Review: Psychos by John Skipp
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It appears Skipp is to literature as Tarantino is to film...
In his introduction to Psychos: Serial Killers, Depraved Madmen, and the Criminally Insane, the latest short story anthology from Black Dog & Leventhal - who have previously brought us collections entitled Zombies (2009), Werewolves and Shape Shifters (2010), and Demons (2011) - editor John Skipp hits us with the revelation that 'some people kill people', which is not only true, but in terms of this weighty new tome is also something of a gross understatement.
Over the course of the thirty-seven stories contained in Psychos we are witness to a whole lot of people killing a whole lot of people...in all manner of horrific ways...from the conventional serial killer and unhinged maniac to the otherwise normal (well, in the conventional sense) human being who is pushed just that little bit too far. You know, like the mild mannered soul who lives next door to you...
John Skipp, of course, needs no introduction to anybody familiar with horror literature. In collaboration with former partner in crime Craig Spector, Skipp penned half a dozen novels, reworked writer/director Tom Holland's script for the original (and superior in this writer's opinion) Fright Night (1985) movie into a novelization, and wrote the screenplay for A Nightmare On Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1993). Skipp and Spector also edited two anthologies together, 1989's The Book Of The Dead (which included the first appearance of Stephen King's Home Delivery short story), and 1992's Still Dead: Book Of The Dead 2.
Given this pedigree, as well as having edited the trio of Black Dog & Leventhal anthologies previously mentioned, it's fair to say that John Skipp knows a great story when he reads one, and this is very apparent in the varied selection submitted for our approval in Psychos. Mixing up classic authors like Edgar Allen Poe and Ray Bradbury with well established contemporary names such as Thomas Harris and Neil Gaiman, and then tossing in a healthy crop of recent arrivals, too many to mention but all worthy of inclusion here, Skipp has created a weighty edition that may appear daunting, but is well worth investigating.
If I may indulge myself here, I'd like to pick out a few of my favourites. Having seen and enjoyed the Masters of Horror episode Incident On And Off A Mountain Road (2005) directed by Don Coscarelli (Phantasm, Bubba Ho-Tep) it was interesting to read Joe R Lansdale's original story, which plays out a little differently to the screen version and which prompted me to revisit the filmed version. Bentley Little's offering, Life With Father, was an uncomfortable look at the perils of extreme recycling, and shared a few gruesome genes with Violet Lavoit's When The Zoos Close Down, They'll Come For Us.
Both Nick Mamatas's Willow Tests Well and Elizabeth Massie's Damaged Goods will satisfy those with a love of a good government conspiracy theory, the real horror here being that I could imagine both of the scenarios actually occurring, and 'Outraged from Tunbridge Wells' will find plenty to write to the papers about in terms of stories involving children (both as victims and villains), the shining examples here being Ray Bradbury's classic The Small Assassin, Laura Lee Bahr's The Liar, Lesliann Wilder's Ralph And Jerry, and John Gorumba's devastatingly heartbreaking Mommy Picks Me Up At Day Care, told from the perspective of the pre-teen narrator.
The centrepiece of the collection, The Shallow End Of The Pool by Adam-Troy Castro, is a lengthy and bloody study of just how nasty and competitive post-divorce rivalries between parents can get, while Christopher Coake's All Through The House tells the tale of a seemingly senseless slaughter that slowly reveals its secrets through a shifting chronological account of the events as they relate to the murderer's best friend.
In addition to the thirty-seven tales of madness and psychopathy, John Skipp offers up a couple of short essays and Cody Goodfellow brings the whole bloody enterprise to a satisfying end with an informative in-depth discussion on the history of human monsters in literature and film called A Devil In My View: Psychos In Popular Culture. In the spirit of the best schlock horror movies, though, Psychos waits until its closing moments to deliver the most chilling and stomach churning blow, and it's right up there with the final few frames of Carrie (1976) and Friday The 13th (1980).
Having handled the genuine artifact, Skipp has reproduced a letter from notorious serial killer Albert Fish to the mother of his final (known) victim, ten year old Grace Budd, which drives home the point that, as disturbing and unsettling as the fictional stories in the anthology may be, they're nothing compared to what homo psychopathogus is capable of.
In conclusion, if you're a fan of literary horror, or just like a good old fashioned disturbing yarn, then Psychos is for you. Some of these tales will stay with you long after you put the book down, but all of them will entertain you. Stephen King once described short stories as being akin to 'a kiss in the dark from a stranger'. In that case, Psychos is a veritable love-in for lip locking lunatics. Highly recommended.
Psychos: Serial Killers, Depraved Madmen, and the Criminally Insane, edited by John Skipp, is published by Black Dog & Leventhal on 1st October 2012.
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