Rating: 4.7 out of 5
I read The Scream in eighth grade, and The Bridge in high school. I adored both of those books, and they helped build my love of horror. These novels were penned by John Skipp (with an assist from Craig Spector), the guy who pretty much invented the splatterpunk genre.
However, in the time after The Bridge was released in ‘91, it was years before I heard from him again. As far as I could tell, the only appearance Mr. Skip was as the editor of the two “Books of the Dead”, which are the seminal compilations in the world of zombies. And oh, did I miss him.
Well, he’s back. (Actually, he has been for a time, but I’m a bit, er, clueless when it comes to actually seeking things out.) This past week, I was handed a copy of The Long Last Call, in paperback from Leisure Fiction, and I dove in head first.
This particular tome actually contains two novellas – the title piece, “The Long Last Call”, and “Conscience”, which was released in 2004 (unbeknownst to me). I will review them both here, in that order.
In “The Long Last Call”, a strip club off the beaten path in Podunk America is visited by a strange (and oily) visitor. There are the requisite characters for such a setting – the sleazeball owner, the grumpy bouncer, the old hick regulars, the guy who stops in who doesn’t belong, and strippers who snort a ton of coke or are paying their way through college or are simply dumb and blessed with stunning beauty. Yes, these characters are simple, but they work, because this story isn’t about making some grand social commentary (at least not at first). No, this is a slam-bang tale of horror, and we’re all better for it.
The patrons of Sweet Thangs are taken for a ride when that dark (and oily) stranger strolls in with a bucketload of cash. He feeds into the characters’ inherent greed and desperation, intent on proving that all people are corruptible and at their core dreadful, until a twist at the end throws everything on its head. It was quite interesting to see the interplay between all of these characters, both despicable and not. This book would work beautifully if were nothing but a social experiment, but it is much more than that.
The writing style is one I haven’t seen in a long time. It is brisk and fast-paced, leading you from one sentence to another without giving the reader a chance to breathe. The use of ellipses is brilliant. You flip through the pages one after the other, excited to see what sort of depravity Skipp will show you next. It’s a small book, and simple, but it does its job well, which is all you can ask for.
Whereas “The Long Last Call” aims to shock you, “Conscience”, the second of the novellas, wants to do so much more than that. It wants to make you think, to make you consider the frailty of your own soul and those of the people around you.
To say I was shocked by what I read in this second novella would be an understatement. It is the story of Charlie, a killer-for-hire working for a clandestine organization that specializes in ruining the lives of the affluent. (Think “Access Hollywood” run by Don Corlione) He is a miserable sod. He hates life, he hates people, he hates his past and his future. He kills folks without thinking twice and waxes poetic about how the whole world has gone to hell. He also reflects with passion about his first love, his dog Rex, and this is the first clue we are given that there is more going on underneath Charlie’s layers of hatred than we realize.
I won’t go too far into the plot of the book, because to do that would be to ruin the surprise it has in store. And oh, what a surprise it is. I was utterly floored by the revelations here. It read like a tale of Poe for a new generation. It was sweet, it was harsh, and it made me THINK, DAMMIT. Actually, if I had to think of two words to describe it, they would be “hideously beautiful”, because the novella itself is a contradiction, which makes it really close to what we, as people, have always been.
In fact, I’ll go even further and say that this might be one of the most perfect stories I’ve ever read. My one and only complaint is that more info about the organization Charlie works for wasn’t presented, but that could be another novel for another day (I hope it is). The writing is spot on, there are sufficiently violent and gruesome scenes, the voice is sublime and cynical, the main character changes in a way that makes sense once the hidden meaning of everything is revealed, and it has something beautiful to say. Let’s just say that, by the end, my eyes were welling up. For a work of art as cruel as this is, to have that purity underneath, that sense of lost innocence that might someday be regained, is something to be greatly admired.
So yes, folks, John Skipp is indeed still one of the best horror writers out there. And with these two stories, he proves that, with age, comes wisdom and understanding. His unveiling of the human condition in these tales says that much…and more.
They’re well worth the read. You’ll love every minute. I know I did.
The Long Last Call
Plot – 9
Characters – 8
Voice – 10
Execution - 9
Personal Enjoyment – 9
Plot – 9
Characters – 10
Voice – 10
Execution - 10
Personal Enjoyment – 10
Overall – 94/100 (4.7/5)