There are two types of books, I read: “downstairs” books and “upstairs” books. The only difference between them is that “upstairs” books sit on my bedside table, and I read them at least a little bit (sometimes more) before going to sleep for the night.
Brady Allen’s new set of short stories, Back Roads and Frontal Lobes, is definitely NOT an upstairs book. No way could I sleep after reading most of these tales; this fellow has a deeply twisted imagination!
Luckily, for those of you who like well written, imaginative stories, even if horror and the macabre are not your genre of choice, Allen’s writing is superbly crafted, seemingly effortless and wholly familiar. His characters are immediately recognizable, (for better or worse), and ring true – which is part of why his stories are so chilling.
Allen hails from Dayton, Ohio and that state is the setting for many of his stories. (Someone remind me that if I am driving through Ohio at some point and come across a town named Stairway Falls, under no circumstances should I stop for a cup of coffee or burger at a diner, truck stop, gas station or café.) His Midwestern images are genuine, mundane, threadbare, with no evidence of “quaint” anywhere. These are the small towns that are lived in with no escape, with all their dysfunction in full view.
Of course, the very first story, “Slow Mary,” hit me right in a very vulnerable Midwestern spot – my fear of hitting a deer while driving at night. From the very opening paragraph, we are dropped smack dab in the middle of something that immediately puts us on edge:
There hasn’t been a moment this evening when Remy Arquette hasn’t been thinking about the deer, just as he is now, with night freshly dropped into the hills like a bomb that teases before detonation. He sits in a corner booth in the diner, Slow Mary’s, and the image of the deer and the smears of blood on the road rot away at his brain.
Visceral, graphic, regrettable, but not that out of the ordinary, you think. Not yet. But as the story progresses, Allen takes an already tense situation and pushes it, and pushes it, with touches both normal, for lack of a better word, and freaky weird, until the ending punches you in the gut.
In fact, that seems to be Allen’s pattern – he keeps pushing. His starting points are very diverse – going for normalcy here, immediately establishing the bizarre there, opening with a fantasy worthy of a young man’s wet dream or with the hint of otherworldliness within the mundane – but where you are at the start of any of his stories is not where you are going to be at the end, and you can pretty much be sure that you are going to be in a deeper, darker, bloodier place at the end. But not always. That’s the kicker. Not always.
When Allen is brutal, he doesn’t hold back. “Shits and Giggles” makes Deliverance read like “Our Town,” and “Not Over Easy” is beyond disturbing. “The ‘ists After the Apocalypse” is as taunt and ugly as any zombie fiction, (please let it always be fiction), “Praying” brings a whole, new direction to life after the fallout, haunting in just how ordinary it feels, and “Porno Psalmody” is, well, kinda just what you would expect of something titled “Porno Psalmody.” (Allen’s brutality is not limited to mindless violence; he can also write some pretty messed up sex, too).
Then there are the stories that start out so benignly:
The one little girl, Jersey, who her teacher Ms. Hundle had dubbed the Jersey Devil because of her propensity for getting into marker fights with the other kids (boys included), stayed in the corner of the parking lot away from the other kids, her jeans slowly slipping down her hips like snakeskin, revealing little purple and green flowery underpants. She stared up into the sky with her mouth open, raindrops landing on her quivering tongue, and she shivered. (“Devil and Dairy Cow”)
What an evocative image, the ragged young girl standing out in the rain on a schoolyard playground, catching raindrops on her tongue during recess. But Allen pulls no punches and even seeming innocence can be twisted into something that terrifies. No one is immune from nightmare.
Yet about the time you figure Brady Allen to be a blood and guts horror fiction writer, which he is, he turns around and shows a lighter touch; a wistfulness, a fleeting memory, or one that burns but in a cauterizing way. For as much as Allen can evoke the bizarre and perverse, he also is a keen observer of the human condition that is just a tad bit left of center rather than being waaaay out there. A old blues musician (“Blues Bus to Memphis”), a hellcat dealing with loss (“Six Miles from Earth”), two lonely people finding a night of comfort together in a cheap hotel (“Small Square of Light”), even a tragic act of compassion (“Road Kill (A Love Story)”) still have a twist, even a sometimes violent one, but they also have something sweeter, more endearing, than we might expect from the writer of some of the other stories. (My favorite, “Rounding Third,” will be especially touching for those baseball fans out there.)
It seemed as though half of his seventy-eight years had been spent waiting on Carol. It annoyed the hell out of him. Sometimes he heard other couples talking about how annoying traits could or had become endearing. Bullhockey – that was just gobbledygook. Damned if he didn’t love Carol like she was the first clean sunrise after an apocalypse, but her fiddle-farting around was not endearing. It was frigging irritating. He didn’t love her because of it, he loved her aside from it.
And then in between we have the just plain fantastical, perplexing, perhaps not quite as successful in their “huh?” factor (“The Last Mystical Vendor,” “Bear Hogan Walks the Sky”) but nevertheless completely original and ruthlessly imaginative.
The point, though, is that none of these stories – even those that thematically contain the same characters – are like the others. Although loneliness and disconnect runs through virtually all of the stories, each takes on a different tone, a different tact, connected in the broad strokes but so very different in theme, feel, sensation – and effect. One will leave a metallic taste in your mouth, one will scare you shitless, another will make you afraid to go outside. One will make you feel like you’re looking through a window at something very imitate, the next will make you desperately wish you hadn’t “seen” it at all. Some may disgust you, some will titillate, some will give you goose bumps and delightfully scare you half to death. Some will make you cringe, others will make you feel like you’re relaxing on the porch with a glass of lemonade – or at least be glad that you still can. Then the next one will be unabashedly grotesque, leaving you wondering why you let your guard down even that littlest bit.
But all of them, every single one, is masterfully written and highly entertaining. Allen does not back away from what is ugly, from what is horrifying, but he uses his images with intelligence and often with a wry sense of twisted humor; when he bathes us in the gore it’s because the story demands it, when he peels back the filters and shows us the ugly, it’s because the ugly is there lurking not so far from the surface, and we need to see it. He even has us wanting to see it, in some messed up, can’t-look-away way. And believe me, if you like having your breath taken away by the visceral, by the profane, by the brutally horrifying, then pick yourself up a copy of Back Roads and Frontal Lobes.
Just make sure you read it in the daytime, in the sunshine – unless you don’t care about sleeping without nightmares, or listening for bumps in the night.