Greetings, readers. I’m sure quite a few of you are voracious readers of horror fiction, and know the pleasure I’m about the describe: You’ve just brought home a new book. Maybe you bought it, maybe it’s a library book, maybe you received it as a gift. But regardless, you pour yourself a drink and settle in to begin reading. Absent-mindedly, you reach for your drink and are astonished to find it suddenly gone warm and flat. In a moment, you realize what’s happened. You were so engrossed in the book that an hour or two passed in what seems like only a few moments.
I was fortunate enough to have that experience this afternoon. Greg “Slimeguy” Lamberson (the handsome devil behind the films SLIME CITY and SLIME CITY MASSACRE, author of THE FRENZY WAY and CHEAP SCARES, and co-organizer of the upcoming Buffalo Screams Film Festival, among many, many other projects, both literary and cinematic) was kind enough to send me an Advance Reader Copy of his newest novel, DESPERATE SOULS, which hits shelves October 1st. It is the second novel in the “Jake Helman Files” series, the first being PERSONAL DEMONS. I haven’t read PERSONAL DEMONS (yet) but not having read the first novel in no way interfered with my enjoyment of the sequel.
The hero, Jake Helman, has quit his position on the NYPD following the death of his wife at the hands of the serial killer known only as the Cipher, and gone into business as a Private Investigator. An older woman comes to him, concerned that her grandson is dealing a new street drug known as Black Magic. Black Magic has become an epidemic in New York City, driving cocaine, heroin, and ecstasy from the streets.
Investigating, Helman makes a nightmarish discovery; Black Magic is not only physically debilitating to the user, but spiritually as well, eventually killing the junkie, and causing their body to resurrect as a zombie. Not as a Romero-esque gutmuncher, mind you, but as a zonbie — an enslaved soul in the service of a Bokor, or sorcerer, of the Voodoo tradition. While shooting them in the head does deanimate the walking dead, it is time-consuming, and the zonbie are legion. No, to clean up the streets Helman has to go to the source…
Greg Lamberson has revitalized the zombie for me. Because I’ll be honest with you, I am deucedly bored with zombies. The entire horror genre has been inundated in Romero-esque gutmunchers as of late, and it’s become a joke, a feeble self-parody of the living dead. They’re not scary, they’re not meaningful, they’re not even interesting any more. If I hear one more ill-thought-out “zombie survival plan” I am going to grab the individual by the collar and shake them vigorously while screaming “YOU MEAN THE MOVIE LIED?”
Sorry about that readers. My elitist blowhard was showing. Back to the review at hand.
Greg, in writing his zombie — or rather, zonbie — novel has reached back further than Romero, to the cinematic tradition of Victor Halperin and Val Lewton, and of course further back, to the supernatural origins of the zombie legends in Afro-Carribbean tradition, and delivers a truly unsettling monster; embalmed “robots” of dried flesh, programmed with simple courses of action by their Bokor, with the original individual’s soul trapped inside the husk of their former body, screaming for release with no one to hear their cries or pleas. And of course behind the zonbies is the Bokor, an individual so twisted by lust for power and vengeance as to sell themselves, body and soul, to the demonic Loas of Vodoun.
Surrounding Helman and the supernatural he must confront is an absolutely stunning cast of complex, nuanced characters – attentive to detail as always, Greg leaves no character to languish as a cliche. Every figure, however minor, is given their motivations, beliefs, and complications, and acts organically in accordance with these against as authentic a background of New York City as I’ve ever seen depicted in print, as perhaps can only be written by someone who lived against this background as Greg has.
If I had to nit-pick, the closest thing to a flaw I can find in the book is that Greg’s cinematic background shows through very strongly in places, with characters referencing movies in a way that I don’t see outside of the horror fan community. In my experience, lay-people, in discussing zombies, will be able to bring to mind NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, but aren’t as likely to bring up the name George Romero because they’re probably not going to know his name. It’s the horror nerds like myself who name-drop Romero when talking zombies. It’s a relatively minor quibble (though I did have to sit back and say “Hey now…” when characters discuss THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW as if it had come out the week before), but it did briefly shift me out of my engrossment in the novel. And unless I miss my guess, I’d say a pretty brutal and graphic scene of ocular trauma in PERSONAL DEMONS is a reference to Lucio Fulci’s ZOMBI 2…
In addition to his strong horror background, Greg also demonstrates his appreciation for the film noir detective story; Helman is a working stiff (pun intended) in the vein (hah!) of Phillip Marlowe, Sam Spade and the Continental Op (he even has a replica of the Maltese Falcon on his desk). Greg’s prose floods the readers’ senses with the gritty underbelly of the City That Never Sleeps. You don’t just read it – you practically smell it, hear it, taste it. And Greg does not flinch away from blood, vitreous humor, feces, or semen. If it suits the characters and the story, Greg will include it. No modesty here, which suits this fan of Pulp Detective novels just fine. Dashiell Hammett didn’t flinch away from Kaspar Gutman’s abuse of his niece in 1930; Greg doesn’t flinch away from a body voiding its bowels upon death or the inevitable results of a well-applied handjob in 2010.
In short, I recommend jumping on DESPERATE SOULS. I don’t really want to compare Greg’s Jake Helman novels to C.J. Henderson’s Teddy London series, as Jake Helman’s lacking the Lovecraftian cosmology and outright occultism of Henderson’s supernatural sleuth, though fans of the Teddy London series will thrill to the exploits of Jake Helman. I’ll be picking up PERSONAL DEMONS, the book preceding this one, soon enough, and Greg mentioned that he’s got the next book in the series, COSMIC FORCES, already in the works…who knows, maybe Greg will prove me wrong on the “Lovecraftian cosmology” front!