Welcome to Dreadful Tales and the inaugural review on this 1st of July. It seemed fitting to open with a Gregory Lamberson novel and in particular his 80’s slasher, EC comic inspired revenge from the grave novel Johnny Gruesome. Lamberson is one of the Dreadful family’s most beloved authors. His literary talent and fascinating supernatural worlds have captured our imaginations and have even in part inspired this website. For all the disappointments horror fans face at the box office, Lamberson makes up for in the pages of his novels by opening up new realms of possibility. Whether his reimagining of the werewolf mythos in The Frenzy Way or a supernatural twist on crime noir with The Jake Helman Files series, Lamberson is redefining the horror genre and solidifying his place as master of the action / horror mashup. Oh, and when I say “reimagining,” I don’t mean an anemic version of something you once loved, which is what that word seems to mean in the world of film. Fans of horror fiction can rejoice in the fact that there are authors reinventing classic tropes to entertain the modern audience with their own unique style, passion for the genre, and a fearless attitude. Lamberson is one of the most talented among them and his revenge from the grave tale Johnny Gruesome is a great example. Here is a novel that proves Lamberson is just one of the monster kids and lucky for us, talented enough to recreate the experiences that made us horror fans to being with. Enjoy!
Gregory Lamberson originally formed his Johnny Gruesome story as a screenplay some 23 years or so before the release of this novelized version. Long before I Know What You Did Last Summer and the stalk-and-slash teenage revenge films that followed, Lamberson had created the heavy metal “headbanger from hell” Johnny Grissom. Revisiting his original screenplay in the wake of these films posed a problem for Lamberson. How do you keep your story fresh when there is a stream of popular teen slashers with essentially the same storyline? Lamberson’s Johnny Gruesome succeeds in originality in a couple important ways. One way Lamberson keeps this corpse fresh is by drawing inspiration from his stomping grounds growing up. Instead of a cookie cutter town in Anywhere, USA, Lamberson brings the town to life by including details from his experiences as an adolescent. Whether it’s Johnny’s over the top personality or up close and personal look at the art of autopsy, Lamberson takes time to expand on certain aspects of his novel proving Johnny Gruesome has more meat on his bones than the average zombie.
The plot to Johnny Gruesome is pretty simple. A coked out Gary, jealous of Johnny Grissom, kills him during a late night cruise with friends. Johnny’s girlfriend Karen and childhood friend Eric are forced to help him cover up the murder. Johnny returns from the grave seeking vengeance, mayhem ensues. This is an exciting EC comic-inspired yarn with a charming central character that brings a lot of laughs, some gross outs, and quite a few scares too. Just like the slashers that inspired it, the reader more or less knows who will die but the fun is in finding out how Johnny will do the deed. Lamberson is able to indulge in the kills in ways that wouldn’t be possible on his small budget films, which makes Johnny Gruesome a rip-roaring good time you won’t be able to stop until it’s finished.
The meat on Lamberson’s bare bones plot is the colorful cast of characters, especially our hellion from the grave Johnny Grissom. Johnny is a likable anti-hero who enters as Eric’s savior from a failed attempt at swimming thus solidifying their friendship. Johnny is Eric’s inverse, an anti-establishment teen rebel who “wore the regalia of a heavy metal warrior,” yelled “Fuck you, Father Webb!” every time he rode past the town church in his 2-door Cutlass Supreme – also known as The Death Mobile – and takes on the high school jocks. It’s hard not to be charmed by Johnny’s badass heavy metal persona and fearless attitude. He’s the hero of misfits and social outcasts. You’ll cheer him on as those who have wronged Johnny each get their comeuppance.
Johnny’s supporting cast is just as engaging. Eric is the opposite of Johnny. He aims to defuse conflict rather than engage in it, is more conformist than his heavy metal counterpart and less outspoken and confident. Eric is a sweet, unassuming version of Johnny. Conversely, Gary is rebellious like Johnny, but without the same heroic purpose. He is reactionary always for selfish reasons whereas Johnny, the hero of misfits, is fighting to restore balance between the haves and have-nots in his high school hierarchy. The reader will be charmed by both Eric and Johnny, Eric for his pathetic circumstance and Johnny for his unbreakable spirit and sense of humor while Gary plays the despicable villain you love to hate. While these are necessary archetypes, Lamberson’s Johnny, Eric, and Karen have heart and aren’t the disposal teen wastoids you would find in an I Know What You Did Last Summer or Urban Legend.
Drawing inspiration from actual people from his hometown, Lamberson populates the Johnny Gruesome world with believable characters, some who are just as important and integral to propelling the plot as the main four. The reader will care just as much about the High School English teacher and her husband the cop as our protagonist and the friends who wronged him. By drawing from personal experiences growing up, Lamberson breaths life into the town of Red Hill giving it distinct personality.
While Lamberson’s Johnny Gruesome has enough personality to stand out among the crowd, it still has the stalk and slash staples fans of the genre love, like creative kills. The great slashers of yore wouldn’t be quite as memorable if its creators didn’t come up with new and inventive ways to kill off victims. With all the resource material available, Lamberson still manages to come up with his own unique scenarios of murderous mayhem that will stay in the reader’s consciousness long after the book is finished. The kills are sick, twisted, and often ironic. This is where Lamberson pays homage to old EC comics like Tales from the Crypt by playing around with the doomed characters and offing them with tongue planted firmly in cheek.
This love letter to horror, especially the golden age of 80’s horror, is a must read for its dedicated followers. In a market dominated by living dead fiction, Lamberson offers a gritty, tongue in cheek entry that is both humorous and touching at times. Johnny is such a cool cat, one of kind killer who is not just another one for the fire.
Pick up Johnny Gruesome in trade paperback format from Medallion Press and be sure to check out all the other Johnny extras via Lamberson’s website http://www.slimeguy.com/gruesomeindex.htm.