Nobody does an acid trip of a story quite like John Claude Smith. What I’ve read of his short fiction is dazzling, and weird, and dazzlingly weird. His first novel, Riding the Centipede (which I reviewed here a while back), was a marvellous debut, a neon-lit, hallucinatory nightmare of manic proportions. Smith’s writing thus far feels like the perfect distillation of gonzo horror fiction, a combination of great character beats, off-the-wall insanity, and an enormous bit of fun.
His newly released second novel, The Wilderness Within, is less of a gut-punch – to begin with, at least. it opens with protagonist Derek Gray visiting his long-time friend, Frank Harlan Marshall, who lives on the edge of a big old creepy forest with only one neighbour in sight.
This is a book exclusively about artistic types, and delves deeply into, among other things, the minutiae of the creative process. Derek and Frank are both very successful horror writers. Frank, whose work is much more bleak and brutal than his friend’s, is also a bit more successful, with books on the bestseller lists and blockbuster film adaptations earning him riches and a celebrity status that seems much scarcer for writers these days, especially of horror.
Anyway, the two catch up, shooting the shit and reminiscing about the good ol’ days. At some point, their comedian and actor friend, “Dizzy Izzy” Haberstein, turns up, and Derek’s sense of reality starts to skew. Smith skilfully portrays the interactions between the three friends as insecurities, old feuds and nostalgia rise to the surface.
Derek also strikes up a friendship/flirtation with Frank’s only neighbour, the singer known as Alethea. With her interest in philosophy and metaphysics, her looks and wit and charm and intelligence, Alethea comes across as more male fantasy than rounded character, at least to begin with. At the core of the novel’s first half is Derek’s growing connection and interaction with Alethea; their conversations about philosophy, humanity and nature – and, importantly, humanity’s relationship with nature – lay the foundations for the thematic direction Wilderness takes.
From here, once dynamics and core relationships have been established, the weirdness starts to creep in. Some characters are not what they seem, and maybe Derek’s conception of reality isn’t, either. These questions keep popping up at various points throughout the book, which often has the quality of a dream or drug-trip. Unfortunately for the characters, it’s not all in their heads, but that doesn’t mean that what’s in their heads is harmless.
Where Riding the Centipede was a fairly fast-paced novel that juggled a number of intersecting – and often colliding – character arcs, The Wilderness Within is much more of a character piece, with its introspective first-person narration and its exploration of its protagonist’s primary relationships. There’s still a copious spray of weirdness, especially in the second half, but by the very nature of the story, this plays off and is shaped by the humanity at the heart of the novel.
In a lot of ways The Wilderness Within is a book about the past; Derek is constantly rubbing the present thin enough that it beads through, but the foundation of Derek and Frank’s friendship, their years of adventure and success, is mostly kept out of the way. It looms in the reader’s peripheries, crouching behind the presently unfolding madness, more a concealed framework than an overt influence.
What Smith does very well is craft this world of artists and situate it firmly in our reality; it really feels like his characters and their work – books, films, music – exist within our pop culture bubble, and as I read about them it was almost disheartening not to be able to go and consume some of it.
There are some sharp, gorgeous observations here too, though. One character is “noticeably winding down”, and Derek observes that “it reminded me of the nervous deceleration of a music box, the end creeping up to sweep it into silence.”
On the whole the novel has the grainy feel of horror made popular in the 80’s and 90’s. There’s more than a whiff of Clive Barker in there, but also some unexpected flavours. The first few chapters are reminiscent of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, with Derek’s exhaustive descriptions of (in this case fictional) bands.
This influence carries through into the feel of the protagonist, too. He reminded me in a less sleazy way of one of Ellis’ characters, a dysfunctional world-weary guy cutting through life, telling his stories but not really knee-deep in any of them; he has a history and a life but he’s strangely removed from his past despite being so informed by it. I could never quite connect to Derek, never bridge that gap between the fiction and the human, despite the admirable world- and character-building chops Smith clearly demonstrates here. Derek talks about his emotions, but he never really seems to feel them, and subsequently neither did I. This doesn’t mean the novel isn’t engaging – it absolutely is – but I felt like more of an audience member than a participant.
Smith writes with gusto and honesty, the weirdness flaring across the page. The story jumps between this great pulpy weirdness reminiscent of Barker, King (especially The Shining) and a little Campbell, and the more overt philosophising that manifests as conversations between characters (most prevalently, Derek and Alethea). This is fine, but would have worked a lot better in certain parts if it wasn’t quite so meticulously explained. Philosophy as exposition, as character-building conversation is hard to pull off at the best of times, more so when it’s being juggled with a bunch of other big ideas and set pieces. It mostly works here, but I feel like some fat-trimming, some pushing down of these ideas into the story’s subtext might have served its flow much better. This is especially evident during some of the more action-centric scenes, in which characters will have an aside with each other while fleeing something or engaged in serious conflict. This breaks the rhythm of the action and, more importantly, the tension such action evokes.
The ideas themselves, however, are all very engaging, even if the execution falters at times. This is a novel packed with ideas. Smith’s observations about the nature of sounds are fascinating, as are the existential musings on nature and our relationship with it; not only its alien allure, its otherness, but the idea that we shape nature by our perception of it, and it shapes us in turn, is carried through to its logical conclusion.
Smith is at his best when the shit hits the fan and things get really weird. You can feel him having fun with scenes and characters, his prose revelling in grotesque turns of phrase. Everything becomes tactile and delicious as he puts his characters through all colours of hell. The action, when he kicks into full gear, is written with a kind of joy and flair for juggling; all these elements stacked and tumbling around each other in a whirl of chaos, before Smith catches them momentarily, and then back up into the air they go.
There’s a cartoonish, almost slapstick tone at times that feels both intentional and familiar after Smith’s psychedelic debut. In a book like Centipede, this really works to its advantage. In Wilderness this is effective for the most part, but with a narrative more grounded between reality and what seems to be a more dreamlike, philosophical breed of horror, this can sometimes blunt the tension, making comic what should be taut and terrifying.
The more I think about it, though, the more I realise that this may be the point. That line between horror and comedy, encapsulated nowhere more perfectly than in Dizzy Izzy’s character and his various incarnations/inspirations, is straddled so violently that the two often converge. There’s something hysterical about the later, more outlandish scenes that, had they not been blackly funny, would actually have fallen flat.
The final reveal(s), as telegraphed to an extent by the themes laid out from the beginning, is both brilliant and disturbing and a little reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky’s latest controversial offering, mother! (which I reviewed recently). There’s something beneath the skin of this revelation that’s more than a little unpleasant in its almost masturbatory exploration of the ego and/of the artist. It explains some of the misgivings I had about earlier scenes and characters, but within the story, this does nobody any favours. To this extent, there was no character I really rooted for here, although I suspect that might be Smith’s intention. I couldn’t relate to the protagonist in the same way I can’t relate to – again – a Bret Easton Ellis character, but that doesn’t mean they’re not engaging or fun to read.
This is a relatively slim novel, but it feels like a big, busy one. I admire Smith’s ambition and especially his ability to corral humour, horror and pathos together into scenes. His tone and his style, after Riding the Centipede and The Wilderness Within, is unique and engaging and already quite recognisable. More than that, it’s a style I recommend you get acquainted with.