As a huge Richard Laymon fan and completist, I find it hard to pass up anything having to do with the author I admire so much. His work is fun, fast, far from realistic, and provides pretty much the most satisfying beach or bus read the horror genre has ever seen. But that’s my opinion. Not everybody is a Laymon fan, and not everybody appreciates the tongue in-cheek, often crass stylings of the gone-too-soon master of pulp horror fiction.
When I saw this little collection/chapbook for sale on Amazon while doing a ritualistic check for never-new Laymon fare for the Kindle, I was intrigued. The synopsis was interesting, and the author’s name was somewhat familiar. Seeing the title, I wondered if this was going to be one author’s tribute to the late, great author. While this is an interesting, entertaining standalone collection of 3 stories by Gunnels, channelling the spirit of the titular author to some small degree, it falls short of the homage I’m sure it was meant to be.
A late night walk home through a city teeming with danger… a nosy neighbor who discovers more than he bargained for… a take on Body Snatchers with vans instead of pods… Journey into the shadowy realms of human behavior where our darkest impulses are exposed to the light.
The first story up is the titular, A Laymon Kind Of Night, which focusses on a standard, if not clichéd, take on a typical female Laymon character, but with more faults than redeeming value. In the story, Tina has just recently discovered the works of Richard Laymon and quickly becomes obsessed with the author’s bibliography. What this has to do with the story, apart from being a blatant nod to the author, I don’t know. When her co-worker has a bad piece of fish for lunch and ends up not being able to close the bookstore they work at, Tina finds herself going home very late and completely out of her element in a shady part of town. With every situation she faces, whether it be taking the bus or walking down the street, Tina finds a commonality between her present experience and some of Laymon’s most depraved plots, regardless of how far-fetched the idea may be.
What this story is missing most is the well structured chaos present in all of Laymon’s work. No matter how outrageous or ridiculous the plot is, the author is almost always able to make some sort of justification for his subject’s actions. One of the best things about Laymon is the formulaic aspect to all of his novels, but A Laymon Kind Of Night reads more like a generalization of the man’s work than it does an homage. Everywhere Tina turns she faces something potentially horrible, imagining potential rape scenes here and there by some perverted member of society. Be it a young Mexican man offering her some help, a sleazy looking bus driver, a homeless man (any hard-core Laymon fan knows that he often wrote very terrible things about the homeless in his stories), or a man masturbating in the back of a porn shop (this is what I meant my far-fetched); Tina feels, or imagines the potential for danger coming from every direction. In the end, when an honest man tries to come to her aid, Tina is so deluded that she reacts murderously in an effort to protect herself. With an out of context, weak twist ending, the story misses the mark. Gunnells surely delivers a great short story, but ultimately a sub-par Laymon tribute.
This story should have maybe been a middle or closing tale and not the title of this collection, as it’s severely misleading and, in my opinion, may do more harm than good for those who haven’t had a chance to read Laymon’s work. A Laymon Kind Of Night might read like a fun standalone story, but not as a feature dedicated to the work of Richard Laymon. It unfortunately undermines the great pulp sensibilities that Laymon is so well-known for, in favor of a perverse trip into a “what if” scenario that only hints at the power it could have held. If one were to read this without any prior knowledge of Laymon’s body of work, they may assume that his fiction was completely throw-away fare designed for perverts and creeps.
The Snoop is up next, picking up yet another Laymon type of feeling, but this time adding what I can only define as a Ketchum-esque attitude. Anyone familiar with the work of Jack Ketchum knows that his pieces are more often than not quite brusque and, for lack of a better word, brutal. With this short story, Gunnells channels everything he should have in the previous one, and maximizes the creep factor towards a great little tale that would sit well in not only a Ketchum tribute, but a Laymon one as well. It’s my understanding that this story wasn’t written to incite fan reactions from either camp, but the author does a phenomenal job at this unconscious shout-out to the greats of our modern genre. This is the story that should have led off the collection, hands down.
In first person narrative, the reader is introduced to a pretty much normal American male who is asked to watch his neighbor’s dog while he’s away on vacation. The narrator admits to a love of going through other people’s belongings, and tortures himself by waiting an hour after his neighbor leaves before entering his house to start snooping. Gunnells uses a great sense of the mundane to set the stage for an air of creepiness and unsettling weirdness. The narrator searches through the house for anything that would be of interest to him, or might reveal more information about his neighbor, but comes up with nothing above average… which sort of telegraphs the ending immediately. But that’s part of the fun with this story. Eventually the narrator takes a visit to the basement and finds a very disturbing scene. The story ends with the author amping up this disturbing revelation, thus satisfying the reader and his or her expectations for this tale. The Snoop is a great short story, and a hell of a lot stronger than its predecessor. I’d read more of Gunnells’ work based on this story alone.
The last story in this small collection is Van People – an absurd little take on The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, but also a bit of a new direction in the author’s literary canon. In this one, Gunnells showcases a well honed ability to write dialogue, narrowly saving the tale from being a bland re-imagining of a phenomenally original story. While I have to say that the use of vans instead of pods is both interesting and ridiculous, it ends up being a fun tale steeped in a more Goosebumps-for-grownups kind of way, but not without its many faults.
Three friends – a gay man (Travis), a soon-to-be father (David), and a sterile single man (Kevin) are hanging out in a backyard, talking (*note – the author had to add the sterility part as a point of contention to further the story… as the reader finds out a little later). The conversation turns to fatherhood and the characters’ back stories revealing the above mentioned tidbits of information, but really offers no hint as to what is about to happen. They do talk about David selling his mustang in order to purchase a van, and the stage is set for a rebellious, if not maligned, conversation about one losing one’s balls by upgrading to a family vehicle. At this point, the story shifts and David inexplicably deserts his friends in the cruelest and most confusing of ways. He berates his former friends, makes threats and homophobic remarks towards Travis, and generally shuns them on relatively unknown terms, thus explaining the whole Body Snatchers theme right then and there.
Travis and Kevin continue hanging out until Kevin has to go out-of-town on business. Upon his return, he finds Travis and David hanging out in David’s backyard. He attempts to regain their former friendship, but is met with rudeness and a shallow ignorance that was once delivered by David alone. Completely confused, Kevin retreats to his house, attempts to go on with his life, and eventually becomes prey to a whole society of people buying vans and treating him like street trash. The reader has, by this point, already figured out that the author replaced pods for vans, and that the entire coup was being staged from the van dealership in the first place. But, pushing on, Kevin decides to do something brash and attracts nothing but the end of his life as he knows it.
Van People is at both times a frustrating and interesting read that really does show that dialogue is the most important part of a story… in some cases. Gunnells utilizes the emotion in the voice of his characters to express exactly what he wants them to, even when colliding with an idea that refuses to settle in the reader’s mind as even remotely rational. Personally, the whole premise felt like a clichéd attempt at some sort of machismo aimed at the youth of today, but served up in the wrong decade. I imagine this story would sit well with the blue-collar youth of yesteryear, but it just doesn’t sit well in this day and age.
It’s a little bit of a stretch to say that this book is a collection of truly original short stories, as they all serve as tales honoring certain authors or aspects of the genre, but it’s worth the read if you’re so inclined. I wouldn’t suggest this as a piece of fiction meant solely (or at all) for Laymon enthusiasts (the self-described “Laymonites”, or so I’ve heard) but for anyone interested in campy, fast paced horror fare centered around the human condition, it’s a fun little read at a good price.