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By Jeremy Shipp
Raw Dog Screaming Press
Well, it's January, which means it must be time for a new Jeremy Shipp book! This is the third book in three years, in fact, that I've reviewed by this prolific alt-horror veteran and Stoker Award nominee; and as those who have read my write-ups of his previous Vacation and Sheep & Wolves know, I'm a pretty big fan of this literary chameleon as well, a better-than-average genre author who seems to take on a different style and tone with each new project he pens. And his latest, Cursed, is no exception, with Shipp using it as an excuse to turn in a witty relationship drama full of Dashiell-Hammett-style rat-a-tat dialogue and snappy phrases, as well as such postmodern touches as a main character who mostly defines his life through a series of lists and multiple-choice questions. In fact, the entire thing starts on the kind of highly original note that inspired the term "alt-horror" to begin with, to differentiate it from the "all spooky all the time" stylings of such traditional horror authors as Stephen King; turns out that the book begins with our hero, a professional plush-sculpture creator named Nick, coming to the realization for the first time that he's now been slapped hard in the face by various random people every day now for twelve days straight, which is enough to make him start worrying that perhaps someone has put some sort of hex on him, even though he has no direct evidence that such a thing has actually occurred.
This leads him to a friendship with another local named Cicely, who started suffering from a similar problem the same day that Nick received his first slap -- that's the day she woke up in bed with a tennis ball inexplicably in her hand, and with a dreadful certainty in the back of her head that the world will end if she ever drops it -- which then kicks off the main meat of the book, the two's journey to discover whether their co-dependent neurosis is real, whether anyone else in town is suffering from it too, and what exactly they should do about it anyway. And while it's best that this inventive plot remain as much a mystery as possible, I will say that Shipp uses it to explore a topic that's obviously a favorite of his, the idea of people with supernatural powers who also happen to be psychopathically insane, which he also used to such great effect in Sheep & Wolves; although please understand as well that the story veers off in many other directions too, and that what seems about halfway through to be the solution to the mystery turns out not to be the solution at all.
All this would be great enough; but like I said, Shipp then couches this entire story within a very witty and engaging personal style, using this milieu to explore the subject of relationships (between lovers, between parents and children) in a grounded and straightforward way you wouldn't normally expect from a horror tale; and this is why Shipp is considered by so many to be among the best in the entire alt-horror genre, because he brings a non-genre professionalism and sheen to his projects that is simply rarely seen within this admittedly underground community. (After all, his first novel Vacation is less a traditional horror story than it is a black political comedy as if conceived by a tripping Noam Chomsky, part of why I became such a passionate fan of his in the first place.) What Cursed really is is a probing look at the ways humans interact with each other, and of the importance of having trusted loved ones around us to offset our own crippling feelings of self-doubt; Shipp just happens to tell it through the filter of what may or may not be supernatural creatures of unconscionable evil, and a plague of slight annoyances that may or may not be sweeping across the human race.
It's what keeps me such a fan of Shipp's work, and also what garners this book a score in the 9s, which regulars know is unusual here for a genre book, and which means that I think the book good enough for a general audience, whether that audience member is naturally a fan of that genre or not. That's the ultimate compliment I can pay this book, that it deserves to be read whether or not you're already a horror fan, and I repeat again what I've said before, that it's a shame that Shipp hasn't yet had the kind of mainstream breakthrough success like what happened to Joe Hill in the '00s or Clive Barker in the '80s. It's much deserved, and maybe it's this book that will finally get Shipp the kind of national attention he warrants.
Out of 10: 9.2