"Entropy in Bloom: Stories" Book Review
Written by Matt E. Lewis
Published by Night Shade Books
Written by Jeremy Robert Johnson
2017, 280 pages, Fiction
Released on April 18th, 2017
Remember the first time you tried hot sauce? Before it became a meme, a time when it was still new and different to you. Do you recall feeling that brilliant scorch, that sinus-electrifying rush of flavor that assaulted your senses and left you changed, begging for more? That’s the way I felt in 2015 when I read Jeremy Robert Johnson’s novel Skullcrack City from Lazy Fascist. It has the greasy, manic energy of William Burroughs coupled with the sledgehammer gore of a Troma film, wrapped inside a highly complex universe where the impossible is not just real, but so lovingly detailed you can smell it. It is Palaniuk on Adderall with line edits from G.G. Allin. It is a Rube Goldberg machine of a novel, insanity perfectly balanced with horror, sci-fi, and the kind of pure mad creativity associated with the genre of fiction labelled, ‘Bizarro’. It was like getting shocked with a car battery, but instead of shying away, I only wanted more. I even labeled it my favorite book of the year – maybe EVER. It’s hard to leave that kind of an impression, and I think in order to do so, you have to be on the kind of wavelength that looks for that sort of thing – someone who thinks episode titles of “Monsters Inside Me” would make great fiction prompts (“They Hijacked my Eyeball”? Come on!). When I learned his earlier work and more would be released in a hardcover collection from Night Shade Books, you better believe I was first in line to check it out.
Entropy in Bloom is an excellent primer to Johnson’s work. The stories are short enough that an uncertain reader can immediately determine if it’s the right thing for them or not (like hot sauce!). One taste and you can know – if self-eviscerating junkie teenagers, lip-removing body modification, and male members splitting into petals of flesh aren’t your thing, you can just stop reading. But for the readers who can’t look away, who only become more intrigued, a veritable carnival of horrors awaits you. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that Johnson’s work is all splatter and no substance. There are plenty of tales that play on the terror of the mind as well. Sexual frustration turns a teenager to crime in “Persistence Hunting”, a sonic virus from the song of monks annihilates humanity in “The Oarsman”, and “Swimming in the House of the Sea” explores the complicated relationship of two brothers with a seedy motel backdrop. As varied as his stories might be, what’s captivating about them is Johnson’s ability to immediately establish us in their own little universe without gobs of exposition. We only need a few hints and we can smell the rust of it, feel the rough oxidation between our fingers. This is something that takes a deft touch and can be found in the greats of short-story writers – Ray Bradbury comes to mind. But unlike that particular kind of measured countenance, Johnson has a tendency to split away from the pack and imbue stories with “dirty electricity” (one of the maddening descriptors found in the book) which I think is the most apt way of describing their energy.
Within these molar-grinding stories is plenty of social critique. Johnson likes to take many of the human tropes in our own worlds and fire them into their explosive conclusions – who hasn’t met the insane meathead of “Trigger Variation” at their local gym, the entitled trustafarian of “A Flood of Harriers” at a concert, or the All-American Dad of his unpublished novella “The Sleep of Judges” – and more so, why does it entertain us so much to watch them explode? Honestly, I don’t know. Johnson would probably say something poignant about the breakdown of the thin line between man and animal when faced with the unknown, the heights of the horror we commit when faced with a supernatural enemy. But that sounds a little too plain for this kind of writing. Entropy in Bloom is more like the kind of entertaining thrill the Romans got from watching colosseum matches – the arterial-spraying excitement of witnessing pure horror, with the creeping reminder that you might end up on that abattoir of amusement someday. The only issue I have with it is a good issue to have – I think Skullcrack City is so perfectly aligned in all its elements that this collection feels a little unfinished. However, as I said, this is an excellent primer to Johnson’s repertoire, so if you enjoy it, you know you can dive skull-first into his long-form work and discover exactly what kind of monsters live inside you.