In Extremis: The Most Extreme Short Stories of John Shirley
Trade Paper, 320 pages, $14.95
Review by Sheila M. Merritt
“Be Thankful, breathe a sigh of relief and nod your head in humble gratitude that you’re not a neurotic fan of perverse dark literature, horror or crime or dark fantasy…” This fragment from In Extremsis: The Most Extreme Short Stories of John Shirley, is an ironic teasing. Shirley knows his readership, and to say he flirts with it is a major understatement. There is an understanding between writer and reader: Don’t cross the boundaries, if you are faint of heart or stomach. Extreme, as in the collection’s title, means precisely that: Be prepared for the profoundly weird, up close and personal; the excessively edgy and eerie.
That said, if appropriately mentally strapped in for the journey, Shirley’s tales deliver a wild and rewarding ride. Drugs, sex, and heightened emotions drive the yarns. A pervasive sadness, born of resignation, is imbedded in the core of the narratives. Yet there’s feistiness within the forlornness, dwelling in many of the hurt and hardened hearts. The author shrewdly philosophizes about what motivates the lost and disenfranchised. While the endings may not be considered happy in the conventional sense of the word, they suit the complicated and sometimes comical credos of the characters. The author balances the existential and elemental aspects of his creations with a keen eye for belligerent behavior, and a wise whimsical sensibility of “What if?”
Consider “Faces in the Walls” which explores the world of a paralyzed man. A person stifled in movement and extremely limited in communication: “I can only make just one little sound – a high pitched immmm sound produced way deep in my throat – but it’s hard to make, and it’s such an embarrassing piteous, subhuman noise I hate to do it. I only do it when I’m trying to ease the pressure, trying to avoid the inner hysteria, that’s like a funhouse in a very bad earthquake.” Shirley is so good at penetrating the psyche of his protagonist, that it is difficult to choose which passages to quote. Here’s another, a description that reminds a bit of “The Caterpillar” Night Gallery episode: “The bedsore is tormenting me. It hurts and it itches. The itching always makes me imagine insects are crawling into the bedsore. They’re getting into it and laying eggs that will become hungry little grubs that will eat their way out of my brain. Sometimes I think I can feel them beginning to chew through the soft tissue inside my skull.”
In “Call Girl, Echoed” there is abject pathos. In a universe where robots have replaced human prostitutes, a living woman bemoans men’s preference for the artificial. As in Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, male sexual gratification is refined by robotics. The displaced female in this story is desperate for intimate physical contact, and goes to extremes in her attempts to attain it. This tale is thoroughly shocking and poignant; a look at the depraved and the deprived.
Of the two never before published tales in the collection, one is a humdinger. “The Gun As An Aid To Poetry” is about the woes of writing; again extrapolated to the max. A poet who hasn’t concocted any new work is motivated by an armed fan to get cracking. Held at gunpoint, the writer constructs the words. Initially the output is restricted in quality and quantity, but gains its momentum: “This psychotic self-indulgent literary parasite had done one worthwhile thing after all – he’d reconnected Eric Boyle with the urgency of his own drives, the imperative of self-expression at its rawest.”
The tale focuses on a deadly dynamic; a radical ricochet to being pressured. John Shirley likes to play with what happens when push comes to shove. He enjoys prodding and provocation. With In Extremis he ignites emotional powder kegs. The 22 stories gathered in this volume are severe and often sardonic. And satiating in a deeply disturbing way.