Zoltergeist the Poltergeist
I must admit that after finishing my review copy of Zoltergeist the Poltergeist, the latest novel from Bizarro Horror author Douglas Hackle, I struggled for quite some time to actually compose this review. Not because it’s in any way, shape or form a bad novel; quite the reverse, in fact, because I would actually rate it as even better than the previous piece of bizarro horror fiction I read by Hackle, the absurdly bizarre, horrific and yet strangely wholesome Terror Mannequin. I struggled because Zoltergeist the Poltergeist is one of the strangest, most unsettling, and offbeat titles I have ever reviewed for this blog, even moreso than Terror Mannequin and the many stories and novels by Weird Horror supremos like Jonathan Raab and Sean M. Thompson. After all, where does one even begin to review a novel where a leprechaun commits auto-fallatio and shits on people’s doorsteps in the normal course of a day? Where a poltergeist is a well-known television star with a horrifying, long-running TV series where the premise is always murdering his own, adoring family in increasingly far-fetched and horrifying ways? Or where the protagonist is employed by a sentient bag of broth, and is doomed by a sin-based slot machine to be marooned in a distant boarding house for six months to atone for an incredibly minor sin he barely remembers? These are bizarre descriptions indeed – for this is Bizarro Horror novel like no other – and yet they barely scratch the surface of Zoltergeist the Poltergeist: simultaneously one of the most memorable, impressive and challenging books I have ever read in my life.
Where to start in terms of the overarching narrative, the plot that feeds this fever dream of a novel? Our unlucky protagonist, Jimmy Green, is a middle-aged limousine driver who often drives around the aforementioned sentient bag of broth, who is itself a famous TV star. On one such journey, Jimmy accompanies his boss into a church so that the food item can confess his sins, and foolishly Jimmy does the same. After confessing a decades-old sin (impure thoughts about the lead singer of The Bangles) Jimmy finds himself the dubious ‘winner’ of the ‘prize’ of six months self-isolation and penance in the old, isolated Penance House in rural Ohio where he must abase himself before God and regularly pray for forgiveness and avoid eternal damnation. As if that wasn’t bad enough, when he gets to the house he finds himself subject to a variety of pointless and obscure rules, including being forbidden to enter the room at the end of the upstairs hallway, whose mysterious occupant regularly makes strange and unsettling noises. Fortunately Jimmy has a portable DVD player and the complete collection of the Zoltergeist the Poltergeist series to keep him company; but he soon finds himself confronted by a variety of bizarre occurrences, including a hostile Leprechaun, an animated fortune-giving machine, something called the Clicking-Thing, and even the titular star of Zoltergeist the Poltergeist. Increasingly disturbed and frustrated by his enforced exile, Jimmy becomes determined to discover the links between the Penance House, its bizarre inhabitants, and Zoltergeist – only for events to take an even more bizarre turn than he expected. Forced to team up with the misanthropic poltergeist against a variety of freakish and increasingly incomprehensible beings, it seems unlikely that Jimmy and his idol will survive their stay in the ancient house.
In some ways it’s almost pointless to discuss the characterisation found in Zoltergeist the Poltergeist, because that of characters in the novel are not so much personalities as beautifully chaotic icons, avatars through which Hackle advances the narrative and unleashes the bizarre and deeply disconcerting events that make this a masterpiece of Bizarro horror. After all, how can one talk of the kind of ‘normal’ characterisation discussed in book reviews when the cast list for the novel includes such bizarre personalities as the personification of the Battle of the Bulge; Dot Com, the physical internet address; the physical drum solo from “In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins; and a miniaturized limousine that in turn drives a larger limousine? At the very least I can observe that all of the characters are well-written and deftly observed, and central personalities like Jimmy and Zoltergeist are well-developed enough to stand out and entertain despite the feverish, unreal feeling exerted by the novel. The same can be said for the atmosphere and worldbuilding throughout the novel – despite the often bizarre and nonsensical nature of the plot, deftly blending the shocking and the mundane to expert effect, Hackle still manages to develop an internally coherent and consistent world that seems like it would be fertile soil for future stories or novels.
This has been an unusual book review for me to write, but then that seems entirely fitting given just how unusual a book Zoltergeist the Poltergeist is, and how superbly author Douglas Hackle has done his job. Because to me, Zoltergeist the Poltergeist is less a formal novel and more like a prolonged fever dream expertly woven into superlative prose, Hackle ushering his audience into something boiling hot, chaotic, often nonsensical and always inherently entertaining. As such, Zoltergeist the Poltergeist is an absolutely superb piece of Bizarro horror – and as a result, a novel that should be considered an exemplar for the rest of the genre to follow and attempt to best.