I knew exactly how much COVID has impacted my life when I realised that Darryl Dawson has a new novella out; it's been out for almost two years now and I haven't seen him at an event to pick up a copy from him. And he's one of the most diligent authors I know when it comes to booking tables so he can put his books in front of new eyeballs. If I haven't seen him behind a table in two years, then I'd be relatively sure that I haven't seen anyone.
Now, he's hardly the most prolific local author and his books don't have the thickest spines, as he has the opposite mindset to someone like Stephen King, using one word where one word is needed. That's why he's such a good short story writer and I had a blast with his debut collection, 'The Crawlspace', far too long ago. Holy crap, has that been out for more than a decade now? I guess that means that I'm a long way overdue reading and reviewing his debut novella, 'If It Bleeds', from 2014.
It runs just shy of a hundred pages, but he has a lot of fun within them, most of it at the expense of an experienced editor in television news, Moses Mayborne, who finds himself returning to his early days as a video journalist and finding that the world has gone batshit crazy. And I do mean crazy, because he gradually comes to the realisation that the opening line of the back cover blurb isn't kidding at all: "television is killing us".
He works at KAPH-TV, Channel 2 right here in Phoenix, AZ, as a crucial back room component of what's called Commitment2News. His mentor, Alphonso Gonzales, better known as Gonzo, has retired after a couple of decades, due to sudden blindness. With imminent cuts coming to whittle down the workforce at Commitment2News, his boss strongly suggests he take this particular promotion and that puts him back on the streets with a camera.
And what he finds is that, not only are newsworthy stories as depressing as he remembers, but weird shit is going down: mindless shop employees, arguments in the supermarket, even an altercation at a traffic accident where one driver literally bites off the nose of the other. What really wakes him up to the fact that something is going on is when he reports from a house fire and a cop politely lifts a tarp off a corpse so that a passing Dobermann can tear chunks of flesh off its face before wandering back off up the street. That's just not normal, even in Phoenix.
There's a reason behind it all, of course, and Dawson skillfully manouevres us and Moses both towards the eventual explanation, which is dark and pessimistic as it seems likely to be. There's some healthy cynicism here to explore in metaphor, for those who like to dig for meaning, but this works just as well as a straight read, its horrors right there on the page and of an agreeable level of icky for discerning horror hounds.
I'm usually one of those readers who likes to dig for what an author is really talking about and it's not difficult at all to find meaning behind everything that goes down in this fictional Phoenix. However, it isn't the deepest meaning in the world and I think I like this all the more as a straightforward horror story, because it's not merely horrific; it's weirdly horrific. We're not all the way into Bizarro territory but we've definitely crossed the border into a neighbouring surreal state of mind, one that's worthy of a really bad trip. The Dobermanns are the opposite of spirit guides and they make for some wildly memorable scenes.
Of course, I can't talk too much about what goes down in a novella, because the tipping point into the land of spoilers comes early, so this has to remain a shorter review than normal, but that has nothing to do with the quality of the writing. It's telling to me that I recognised my town in this novel, even in a sort of nightmarish mirror image. Dawson is a skilled writer, who can keep things real even while he's making them utterly surreal, and I'll have to remember to thank him in person next time I see him for the trip he took me on here. While I buy his new novella, 'Death's Dreams'. ~~ Hal C F Astell