagery in the opening paragraphs, as the cult attempt to use a victim to birth their Master, or the manner in which Harvey perfectly models the creeping, insidious nature of a cult and the way in which it preys on people and brainwashes them into undertaking evil deeds, Harvey has a way of crafting imagery that stays with you long after the last paragraph has finished. There are also some great characters within the story – including a fascinating glimpse into the complex life of a cult deprogrammer and the demons that drive him constantly forward. Hicks is a bitter, intensely driven man who has found faith against his will – a hateful faith, understanding that something beyond our reality exists, and which the cult are trying to summon. He’ll do anything to stop them, regardless of what happens in the process, because that faith burning inside of him demands nothing less. He’s opposed by the cult – the Heralds of the Celestial Ascendancy – and Harvey demonstrates that both the cultists and the deprogrammer are far more alike than they would acknowledge, deftly mirroring how they are both trying to bring their world into order – each in their own unique and bloodstained manner.
Featuring three brilliant horror stories that each perfectly embody the spirit of the Grindhouse film genre in unique and deeply engaging (and horrifying) ways, bolstered by some fantastic internal illustrations between the stories that are modelled like old TV listings and include some great faux-film posters and delightfully black humour, Horrorama is nothing less than an absolute triumph for Grindhouse Press and C.V. Hunt. Although I was initially somewhat sceptical that the essence of a film genre could be transferred to the written word, Hunt and the three authors she carefully selected absolutely blew me away with the stories in the collection, and provide definitive proof that not only can Grindhouse horror be written rather than filmed, it can be done so in a spectacular fashion in the process. Quite frankly, Horrorama is nothing less than the Gold-Standard for Grindhouse Horror Fiction, and I really look forward to seeing what Hunt and Grindhouse Press come up with next; whatever it is, I’ll certainly be there watching.