The First Rule of Showmanship: A Too Much Weird Special Edition
Too Much Weird Press
I’ve rarely written a review that only focuses on a single short story, but as I try and stumble out of the wreckage of 2020 and find my way into the hopefully brighter days of 2021, I decided that it might be easier to tackle smaller pieces of fiction in my first reviews of the year, eventually working my way up to whole novels again. It therefore seemed incredibly good luck to discover that author Terry M. West had set up his own publishing company, the intriguingly-titled Too Much Weird, and had recently released the first couple of titles under the Too Much Weird banner. West is the author of the brilliant weird horror novellas Transfer and The Plumbers, both of which I reviewed on The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer last year, and I consider him to be one of the leading lights in the Weird Horror genre. I was therefore intrigued to see what he was publishing, and decided to take a look at what Too Much Weird had to offer a recovering book reviewer. Several of West’s own titles have been published in new editions, which I hope to get too in short order, but the title that really caught my eye was The First Rule of Showmanship by DS Ullery. Although I hadn’t heard of the author before now, I certainly trusted West’s judgement, and knew that if he had chosen Ullery’s short story to be a flagship title for Too Much Weird then it was going to be well worth my time as a reader and review. Besides, my attention had been caught by the fact that the story was subtitled as a ‘Special Edition’, as well as the distinctly disconcerting cover art that features the face of a clown wreathed in shadow, unsettling grin leering at us from the darkness, dirty teeth gleaming and eyes glowing an unsettling green colour. It all made for a deeply captivating package, and I looked forward to seeing what Ullery – and West – had in store for me.
The ‘Note from the Author’ sets the scene nicely, not only setting out the fact that The First Rule of Showmanship has been re-released under the Too Much Weird banner, but also the fact that the story focuses on the all too real fact that sometimes, people can be pushed over the edge no matter how nice and kind they are; and that when that happens, to directly quote Ullery, “…there is nothing – nothing – in this world as terrifying or destructive as human nature when it is samaged and decides to freely act from the darkest of places.” This directly applies to Frank, the story’s protagonist – a man who has recently come to the deeply unpleasant realisation that his long-term partner has been cheating on him with his neighbour. As if that were not bad enough for the poor man, certain other facts have been revealed that have completely and permanently unbalanced Frank’s world, and led him to plot a form of revenge against his unfaithful spouse and her lover; a form of revenge that uniquely incorporates his career as a magician and clown. There’s a real energy to the story as the narrative unwinds, smoothly and slickly, an air of suspense slowly but surely building as Frank dons his professional performers garb and moves onto the stage to begin his performance; Ullery deftly increases the tension as card tricks and sleights of hand take place, both Frank and the reader knowing that these are mere fripperies and distractions compared to what our protagonist will unleash as a finale. I’m uncertain if Ullery has ever performed as a clown or other theatre performer, but regardless he has managed to perfectly depict the atmosphere and pacing of Frank’s performance, effortlessly drawing in the reader and making them visualise even simple tricks and gags. If not for the ever-present knowledge that Frank has an ulterior motive to his performance, it would be very easy to fall into the cadence and actions of a theatre-goer, mesmerised by this professional’s craftwork honed over decades of performances.
Frank is a darkly fascinating and captivating character – a man who has been in his career for so long not only because it was a family tradition, following in his father’s footsteps, but also because he seems to have a genuine love for the craft and trade of being a magician. The fact that he also performs in the makeup and costume of a circus clown is what marks him out as a unique and memorable character, a superb creation by Ullery; a man whose craft and dedication we can easily admire, yet whose slightly pathetic nature and vindictive streak also makes him a pitiable creature, albeit one who is extremely dangerous as a result. The focus on the clothing, make-up and even deportment of a professional clown adds layers to Frank as a character, Ullery making some deft points about the degradation of the clown in pop-culture from master of hilarity to figure of scorn and mockery. When taken all together, the result is Ullery successfully crafting a three-dimensional and rather resonant character who easily surpasses the pop-culture stereotype of the ‘killer clown’ one who is both sympathetic and utterly repulsive in equal measures as the story progresses towards its horrifying and genuinely shocking conclusion. I really cannot emphasise that last sentence enough – the twist that I was expecting, as a veteran reader and reviewer of the horror genre, absolutely floored me; it most definitely wasn’t what I was expecting at all, and made my stomach turn when it was unexpectedly revealed. This is perhaps one of the most shocking pieces of short horror fiction I have ever read, and readers should comport themselves accordingly.
Masterfully written, carefully crafted to evoke a tense and unsettling atmosphere, and populated with an engaging and memorable protagonist that is simultaneously sympathetic and also deeply repulsive as a character, The First Rule of Showmanship is a brilliant piece of horror short fiction by DS Ullery that deserves to be read by any fan of horror fiction, especially for those interested in psychological and weird horror. This new edition of the short story has been greatly enhanced by the involvement of Terry M. West and Too Much Weird, the new cover art and author’s note making it an even more attractive proposition to the reader. West and Ullery should be commended for their collaboration, ensuring that this superb story is made available to a new audience and supplemented with additional material. The First Rule of Showmanship is the perfect launch title for Too Much Weird as a publishing company, and I eagerly look forward to reviewing more titles from the publisher, as well as other stories by Ullery