"Terra Insanus" Book Review
Written by Gabino Iglesias
Published by Deadite Press
Written by Edwarrd Lee
2015, 108 pages, Fiction
Released on June 1st, 2015
I was feeling low and needed the literary equivalent of that comment that gets you thrown out of church. Then I started cleaning my email and found a digital copy of Edward Lee’s Terra Insanus and immediately started devouring it. It’d been sitting there for a while because, as any serious reviewer will tell you, books pile up faster than we can read them. In any case, I dug in with a grin on my face. You see, Lee is somewhat like my favorite taco joint in terms of hardcore horror: yes, I go to other places once in a while, but when I’m craving something very specific, something greasy and perfect, I go straight to the place I know makes some of the best tacos in town.
In Terra Insanus, Lee serves up a four-story meal of mayhem, sex, death, and destruction. As always, he does so without pulling any punches and writing some of the most gut-churning descriptions in contemporary hardcore horror. However, this time around, I discovered something that had eluded me thus far despite having been a fan of Lee’s work for almost a decade: he is one of the sharpest, fearless, most honest chroniclers of the darkest, filthiest side of human nature. The four short narratives that make up this book can be easily summarized, but they add up to something harder to describe. The collection opens with “The Stick Woman,” a brutal narrative in which a woman named Priscilla has been held hostage by her husband for years. She has been abused, mutilated, neglected, and forced to feed on her husband’s feces. Finally, when her captor dies, she thinks her nightmare is over, but one last discovery will show her that sometimes escape is only a dream. The second story, “Shit-House,” explores just how awful humanity is and then forces readers to ask themselves what would they be willing to do to change it. “The Ushers” is as mysterious as the author gets, and it’s also one of those rare Lee hybrid texts that is strongly anchored in hardcore horror while also sliding a few tentacles over literary fiction and thrillers. Finally, the book closes with “The Sea-Slop Thing,” a narrative about a woman in desperate need of a job who is forced to face an impossible thing that has made a local boat captain incredibly rich, and her chances of survival are slim.
Okay, here’s the thing: I hadn’t read Lee in a couple of years because I was occupied reviewing other books. That break, and the spectacular literature that I read during those two years, opened my eyes to a few new elements that I now always look for when reviewing a book. Going back to Lee’s work with fresh eyes quickly allowed me to look past the brutality, crusty genitalia, and sheer horrific viciousness of his writing and start focusing on the way his stories work as mirrors in which readers are invited to see the worst of themselves as well as the worst of what’s out there. In fact, there are moments in Terra Insanus in which the author addresses the reader, the seer, directly to ask if what he has shown is enough to prove that humanity is despicable:
“Seen enough, seer?
Hmmm? Have you, seer?”
Regardless of the answer, the author pushes on. On the surface, this short collection fits in with the rest of Lee’s oeuvre; it is about fear, debauchery, and death. However, once you scratch that bloody, monstrous first layer, packed with mutilated bodies and gonococcal infections, the underlying element is an oppressive acceptance of the existence of the plethora of things that make humans, more than the smartest species on the planet, the quickest, ugliest, most vicious, and most (self)destructive virus in existence:
“Porn flicks, piss flicks, animal flicks, Long Jean Fuckin’ Silver and her hairy skin-covered bone, herpes, AIDS, hepatitis-B, junkies, pimps, dealers on every corner, pederasts teaching junior high gym, daycare centers where they sodomize four-year-olds, skinheads with swastikas tattooed on their chests, evangelists busting virgins, United Way execs taking the Concord to have lunch in London, murderers sprung from the pen after doing three years, burglars bust into your house and when you shoot them, they sue you—and win. Liars, thieves, con men, everybody out for themselves and fuck everyone else, North American Man/Boy Love Associations, satanic churches where membership requires one ounce of your first-born’s blood and KKK and L.A. riots and...”
The work of Edward Lee is definitely not for everyone, but it’s important enough, especially given the current sociopolitical panorama, to make it required reading for those who understand that some literature is too brutal, and that the brutality comes from the fact that it approximates real life. Terra Insanus will turn your stomach, and you will try to convince yourself that it is because of the gore described in its pages while secretly accepting that what revolts you about it is something that goes much, much deeper.