By Clint Smith
“Don’t Let the Bedbugs Bite”
“Like Father, Like …”
“What Happens in Hell, Stays in Hell”
“The Tell-Tale Offal”
“Dirt on Vicky”*
“What About the Little One?”*
“The Day of the Earwig”*
*Original to this collection
Reviewed by Kris Rudin
This is a deliciously creepy collection of weird, scary and all-around odd stories. Anyone who likes their fiction served with more than a dash of suspense or horror will find these stories right up their alley. I read them during October, including over Halloween weekend, and they were just perfect for dark autumn nights and All Hallow’s Eve. They are not for the squeamish or the faint of heart.
Smith’s prose is lushly poetic and full of rich textures. Each story pulls the reader into its own world, where things definitely go bump in the night. The author is masterful at creating an atmosphere of horror, dread or just plain creepiness. I read many stories in a kind of breathless fear, turning each page with trepidation, but almost forced to keep reading–like watching a slow motion car wreck or other tragedy.
The title story, “Ghouljaw,” is about a man who is haunted by a specter of some sort. At first it appears in his dreams (or rather, nightmares), but then he recalls a repressed memory of the creature from his childhood. Eventually, things get so bad that his marriage is ruined. The ending is most fitting.
“Don’t Let the Bedbugs Bite” is written as if by the narrator, after he experiences something horrific. Partly told as a flashback, we learn that the narrator is widowed, and is regretting his overindulging in alcohol and casual sex. He lives in a farmhouse, and muses on what pesticides might be doing to insects. Remembering fondly how his wife used to vacuum on Sunday mornings, he decides to do the same. What ensues involves bugs. Smith’s imagery here is particularly effective–if you are creeped out by insects, better skip this one.
“Dirt on Vicky” is the story of another widower, this one with a young boy. After story time at the local library, the boy wants to see a supposedly haunted house. The father remembers going there as a youngster, with a group of teens, including Vicky. The flashback lays the groundwork for what they experience at the house this time. Nice ending.
“What About the Little One?” involves another single man, a teacher, who becomes involved with one of his former students. She is a free spirit, and he is looking for something more than his dreary life. But one day, when she takes him sledding in the woods, he sees something, and when they get back to where they left her dog, it’s gone. They soon find it, but it’s been wounded. Turns out it was impregnated. By something. This story didn’t quite work for me, perhaps because the something is never quite as threatening as it should be.
Another story that people who don’t like bugs will want to avoid is “The Day of the Earwig.” The title, alone, should be a clue as to what we’ll encounter. And we do encounter an earwig. A very, very large earwig. This story had a bit less of an atmosphere of dread or horror (despite said earwig), probably because the protagonist is a stoner slacker dude. He’s the son of a very prominent real estate agent, and gets a nice paid gig as caretaker for a house while the owner is away. He gets a copy of the key to let him in the house, where he takes his girlfriend on clandestine trysts. But then the old lady who owns the house shows up, unexpectedly. Or is it really the old lady? Again, the imagery used by Smith is very effective.
“The Hatchet” is a perfect story for Hallowe’en, as it takes place that night–once in a flashback and once in the present–and is about a haunted house. We meet the protagonist, Brian, as an adult, sitting in the driveway of the Hoffman House–the house he and his brother went to on that fateful night in the past. On that night, the young brothers were finally allowed to trick-or-treat alone, with Brian being given the responsibility of watching over his younger brother, Drew. Brian’s costume is that of Jason, the serial killer from the Friday the 13th movies. He sneaks a real hatchet from the shed, hiding it under his coat so his folks don’t see it. The boys decide to go up to the door of the Hoffman House, where things don’t go as planned. In the present day, Brian is haunted by what happened that night, and by the house, itself. He decides to take matters into his own hands. I loved the ending of this one!
“Retrograde” is a little less ominous than the others, except for the ending. It is about Wayne, a married man who has an affair with a younger woman. His wife suffers from depression, and he feels like their life together, especially their sex life, is lacking. The story doesn’t give much hint as to what is coming, which makes the ending that much more impactful.
The last of the original stories in this collection is “Corbin’s Gore” and it’s one of my favorites. Corbin is a blue-collar worker–a mover–who is getting over a recent break-up with a rich girl. He has been seeing things, and hearing things, but he attributes these episodes to stress or overwork. One of his neighbors in the apartment building is Barb, an old woman Corbin thinks of as a ‘gypsy-witch.’ One day, she asks him to help her move some boxes, and he gets to know her. Barb tells him about her partner, Emily, who died 10 years ago. She has a picture of Emily, and Corbin realizes it’s one of the ‘ghosts’ he’s seen. Barb gets him to admit he’s seen Emily, by saying she’s seen Emily down the hall at Corbin’s apartment. Barb goes on to describe what she calls a ‘Gore’–originally a piece of land that is left over due to surveyor mistakes, but legend has it that they are little pockets of nowhere at all. She theorizes that there is a Gore in Corbin’s apartment, and that’s how they can see Emily. Despite the fact that this story is about a ghost, I didn’t find it scary, but I’m not sure that was Smith’s intent, anyway. This is really a love story, and a story about friendship. The concept is very original, and Smith handles the characters with aplomb.
Ghouljaw and Other Stories also sports a fine introduction by S. T. Joshi.