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.

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Book Review: Autumn in the Abyss by John Claude Smith

Autumn in the Abyss cover

I had the pleasure of reviewing John Claude Smith’s earlier collection, The Dark is Light Enough for Me. I was suitably impressed with Smith’s work, and so I embarked on my new reading journey with Autumn in the Abyss with some excitement.

I was not disappointed. In fact, I can see a maturing of Smith’s style and subject matter/themes. Deeper insights and sophistication; greater complexity—and yet a well balanced structure. Additionally, Dark is Light Enough for Me was a heterogeneous collection of short fiction, without an obvious thematic context of the whole (albeit, it was a good collection of individual stories), while Autumn in the Abyss is, on several levels, a case where the stories, together, have strong collective impact, more so than the individual components. More on that later.

Smith is a visceral writer—he does not feel the need to be limited in subject matter and description to get to the guts of a tale, and yet he is also an artist, choosing from his expansive palette to achieve the right hues, proportions, texture. Squeamish readers should carefully consider reading his work.

Smith’s five stories have two major themes or threads running in a zigzag fashion through them, both distinctly Lovecraftian in influence, and clearly delivered in a unique voice.

Firstly, and most notably conveyed in the first story, ‘Autumn in the Abyss’, the author deliberately eases the reader into a creeping and growing sense of cosmic horror. There’s nasty shit out there and humanity features rather insignificantly. While this sense runs through all the other stories to some degree or another, ‘La mia immortalita’ certainly oozes this sense as well. Smith’s style—and again, particularly in ‘Autumn in the Abyss’—pays homage to Lovecraft’s style, particularly with the use of first person in ‘Autumn in the Abyss’.

The second thread is more interesting and effective, and saturates the last four of the five tales: the depths of depravity and evil that humans can attain, without the aid of the supernormal. By intertwining the cosmic-layered horror with the human-layer, Smith etches a greater clarity in each, but the human side of the equation is the most disturbing, and insightful.

The first story, ‘Autumn in the Abyss’, was a pleasant surprise and sowed the seed of my view of Smith’s growing sophistication. On the surface the short story is a surrealistic tale of a man obsessed with writing a biography of a long dead Beat-period poet. I won’t spoil the ending by detailing much more of the plot. As stated above, it decidedly invokes HPL’s style and allusions to the Mythos. Smith slowly and cleverly reveals horrifying powers linked with the poet that the narrator is obsessed with, where words have multidimensional powers that parallel Lovecraft’s depiction of the terrifying dimensions associated with angles in space and time, as per the ‘The Whisperer in Darkness’ (which in turn was influenced by Frank Belknap Long/August Derleth). Ultimately, the most Lovecraftian element of Smith’s story is the sense, at the end of the tale, of the utter futility of humankind, in the face of horrifying powers that dwell on the edge of perception. This is a highly recommended piece, for the reasons outlined above, as well as being a great horror tale in itself, and its thorough research into the poetry movements in the US in the 1950s and 60s.

‘Broken Teacup’ is probably the most disturbing of Smith’s short stories, where he explores in jagged, clawing depth the depravity of humanity. Nothing can easily come near the heartless horror of men who choose to torture and destroy people for the sake of entertainment—including their own. In terms of tapping into a dark, bleak underbelly of America, this story is somewhat reminiscent of ‘I Want To Take You Higher’ in The Dark is Light Enough for Me, although without the brief moments of humor. This story, however, is plainly intense. Where one of the dimensions of horror that comes out of Lovecraft’s ancient, alien gods is the sheer detachment of these cosmic entities, in this tale Smith presents a very different, vivid detachment from a pair of snuff moviemakers. Not for the faint-hearted, this is a well-constructed story.

La mia immortalita’ moves away from the physical horrors that can be perpetrated by humanity, to the psychological. Again we have indifference in an individual—in this case a self-obsessed artist blind and deaf to the feelings of other human beings, even those who are close to him. A strong piece, adding another dimension to the impact of the anthology as a whole, and drawing from Smith’s exposure to art, and in particular, sculpture.

