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While out for a walk you find a corpse. You squat next to it. Phone, Instagram, picture, coffee-stain filter, witty caption, post. Go home, long shower, wash that sickly sweet scent out of your nostrils. This is your brand, you’re selling it. Metrics, metrics, we all fall down.
While you’re cleaning, someone else is walking. They find the same corpse. They go through its pockets, check its teeth, check its eyes. They pick it up and take it home. They give it a bath, dress it up, sit it at the dining table, cook it dinner, converse all evening. They give it a name and a birthday and a favourite colour. Life goes on.
Horror in transition
Autumn Christian’s Crooked God Machine evokes Jhonen Vasquez in written form; all gothy aesthetic and distorted lines. Heavy on eyeliner-flared meanness. Johnny the Homicidal Maniac understands its shallow darkness, revelling in edginess, self-mocking the excess of deliberately constructed lack of self-awareness – goth that doesn’t feel the need to wear New Rocks and a trench coat in 35C heat.
Crooked God Machine wants to be more than it is. It isn’t able to go where it wants to go – it gets confused and uneasy on the way there and turns aside. Crooked God Machine reads like a text in transition, depicting an author reaching for a specific tone, but unsure of how to use it. An understanding of tone is vital to understanding where books like this stumble.
Ambition is laudable. While most ambition fails, it remains a necessity. Who dares learns. Who learns wins. What, then, can we learn?
Nuclear salmonella-holocausting the pudding
A very American horror in that ‘room with a view of hell, staircase of Satan, pond of death’ fashion. Crooked God Machine is a haphazard off-kilter misery collage that everyone else laughs at, so bound up in trying to be awful that it forgoes attachment. A dozen individual concepts march across the first hundred pages and then march off again. Less depth-macabre, more ‘Welcome to Nightvale doing heavy goth’ (sounds pretty cool, to be honest). But Nightvale works because Nightvale hangs lampshades on conspiracy theory-fuelled neo-Leamases and writes ‘yer mum’s a slag’ on Azathoth’s face. Crooked God Machine, by comparison is all Black Metal snow-posting minus the Abbath. To the self-aware go the KVLT points.
Christian imagery becomes shorthand for ethics. Everything’s always covered in blood. The sister turns on the kitchen tap: blood. An unforeshadowed plague of locusts hops about in the background. A stigmata-bearing Saint in a blood-soaked robe massacres a graduation ceremony with a flamethrower. The preacher casually conducts paedophilia. The end-of-days resurrection happens, ghosts of the departed wander the streets, people freak out, but we’re told that this is passe – it happened the other week and it’ll happen again. Why are people freaking out if they’re bored by the end-of-days-that-wasn’t? Nobody bats an eye. The idea is that this is Tuesday.
But this can’t be just Tuesday. There are too many implications and dominoes. The fact of the pipes are known to periodically disgorge vast quantities of blood has significant implications for things as banal as the plumbing, filtration infrastructure, and so on. What happens when all that blood coagulates in the pipes? If there’s a government, have they been forced to invest in mass-producing anti-coagulants to pump through the drains every time a machine rolls the plague dice? What about hygiene and disease? Do they have a massive mosquito problem? How do they deal with that? If this is a world running Hobbesian-style anarcho-primitivism, why is there even a school system? Why do they even have plumbing? How does this work? Is all this blood O-neg? Does it rotate types? Blood transfusions, blood banks, donation drives – how do these guys respond? Presumably, if you’ve got the infrastructure to maintain a functional schooling system, you’ve got healthcare.
Nothing is impacted or changed by these events that would be a story in themselves. It’s all veneer – blood as nail polish, murder as theatre. Nobody can take the situation seriously.
Contrast Judge Holden. Sometimes interpreted as a representation of God, Holden doesn’t enact extremities of depravity for the rumour mill – depravity is just his natural state. He doesn’t need to rain blood down on the world, abduct people in ships or raise the dead. He orchestrates massacres, kills innocents and rapes children – because that’s what he exists as: a fulcrum for the depravity of mankind. He doesn’t need to prove anything. In fact, his character almost exists as a counterpoint to his actions – he is learned, polite, and charismatic. The almost supernatural impression of potency he has isn’t created by his needing to prove it, it’s in the very mundanity of his existence. It is flat that the point by which the normal and drab are exchanged for the abnormal and horrific. They blur to together, the horror becomes mundane, the mundane a tense prelude to some inevitable atrocity. It is so all-pervasive that it doesn’t even need to be explicitly mentioned.
As with Blood Meridian, Crooked God Machine portrays a society that has been completely stripped of morals or ethics or what have you, but Christian’s setting is a clear comparison to modern consumerist hedonism-soaked society. You could read the absentee father narrative as a finger pointed of the collapse of American industry or the ‘decline of the nuclear family’ lamented in some circles. However, as before the details that Crooked God Machine gives us to advance a possible reading are wildly inconsistent or so melodramatic that they undermine their own message, abandoning impassioned social commentary for frothing hysteria.
J. G. Ballard illustrates social decay and innate human states of nature in High Rise. A microcosm of society, the titular high rise is rooted in class conflict, the failing of everyday convenience, the façade of civility. Recognisable points of mundanity, a pool, a party, the lifts, become the foundations for the drama. The drama never reaches anywhere near the absurdity of Crooked God Machine, but it doesn’t need to. The juxtaposition of the recognisable and the out of place, the supressed and the acceptable, is what underpins the lasting impressions of the setting in High Rise.
Fiction written by the late-teen-to-early-twenties group generally contains melodrama. More on that later. Increasingly, melodrama isn’t constrained to young adults and teenagers. Writers turn to melodrama because they don’t believe that what they’re writing is dramatic enough. In a world revolving around one-upping the last idiot performing the last inane act, inexplicably driving the algorithm into peals of the loudest laughter, or created the biggest number on a spreadsheet, it’s easy to lose sight of what makes experiences painful.
Everything has to be overblown and extreme – it’s not enough to write about the splinter in your foot, it needs to be an irradiated mutant megalodon, ridden by a foul-mouthed succubus who emits a ceaseless discharge of oily piss, erupting out of a sinkhole in the middle of Times Square, ripping off your leg at the knee and leaving a giant tooth lodged in the stump.
Pain doesn’t live on a linear scale, doesn’t acquire more significance the more eyeballs dragged in. Sometimes, you’d do better to just write about the splinter.