Tuesday, September 7, 2010

FUNGUS OF THE HEART, by Jeremy C. Shipp

Jeremy Shipp is a cool guy. He's the Bram Stoker-nominated author of books like CURSED and VACATION. He's a fan of THE LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA, one of the funniest sci-fi spoofs ever made. And he's a friend of mine on Facebook and Twitter. And that's how I managed to read his upcoming book, FUNGUS OF THE HEART.

You have to love a title like that.

FUNGUS was a bracing change from the usual stuff I read. Shipp's not about the drawn, antiquarian horrors I so often read about. He's very modern, and while his stories are often as much fantasy or sci-fi as horror, they're all informed by a wonderful sense of feeling. Shipp's horrors are reflections of his characters' inner emotions and torments, and the stories that are played out are often the vicious result of the characters' pettiness or inability to cope with their feelings.

This is really at the forefront in "The Haunted House," a phantasmagorical ghost story narrated by a ghost who hires itself out to resolve mortal folks' problems with the supernatural. However, it's haunted by its own ghost, The Man in the Crate, who's a manifestation of...well, I'll leave that for the reader. But it's a good story, a nicely harrowing glimpse into the afterlife.

A similar story is "Ticketyboo," in which two children undergo a series of weird ordeals in a nightmare world where houses are made of glass and restaurant patrons eat sponges that make them vomit.

The brief "Just Another Vampire Story" uses fictional vampires as an element of a larger drama of infidelity and a relationship at a crisis point. "Boy in the Cabinet" looks at the human desire for, and fear of, seeking love, and our habit of being caught in the same traps over and over. The sci-fi/noir "The Sun Never Rises in the Big City" tells a tale of futuristic enslavement to explore the narrator's sense of status and entitlement.

"Kingdom Come" has special resonance for me, being set in a futuristic version of Kingdom Come State Park, which I remember visiting several times during yearly family visits to my grandmother and countless other relatives in Cumberland, KY. But it's also a great, effective dystopian story of a future prison and "filters" that manipulate our sensations.

There's also some good dark-fantasy/horror bits, in the title story and others like "Spider House" and "The Escapist" which have quests set against surreal landscapes, although the enemy isn't necessarily an external Dark Lord but interior darkness.

At every turn in these stories, Shipp demonstrates a macabre whimsy. He throws in all sorts of surreal stuff that wouldn't seem out of place in a children's fantasy, but it works as part of the story and for what he's trying to depict and reflect in his characters. He ends up comparing favorably to Jonathan Carroll in this regard, whose THE GHOST IN LOVE had all sorts of supernatural hijinx going on in a story that was basically an interior crisis made external.

This is the first Shipp I've read, and I hope to read more of his stuff in the future. He's hardly traditional, but he's definitely talented at using his stories' milieu to reflect what's going on inside their heads. And that's all too rare.

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