Review by Rachel Kendall
Available from www.lulu.com (£8.99) or as a download (£2.50)
The book can also be purchased direct from the author at firstname.lastname@example.org (£6.50).
Writers exaggerate. It's what they do. It's called artistic license. The writer takes excerpts from the world as he experiences it, and enlarges them through writing. He exaggerates to make his message more real than reality.
Grimwood's reality is apocalyptic. It is dark, very very dark, putrid, and surprisingly true to contemporary society's silly form. These stories exaggerate, and in a way, celebrate, humankind on its road to Hell. It's about political correctness gone mad; aesthetic self-improvement bent all out of shape. Cold people, people of the future with no warmth, no odour, no excretions. Worlds where people daren't walk, they use the TubeNode and then the LiftScoop, they travel in compartments used specifically by those who don't breathe, thanks to surgical advances and media lunacy.
"Are you ready Mister Denna, to take one giant leap away from the primitive?" (Breathe)
Grimwood is an excellent teller of gruesome tales and the nineteen in this collection wend their way through horror to sci fi to magic realism to kitchen-sink drama to futurism to fairytale. Never have I come across such a wealth of stories, all so different, but all held together by the bloody umbilicus that links beauty to horror and horror to reality.
His stories tell of debt-collectors and dead-collectors. Of offal and bile, sin and fear, disease and a malfunctioning society. A war-rotten core, told with such precision, such poetic imagery that you can't help but feel moved.
"The dancers turn slowly on their creaking, straining ropes. A slow gyration, one-wise until the rope reaches full tension, then other-wise to reverse the eternal pirouette. Turning and turning, they stare sightlessly down at us from their lofty stations; lamppost, war-exposed rafters, the branches of surviving trees. Old and young, men and women, hands behind their backs like inspecting Royalty, tongues protruding in mockery, faces blue-black with shame." (Freedom)
There is a lot of death in these pages. Grimwood is a horror writer after all. There is also a lot of unpleasantness:
"Dinner is a slithering, sliding, squelching, chaos of naked, blood-smeared flesh, crawling and slobbering over a floor covered with… Christ I can't say the word, I can't begin to describe what I can see, what is being crammed into mouths that dribble blood and vitals." (The excellent Deadside)
"She was... dirty. Scraps of make-up clung to her face, her pores leaked fluids, her flesh was ingrained with muck of all kinds. She stank of sweat, semen, of other juices and excretions." (The Exaggerated Man)
But however repulsive some of these images are, however repugnant the characters and horrific the crimes, I can't help but feel there is more to these stories than surface nastiness. A number of these tales use our fears, arachnophobia, being buried alive, fear of losing one's mind, the itching beneath the skin, the flitting shadows and the sense of being watched, the sudden gusts of wind, the blackness, the sounds and sense of evil. These are not new ideas; they are well-worn horror-story constructs, but didn't someone once say all stories have been written? What the skilled writer does is take these ideas and sex them up, bruise them a little, add some spice, make them unique. Grimwood is able to retell these nightmares as though you're having them yourself for the very first time.
And then there is the guilt. Oh god, the guilt. Tied in with almost every story, whether on this planet or another, this plane or something beyond life, there is trial and punishment, guilt and grief. Whether taken down to basics as in Red Hands, murder being the vilest thing and perhaps a manifestation of every other sin. Or infidelity, loving and losing the wrong woman, hurting those you love. Or the kind of childhood violations that brand you with another's guilt so you're left with the smell of burning flesh until you can finally face your demons. There is also temptation splattered across every page, money, sex, beauty, purity, come on, you can have anything you want for the price of…
"Williamson dropped to his knees, reached down into the grave and felt bony fingers close about his own. Her flesh was dust-dry. When he pulled, that flesh slid horribly over bone in a way that flesh should never slide." (What the Dead Are For)
It's hard to pick a favourite story. I don't think I can. I love the unexpected ending in Deadside, Coffin Road's tale of the growing relationship between father and grandfather against a rotting backdrop, the rat-pack connections in the magic-realist Friends of Mike Santini, the weird weirdness of Atoner:
"He crawled into the funnel. Head first. The semen-pack squelched against the back of his skull like a grotesque, silk-skinned balloon." (Atoner)
Any lover of horror literature will be more than sated by this book. In fact, they'll be standing for an encore. But so too will lovers of books like The Wizard of Oz and Greenaway's film The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. The Exaggerated Man reminds me of these two very different, very colourful stories. Like Baum's Oz, Grimwood's world is part-myth, part-reality where good vs evil (or, the dead vs the living) in such awful places as Deadside, Liveside, the Pits or worst of all - London, and the big cheese isn't all he's been made out to be. Then there is Greenaway's film, with its prettying of pure evil, a technicolour dream-world where sex and filth and corruption run the show, a perfect comparison to The Exaggerated Man.
"And while Doug's cigarette ascended, flared, faded, fell then ascended again like a slow motion pendulum, the dark seethed with the animal utterances of the grieving and the thud and clink of spades as they wounded, fed, then healed the earth." (Coffin Road)
Writers exaggerate. That's what they do. But some writers, like Grimwood, do it better than others.