Skullcrack City by Jeremy Robert Johnson
For years, Jeremy Robert Johnson's prose has been a place and space where the best elements of crime, horror, bizarro, and science fiction coalesce into fast-paced, unique narratives. The Wonderland Book Award-winning author of We Live Inside You achieved cult figure status with Angel Dust Apocalypse and received a Bram Stoker Award nomination for Siren Promised, which he co-authored with author and painter Alan M. Clark. However, the most important thing he achieved with his outstanding short fiction was creating an audience eager for a novel. Skullcrack City is that novel, and its blend of genres, breakneck pacing, brutality, and dashes of philosophy and social critique serve to cement Johnson as one of the most exciting voices in contemporary fiction.
S.P. Doyle was just another corporate drone working for a bank. He had no friends, no significant relationships other than with his mother, whom he almost never called, and his only companion was a turtle. Then Doyle decided he wanted to bring down the whole corrupt system, and his life changed. After weeks of doing research into the bank's shadiest deals and connections, which he did by staying up high on Hexedrine (think dextroamphetime mixed with cocaine and home-cooked meth), Doyle finds more than enough information in the bank's records to bring it all crashing down. Before he can do that, he's framed for murder, narrowly escapes death at the monstrous hands and jaw of a brain-devouring abomination, and falls in with a crowd of underground crusaders who know more about the system than Doyle ever imagined. What Doyle uncovered was just the tip of a major conspiracy that brings together the bank's upper echelon and other conglomerates, freak show celebrities, mutant assassins, and a brilliant surgeon who makes Josef Mengele look like a regular pediatrician.
The first element of Skullcrack City that demands attention is its speed. Johnson sets the story in motion and quickly accelerates the narrative until the reader can't help but feel Doyle's obsession, desperation, and the effects of Hex. While that is impressive, what truly makes the pacing admirable is that the author manages to keep it up for 300+ pages while consistently introducing new plot points, delivering hints, and introducing new characters. Furthermore, while this element would be enough to make this a recommended read, it becomes more powerful when mixed with Johnson's world-building skills. The result is a dystopian landscape that's at once a celebration of everything there is to like about dystopian fiction and a perfect mirror for the most unglamorous end of the spectrum of our everyday reality:
The night was vibrating with new potential, the beautiful after-haze of adrenaline and bad ideas fully embraced. Ugly thoughts crept in, forcing me to write off a growing list of concerning data: My old dealer gone mad and roaming the sewers; Egbert's hand -- notably short on its middle and ring fingers -- reaching out to me with three tiny pill baggies; gas-masked kids dodging conscious thought like a plague; a trafficked tranny more concerned with dodging cops than finding love.
Johnson's prose is a hybrid animal, a literary version of Frankenstein's monster that proudly displays the different pieces that give it form while retaining its own identity. In Skullcrack City, poetry and crime meet bizarro and horror, but the author blends those genres so well that it's hard to find a sentence that belongs entirely to a single realm. For example, the blood, gore, and (de)(re)construction of the human body, elements Johnson has always worked with and which reach a new level, are consistently dealt with in ways that juxtapose carnage and beauty:
"She watched me as I lifted away the cap of his skull with a soft sucking sound, as I sliced into the gelatin softness of his occipital lobe and bisected his brain horizontally, white matter shining at its core like the wings of a butterfly."
While the running, shooting, extreme body modifications, monsters, and tension, merge to create the kind of narrative that seems primarily focused on entertainment, there's also a deep, critical core to Skullcrack City that's hard to miss. The search for authenticity, identity and its relation to mass media, the nature of addiction, mindless consumption, and global conglomerate agendas are all explored in this narrative, especially in the last third of the book when Johnson delves into the history of Dr. Tikoshi:
You worked with like-minded scientists on the creation of a soda-borne protozoan whose waste immediately triggered intense hunger, and a face lotion which caused redness and cracking (as well as suicidal thoughts) if not regularly reapplied. This latter was airdropped over small Russian towns, though you never knew whose agenda that served.
From Doyle's quick transformation into a Hex junkie to the cerebral (literally as well as figuratively) last few chapters of the book, Skullcrack City is a smart, incredibly well-researched, and painfully plausible look at our immediate future. Jeremy Robert Johnson's work has always tested the limits of both genre and literary fiction, especially in the place where they meet, and this novel proves that there's still new ground to tread and that he's already on it.
Skullcrack City by Jeremy Robert Johnson
Lazy Fascist Press