Noir Explorations of the Dark Frontier with John Claude Smith’s “Riding The Centipede”

My dear unknown friend,

voxterraeI first heard whisperings of John Claude Smith and his books, Dandelion and Vox Terrae, which of course, in true weird fiction style, were long out of print collector status symbols. The man and his work were talked about with such awe and reverence I was about to write both off as inner circle Illuminati except…

John Claude himself was a witty, engaging, and humorous individual. As our paths crossed in comment sections I found myself agreeing with previous opinions of the man. When I saw his newest short story collection, Autumn in the Abyss, was available as part of the Kindle Unlimited program I snatched it up forthwith. (Please forgive me this autumndigression, but Mike Davis’ suggestion of the Kindle Unlimited program has been a windfall for yours truly. One of the reasons I applaud Lovecraft eZine so loudly is not only do they make quality weird fiction available through their own digest, but frequently within the Lovecraft eZine video chats are suggestions given for low cost, high quality, weird fiction. While one may imagine that writing reviews for Lovecraft eZine means ready access to high end, limited edition hardcovers this is not the case. There is no expense account for eldritch tomes with this gig. However, I have heard more than one collector say they have read few of their volumes, ensconced in plastic, organized by publisher and then rigorously alphabetized for display. I myself would rather see a bookcase of battered and dog-eared paperbacks and tablets stuffed with files that have been eagerly read dear friend. (These days it is indeed possible to have champagne tastes and a beer budget.)

Autumn in the Abyss quickly grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and would not let me go. What impressed me was that in addition to being a consummate craftsman, John Claude was fearless in his writing. His gaze was unflinching without being overtly sadistic, a quality that reminds me of Bataille or Ducasse in its onrush of derangement. Upon finishing the collection I asked John Claude Smith if he would agree to be the second author that would let me interview them for Lovecraft eZine.  John Claude is an artist, recording his explorations of realms and dominions most of us are content to leave buried and forgotten. When John Claude graciously agreed I said first I would like to read his novel Riding the Centipede and his previous collection The Dark is Light Enough for Me.

Blind idiot chance smiled upon me that day for two reasons. Riding the Centipede is insanely great. Let’s just get that out of the way now. It was nominated for a Stoker in the category of Superior Achievement in a First Novel. The second reason is Joe Zanetti has told me he intends to review Autumn in the Abyss for his blog. I am a huge fan of thedarkZanetti’s work, he is my favorite kind of critic, one whose reviews I turn to after I complete a text because his insights reveal depths and meanings I myself may have glossed over. Anything I could have written would have paled in comparison. That is not false modesty, it is simple fact. I say this not only to draw your attention to an amazing resource freely available, but to highlight that with both of these men the same lesson I see repeated throughout weird fiction at large. The greater the work, the more humble and approachable the artist behind it. As the quote goes, “We’re all smart. Distinguish yourself by being kind.” C. Gordon.

This is what the publishers, Omnium Gatherum, provide us for a summary:

Private Investigator Terrance Blake spends most of his days shadowed by an event from his past, while dismantling the lives of those driven by the masochistic need to confirm the lies they deny are cold, hard truths, until Hollywood socialite Jane Teagarden calls him for only the third time in years with news on the whereabouts of her runaway brother,ridingthecentipede Marlon. Marlon Teagarden has been a ghost for ten years, traveling through the underbelly of society as a means of blotting out a past allegedly rife with child abuse, until he is chosen to Ride the Centipede, leading to the ultimate experience, courtesy of literary translator of languages and drug-infused visions from inner and outer space, William S. Burroughs. Also along for the ride, at the behest of a mysterious employer, is a nuclear-infused force of corrupt nature, “some kind of new breed of human and radiation, a blotch, an aberration, cancer with teeth.”
Allow me to introduce you to Rudolf.
Rudolf Chernobyl.
Let the games begin…

Here we are again my dear friend, in the company of a detective. Yet given that the grandfather of weird fiction, E. A. Poe himself, is often credited with the creation of the detective story, I guess we should not be too surprised at this turn of events. I would be 11350603_10153289017632482_7679665457576418816_nremiss if I did not point you to the excellent series of articles on Poepathy Selena Chambers has been writing within the pages of Xnoybis magazine. Please do not think I cast off these references to show how cool and connected I am. Rather I would like to draw our web of the weird tighter and provide signposts and waypoints for those of us that do not have the time to spend our lives compulsively ferreting out every niblet of the dark frontier. I know I will miss more than I reveal but what I do find I will share freely. I’ve often felt the true subversive power of horror fiction is its ability to smuggle outré subjects past the checkpoints of good taste and moral authority, providing clues scattered as breadcrumbs for the curious to follow. John Claude Smith’s writing follows in this tradition beautifully, scattering references and allusions that discovered by a thirsting mind at the right age could send them off into undreamed expanses.

Here, as in his short fiction, John Claude Smith is unafraid of the unflinching gaze and even more uncompromising in his task of laying it down upon the page for all to see. In choosing to tackle Burroughs John Claude Smith willingly took on a character that was a born transgressor, Burroughs the perfect foil for John Claude Smith, both writers of the head and the heart. Both men more than willing to tackle lofty topics of language, control, imagination, while at the same time also willing to gleefully wallow in the sheer filth and degradation of physicality.

In Rudy Chernobyl John Claude Smith has found an appropriate contrary for his Burroughs. I use contrary here because when one stands opposed to a character like Burroughs the question of who is the villain grows quite murky indeed. I likewise say “his Burroughs” because John Claude Smith has absorbed so much Burroughs, inhaled the quintessence of the man and then transcended the reality, imbued it with his Pure Imagination as Poe described it* to create a character of his own creation.

Have I sung the praises too high for this one? Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. I fervently do not believe so. Will this novel be divisive? Definitely. This novel is unrepentant. Yet a lesson I learned long ago in the military holds true today. Better to offer an apology than beg permission. If I have shared with you how surprised and delighted I was by this novel and thus convinced a few more souls to give it a place in their stacks then I am indeed a happy soul.

For this novel’s accompaniment I would recommend something chitinous and cinematic, an album by Schloss Tegal or Aghiatrias. Those are cavernous spaces he has prepared for you, out there on the dark frontier. Purchasing John Claude Smith’s novel will take you to the first leg of the centipede.

* Hat tip to Selena Chambers and her article “THE POE BUG: A Journey to the Center of Poepathy and Beyond”

 Article by Acep Hale.

Purchase Riding the Centipede.

Purchase Autumn in the Abyss.

Article image by Bosaiya. View his incredible art gallery here.

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