Reading John Shirley's In Extremis is like sticking your moistened middle finger into a live lamp socket: it's punishing but oddly exhilirating after the initial shock. These stories are nasty; they're rude, roiling attitudes of sludge scooped up into the palms of your hands, all greasy slippery feeling and gnarly intense, forcing you to look behind you fearing someone's going to catch you reading them. And you will. Read them. Losers abound, sick humanity thrives, and the scariest thing about Shirley's bowery dark environs is they're crazy batshit and familiar and you sitting there wishing they aught'nt, really shouldn't be.
The acid test is getting past Just Like Suzie. The two stories before it, Cram and You Blundering Idiot may trip you up, but they're the warm up acts for the burlesque and grotesque reality show in Just Like Suzie. Sure, getting caught in a train during an earthquake, and maybe hiring some guy to kill you but he's a shlub so he has to keep doing it to get it right are enough to dishearten you from continuing, but if you can keep going after Just Like Suzie, you've earned it. Seriously.
I can't describe the story too much, it's got that 1970s badassness to it, along with its gritty, adult comedy of errors, with those errors piling up into one big clusterfu--like I said; its all 70s badassness. Suzie's a prostitute who dies, I can tell you that, but her attachment to her junkie-john, a guy named Perrick, is fast and rock solid. In all the wrong place. Without any doubt you will squirm and sweat along with him, and find it well darn funny, too. Bad habits are hard to break and some break you hard, and some just leave you whimpering, dangling limp in resignation.
I can describe Faces in Walls for you a little more, though, and this one and Just Like Suzie are my favorite nightmares in this collection, but there are plenty more to go round. Imagine you're paralyzed, neck down, vegetating in Wemberly Sanitarium for years, bedded in a lifeless room with walls peeling their green paint, bed sores pressing angrily against you, and no one visiting you except for Sam Sack and those faces in the walls. Conversation with one of those faces in particular holds your interest, but Sam's attention you don't want. He wears a pillow case over his head and comes into your room late at night to play. His kind of play you don't need. But you can only lie there. Until that one particular face tells you more.
There's a short story by Oliver Onions--can't quite put my finger on it I read it so long ago-- that Shirley reminded me of with this one. And no it's not The Beckoning Fair One. It had a fairy tale quality to it as I recollect, a girl, and a curious friend. Shirley's less prosaic than Onions, of course, but darker in intent, and his rythm between narrative and dialog is more insolent and unforgiving, and with the psychological horror of each situation leeching the life out of his characters captured with such exhuberance, Shirley wins hand over fist. I wonder if Shirley looks over his shoulder while he writes, fearful someone might catch him in the act?
So pour yourself a glass of Shiraz, volume up The Three Tenors, and sit near a mirror so you can reassure yourself there's no one looking over your shoulder while you read. The wine and music will help sweeten the bitter spirit aftertaste when you've finished the book--if you get that far.
But not by much.
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