An Orgy of Strange – John Claude Smith’s Riding the Centipede (Review)

As soon as I read the words “orgy of strange” in John Claude Smith’s debut novel, I knew I had to use it for the title of this review. It perfectly crystallises the feel of Riding the Centipede, a kind of grungy beatnik horror pulp noir that throws everything it’s got in your face. Needless to say, everything it’s got is viscous and toxic and fucking awesome.

At its core, Centipede is a chase narrative, the road from injection A to mastication B littered with weird, violent obstacles. Involved in this chase are three protagonists through which the novel cycles in alternating chapters: private investigator Terrance Blake, hired by Hollywood socialite Jane Teagarden to find her missing brother, Marlon; the murderous and – literally – nuclear Rudolf Chernobyl, who’s hunting Marlon for his own mysterious employer; and finally, the elusive quarry himself, the tense-fluid Marlon Teagarden, driven by his drug-soaked quest to ride the titular centipede as he makes his way through the terrifying, horrific world of the “dark frontier” in search of this ultimate, reality-bending experience.

These characters are all both interesting and, let me just say, pretty damn cool. Check out those names, for a start, the way they roll so deliciously off the tongue.

There did seem to be an adherence to some clichés here, like the embittered PI haunted by the death of his child, but Blake’s arc – and the others’ – is what makes him unique among hardboiled dicks. What I’d initially thought of as a formulaic throwaway backstory, a flimsy impetus for rote brooding, actually proved me utterly wrong by culminating in one of the most tender, tragic scenes in the whole book, a concise piece of character work that left me a little emotionally bruised. The point at which this flashback takes place is also part of its impact; Smith gives it the heartwrenching/-soaring circularity of a great blockbuster film. What else could you want in a book but great/weird action beats, and an emotional connection to those beats.

Smith’s novel is a bit of a love letter to the Beat Generation, and particularly William S Burroughs – to the extent that Burroughs features as a character, a “man who dreamed of becoming an insect” – but it also references a range of films, literature and art.

I’m a little ashamed to admit that I’ve never read any of the Beat Generation writers – they’re on my list though, I swear! – so there are probably a few nuances and references in this book that went over my head or just seemed like another feather of weirdness in the narrative’s abundant plumage. But that didn’t stop me from enjoying said weirdness. Smith really pulls you in to the sticky, dirty world he creates. It’s a dark world but certainly not a sombre one. Centipede’s is a colourful darkness, of blood and vomit and viscera all soaked in a liberal dousing of batshit crazy. It’s like that scene with all the lizards in Fear and Loathing, only the lizards are real and they’re about to take a bite. All of this engaged me in a very visual, tactile way; I’d love to see a no-holds-barred film version by someone like David Cronenberg or Ben Wheatley or even Guillermo del Toro.

The plotting isn’t squeaky-clean, but then hygiene isn’t something I’d associate with any element of Centipede. Smith tackles some fairly dark themes here – the obvious ones being drug addiction and child abuse – in an often graphic and unapologetic way. These elements don’t overtake the sheer fun of the book, though; they’re the dark fallible anchors that ground the characters in this weird, ugly world they find themselves in. The narrative instead wears its mask of drugged-out loony horror proudly, grinning ear to ear.

If I have a complaint it’s that, unfortunately, the number of grammatical blips and errors in the text kept snagging at my immersion. I think this probably comes down to the editing rather than the author, and it’s far from a deal-breaker, just not exactly ideal.

I felt that the dialogue, too, was occasionally problematic. It seemed to alternate between fizzing and fumbling, a snappy colloquial with a vernacular rhythm all its own at times, at others a little too formal and rehearsed.

But these are minor complaints in an otherwise snappy, vibrant novel. There are some absolute gems of linguistic talent here; beautiful, clever turns of phrase that encourage a lingering eye, like when “Blake’s thoughts” for example, “were dogpaddling to the edge of understanding, but never getting to shore,” or the moment he notices a “quirky, scratchy sound, like electricity gone to rot.”

Ultimately, the book felt like a child’s drawing of madness rendered in bright, thick crayon strokes. It was fascinating and promising and not at all what I expected, and I can’t wait to read whatever Smith produces next.

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