There is a certain subversive thrill in introducing new people to Jeremy Robert Johnson’s (hereafter referred to as ‘JRJ’) work – not unlike the first time I discovered Salvia divinorum sometime in the mid-to-late 2000’s, and fancied myself a sort Johnny Salvia-Seed, sharing this bizarre and world-bending (and somehow still legal) experience. Likewise, I enjoy planting the seeds of Johnson’s writing in the hearts and minds of those whom I identify as kindred spirits, and waiting to see whether they take root, or end up killing the host instead.
However, this thrill may very well be about to go on life support, because last month, the Washington Post cited JRJ’s brilliant new novel, Skullcrack City, as one of their top-recommended sci-fi/fantasy novels for the month of February 2015, an honor he shares with the legendary Neil Gaiman, no less. Soon, I feel, I will no longer be able to enjoy the perverse joy of seeing a friend rate a JRJ book as 5 stars on Amazon or GoodReads, and knowing that it was I who introduced them to the it.
But if that’s what it’ll take to keep the man in the business of writing books, it’s a small sacrifice indeed.
But is Skullcrack City really a work of sci-fi/fantasy? It feels like something else, something a little more edgy. Bio-Punk? Techno-Occultist Apocalyptica? I’m not sure it can be properly classified, because to shoehorn it into a genre – even an invented one – is to do it a disservice, because this book is singularly original. Certainly, it takes certain cues from Philip K. Dick and William Burroughs. It feels like it could be put on a shelf next to Warren Ellis’s Supergod, Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles and The Filth, and David Wong’s John Dies at the End and feel perfectly at home there. But let those comparisons not detract from the uniqueness of this tale, which changes gears with fluid rapidity many times throughout the narrative. More than a few times I was left breathless and glassy-eyed by some unexpected hair-pin turn that put S.P. Doyle, the novel’s protagonist, into positions I never saw coming.
FAIR WARNING: What follows may contain some spoilers. It’s hard to say anything meaningful about a plot this complex and bizarre without giving a few things away, but I promise you, even if I told you exactly what happens, chapter for chapter, it still wouldn’t prepare you for the act of reading it yourself. Like a good, strong hit of DMT, the book can be described endlessly, but to really understand it, you’ve gotta take a hit of the shit yourself. And if you’re not just a little scared beforehand, you’re probably going find yourself snatched up by the short and curlies and slammed against a wall.
Doyle, a well-meaning would-be anarchist trying to take down the banking industry from the inside, find himself locked in a cycle of heavy addiction to a fictional analog of Adderall called Hexadrine, a compound whose ever-changing chemical makeup is reminiscent of modern “legal highs” found in head shops, usually stuff marketed as “incense” or “bath salts”. Only instead of making your muscle tissue slough off of your bones like a quartered chicken that’s been in sitting in a crock pot for eight hours, it does something far worse: it literally tunes you into an endless black void which exists outside of normal space-time, a place where there is only torment. Like Hell, yeah? Not really. The traditional Hell sounds like a fucking camping trip compared to this place. Oh, it also eventually turns your dick into a twisted, broken mess, and and overdose turns your eyes into black jelly. But hey, it sure makes you productive!
JRJ’s description of addiction is – as usual – utterly convincing and disturbingly accurate: the desperation, the chase, the glory of acquisition, the anxiety of running low, the paranoia, the dramatically skewed perception of reality. It’s all there, only amped-up to a degree that makes the insanity of, say, a full-blown methamphetamine habit, seem like a minor character flaw in comparison. This alone is probably as weird as it gets for the casual reader of dark/weird fiction. If it seems a little too intense for you, you might want to go check out what Oprah’s book club has to offer this month, because the intense month-long drug binge is merely the preamble to a sprawling journey through a world full of Lovecraftian god-worshiping bankers, brain-eating monsters, radical body modifications freaks (anyone who has read JRJ’s short story, The League of Zeroes, will be happily surprised by some of the characters in this book), reformed drug addicts turned light-workers, demonic music producers and artists, and a long walk through the very darkest recesses of the human spirit, where unspeakable horrors lie in wait for the reader; horrors made all the more terrible for the fact that they’re really not so far from reality. No, not far from reality at all. All one would need to do is pick up a history book.
And yet, despite its bleak setting and tormented characters, this book is very, very funny. And ultimately, it is a book about hope, and love, and redemption, and the human will to adapt and survive despite insurmountable odds. Whether by design or merely by the intertwining of life and art, the book contains an allegory about the plight of modernity. This is a story about you and I; about our addictions, our fears, and our inability to recognize the fact that we’re rapidly cutting the ground out from under our feet in order to enjoy a little momentary comfort. This book, in short, is a warning to the foolish and the deluded, and a message of hope to those who would read between the lines and recognize that dark place within themselves, and in so doing, drag themselves up from those inky depths and use what they’ve learn to create, rather than destroy.
If you decide to buy this book, please spend a little extra money for the print edition. eBooks are well and good, but authors often don’t get the same kind of payout they would for a eBook as they would for a print edition.
Also, I wouldn’t be offended if you were to choose to click here and buy it through my Amazon Associates account. You’ll get an amazing book, JRJ will get a paycheck, and I’ll get like a fraction of a cent as a commission. We all win!