I cannot think of a better book to recommend in this season of spooky and creepy than Brady Allen’s collection of short stories, Back Roads and Frontal Lobes. 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.
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. Yet about the time you chalk him up to being a blood and guts horror fiction writer (which he is), he turns around and shows a lighter touch; a wistfulness, a fleeting memory, 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, a hellcat dealing with loss, two lonely people finding a night of comfort together in a cheap hotel, even a tragic act of compassion have a twist, something sweeter, more endearing, than we expect.
Loneliness and disconnect runs through virtually all of these stories, but 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 are 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.
Just make sure you read Back Roads and Frontal Lobes in the daytime, in the sunshine – unless you don’t care about sleeping without nightmares, or listening for bumps in the night.