‘Becoming Human’ seems, perhaps coincidentally, to draw the physical and psychological together. This story has the least tie-in with the Lovecraftian theme, but certainly stabs deep into human depravity. Two detectives’ lives were scarred for life by their exposure to a sadistic serial killer, leading to the suicide of one. The other is an emotional husk and must contend with a copycat killer and his own humanity at the same time. This story contributes the least to the two-theme effect of the anthology as a whole, but doesn’t lack quality, and certainly does provide another insight into the indifference of evil—with a twist.

‘Where The Light Won’t Find You’ is the last story and rounds the anthology nicely. Mr. Liu and representation of his ‘patrons’ make another appearance, and, most interestingly, draws a little back from the visceral horror well executed in most of Smith’s previous stories. Yes, there’s some nasty stuff, but it’s at an arm’s length, where the focus is on a young man, following an argument with his girl friend, enters a movie theatre with dire consequences. This story isn’t as deep as the previous tales, but it adds information about Mr. Liu and his patrons, and contributes granularity to what evil is (and isn’t) at the supernormal level.

I had a lot to say that’s good about John Claude Smith’s ‘Autumn in the Abyss’, and it is deserved. The allusions to the sinister, indifferent powers that exist beyond most of humanity’s perception is well crafted and multi-dimensional when the anthology is read as a whole. The evil that exists in human beings are more tangibly described, and are more horrifying by far. So much so that even the mysterious Mr. Liu and his patrons must sit up and take notice.

I recommend this anthology to any serious reader of horror. Five well-deserved stars.

The book can be purchased in print and ebook format from all good online stores, including Amazon.

Book Review: Dark Is Light Enough For Me by John Claude Smith

I am, apart from several other roles, a speculative fiction writer. And 'horror' is an equally important element of the super-category for me. I like to call my horror pieces 'dark fantasy' – as I like the subtle, and I don't necessarily want to go heavy on gore, nor do I like to dabble in standard motifs, like zombies and vampires. And yet I will dabble in the more extreme on occasion. The term 'dark fantasy' is not a clearly defined concept, but one that I'm more comfortable with than most. John Claude Smith's Dark is Light Enough For Me is an anthology of dark fantasy, interspersed with horror, but none of the stories consist of recurring popular motifs – internally or within the genre. Each story is original, and in most cases, very dark indeed – coal black.

Smith's anthology isn't for the sensitive or the faint-hearted. Many of the stories are edgy, working on concepts and thoughts that all us adults are familiar with, but rarely talk about. Smith isn't being quirky, or finding satisfaction in the gory, sexually perverse or the profane. No, he is writing this stuff because it unbalances the reader. Disturbs. Sometimes frightens – the essence of what quality horror/dark fantasy is all about. And he does it admirably, especially for a debut title.

You will find stories of high craftsmanship, but not all of his pieces are equal. I have found a few that could have been tighter, better polished, but never lacking in originality and perceptiveness. There are places in some stories that could have been better edited and proofed as well – but these are few and far between, and do not materially affect the overall quality of the piece. (I'm also an editor, and stuff like that rarely avoids my notice).

The remainder of this review is a blow-by-blow review of Smith's stories in the anthology.

** Black Wings

A very good story of guilt – and with a most interesting set of occurrences that lie at the root of the protagonist's guilt, as well as the way it manifested at the end of the piece.

The protagonist is, right from the beginning, a ruined man, and he is visited by crows, and in particular a big one. Smith skillfully reveals their meaning, as well as the protagonist's past. The flashback is finally revealed and it was surprising, and horrific.

The ending is appropriate and quite surreal.

** The Dark Is Light Enough For Me

This is a particularly good short story. We have the protagonist, James, with a disturbing life history (a pattern in many of Smith's stories), being drawn into a writer's group, discovering not only that the entire group have written the same complex work, but that there is a strange story associated with why he uniquely joined the group. This short is extremely well written – with a highly mature, insightful narrative, and without resorting to the more blatant tropes of horror, is in fact very horrifying. A dark piece worthy of wide readership.

