Book Review: Riding the Centipede by John Claude Smith

NB. I was provided a copy of this book from the author as a result of a long standing friendship. He didn’t solicit a review.

I’ve read pretty much everything by Smith and for a good reason – he has a unique voice in the dark fiction writing world, and it is very effective. This is his first novel, and certainly one of the things I was looking for when reading it was the transition from short ficiton to substantial length pieces, particularly in terms of theme and style. When completing Riding the Centipede I was not disappointed – it has Smith’s style all over it and then some. It is an excellent work and deserved shortlisting in last year’s Stoker Awards.

Riding the Centipede is a story centred around a journey that only can be taken by a select few – which is facilitated by the taking of esoteric drugs. The spinal chord of the novel is the point of view of Marlon Teagarden, who has been ”a ghost’ for 10 years, living in society’s underbelly, and who has chosen to Ride the Centipede. His sister has been searching for him all this time and rehires PI Terrance Blake to continue the quest. Unbeknownst to all, a third party is also interested in Marlon and has hired an unusual man to do his dirty work, “some kind of new breed of human and radiation, a blotch, an aberration, cancer with teeth.”

The novel has three parallel threads running through most of its length, each with its own POV – Marlon, Terrance and Chernobyl, the aberration. Most interestingly, one of the threads is written in first person, which is unusual but most effective, as it allows Smith to explore in intimate detail the effects of the drugs and the journey on Marlon.

Smith draws heavily from his intimate knowledge of the beat generation of writers, and in particular the ideosyncratic genius of William S Burroughs. In fact, the link to Burroughs is very strong as the writer is referenced heavily and makes an appearance in the book. This is not random fancy on Smith’s part, but more a physical manifestation of what the book is all about – the journey, the outcome, the consequences – and Burroughs is at the centre of it all. Smith has made reference to Burroughs and the beat generation in his short fiction as well – most notably Autumn in the Abyss, the short story whose title is used for his second collection, and I notice a number of stylistic and theme threads running from it to Riding the Centipede (I’m interested to know if Smith can confirm this or not). If there isn’t a tie from a specific inspiration point of view, it cannot be denied that Smith is immensely influenced by Burroughs, the Beat Generation, the historic LA writing scene, and society’s underbelly in general.

Riding the Centipede is not for the squeamish – there are passages that become intense and graphic, which is entirely warranted for the type of work that it is – this visceral dimension isn’t gore for gore’s sake, nor aberrant sex for aberrant sex’s sake, but rather it effectively amplifies the Ride – gives it colour and texture that otherwise was unachievable.

I enjoyed Riding the Centipede immensely and have seen a good writer become a master with this novel. I would recommend this work to any discerning reader of the weird and horror.

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