** I Wish I Was A Pretty Little Girl

A powerful piece. It's hard to be original as a writer, writing from the POV of a serial killer. Smith succeeded. Again, the protagonist had a horrendous, nightmarish life leading to the current events. An explanation as to why this particular person became a monster – and convincingly. This story set me in uneasiness from the first few sentences. A child being led somewhere by a clearly disturbed adult – one of the hardest things to read about if Smith chose to follow the path of describing murder in gory detail. And yet he didn't. This story isn't about love of violence, rape, sex, or some bizarre blood letting. This is about the man who wants to be something else. The uneasiness generated from the start was a masterful stroke, allowing the reader to be unbalanced from the beginning, and then throughout the story. The ending was apt and horrifying, and almost makes one feel sorry for the killer.

** Gladiatrix

Again, a powerful piece, delving deep into the psyche of an exploited woman, and how she was turned into, a gladiatrix of sorts. The descriptions and language are superb, but I do have a slight reservation – it almost seems that the long (and quality) descriptions of the woman and her background in the first half of the story, seem too disjointed from the narrative revelations later. They seem more disconnected than what I would have appreciated.

Nevertheless, well worth the read.

** I Want To Take You Higher

A very good pastiche of drug and sex underlife, mixed with obscene, edgy satanic-like religion. With all the hard core imagery and descriptions, Smith was able to find moments for flippancy and humor. This is a well constructed story, sending up many elements of our society. A nice twist is constructed at the end.

** Not Breathing

A very powerful story about the degredation of a man's soul, woven into a most interesting plot. The use of second person is very efective here. Don't want to reveal much, but this is one of my favorites.

** Make Pretty

This is different from the past stories thus far, because it is more like a traditional horror piece – and yet masterfully crafted. Without giving too much away, the story is about vanity, and how it can bite you back if you choose to dabble in the spurious. Smith proves he is as much a traditional horror writer, as an innovator.

** Strange Trees

Another piece that has a traditional structure, but with unique undercurrents. The concept that malevolent trees awaken by the onset of menstruation with one of the protagonists, is effective. I also found the language and the POV more tradional than any other of Smith's stories in the anthology, almost (in a modern sense) like H.P. Lovecraft – clinical language – longer sentences, with
evocative descriptions.

** The Perceptive One

I like the premise of the story – the egotistical, shallow sociopath, teams up with an almost seer-like young girl, and their lives are inextricably crossed with an old tramp who has something dark, powerful, to impart. The egotist, Travis, becomes ruined, when in fact he was already broken, and the story ends with promise of a continuation of the cycle. Destiny is a strong theme in the story.

This is good – but, I think Smith works too hard at it, and there are scenes that seem to me too filled with repetitive descriptive sentences, and probably are 3 to 4 times longer than they should be. The intention, perhaps planning, is good, but the execution is slightly flawed. I feel this is a less mature work of Smith's, and I saw evidence of lack of polish here and there (not to mention editing/proofing). This is, despite some good points, one of Smith's weaker pieces.

** Plastic

A very good story that is superficially a classic scifi trope, but excellently meshes with the hunger of a man who hasn't attained his soul's desire. While the ending is in purest form something that a reader can guess at, the details aren't. This was also one of my favorites.

** The Sunglasses Girl

Another powerful, edgy, and raw piece, juxtaposing the seedier aspects of a man's depravity, with the stuff that matters more – the ability to make decisions on a higher plane. And in failing, suffers the consequences of what emerges from the lower plane (so to speak). This is another example of Smith's prime motif throughout the anthology.

** Things That Crawl in Hollywood

The final story is a wonderful comedic horror piece, sending up Hollywood, the 'plastic celebrity' phenomenon, and the shlock of zombie flix. A funny, and yet thoughtful piece – fast paced. Amazingly clever.

All in all I give Smith's work 4 stars – I would give 4 and a half, but most systems don't cope with fractions. 5 is on or near perfection, and this anthology isn't quite there – but I bow and acclaim a wonderful work nevertheless, and stand in awe at this debut piece. As a writer, I have learned much from Smith, in terms of the power of descriptive narrative.