Book Review: In Extremis: The Most Extreme Short Stories of John Shirley

In stores August 1 from Underland Press comes “In Extremis:The Most Extreme Short Stories of John Shirley

In this collection of darkly funny, disquieting stories, John Shirley brings his substantial talent to bear on human morality through the absurd, violent blunderings of his characters. “In Extremis” features more than twenty of Shirley’s most intense stories, including two never-before-published pieces that are sure to roil even the most hardened readers.

Inside you can read Ryan Daley’s thoughts on the paperback release.
“His eyes cleared. He saw she was carrying him toward a big box, open on this side. The place had an old, used, cheap microwave oven. The early ones had been rather big.
‘Bennnnyyyyyyy!’ But the cry never made it out of his throat.
In less than a second she had crammed him inside it.

–from “I Want to Get Married,” Says the World’s Smallest Man, by John Shirley

The title, In Extremis: The Most Extreme Short Stories of John Shirley, is fairly misleading. It seems to indicate that Shirley–a multi-faceted horror writer who is partially credited with inspiring the “splatterpunk” movement of the 1980s–only writes stories that can be classified as “extreme.” And that this collection of the “most extreme” is as graphic as it gets. In short, the title sells In Extremis as “all extreme, all the time”, which simply isn’t the case. This maddeningly inconsistent anthology is both more (and much less) than the eye-grabbing title implies.

Although Shirley has enjoyed a decades-long career in bizarro fiction, as well as dabbling in Hollywood screenwriting (he penned the original screenplay for 1994′s The Crow), his graphic short horror fiction of the 1990s is what he’s truly known for. And for good reason. As any Shirley fan can attest, his most extreme stuff is also his most memorable …an unofficial rule that certainly applies to In Extremis.

Shirley relishes descriptions of violence and bloodshed that are almost casually explicit. The best stories in In Extremis begin benignly, only to take a savage turn in the final paragraphs…they have a way of sneaking up on you. His worst stories are meandering and unfocussed, starting weak and regressing into a druggy incoherence. And for the record, only a few of these can be classified as truly “extreme.” This collection has got `em all: the good, the shitty, and the frustratingly strange.

A few of my favorites:

Cram (Wetbones, Fall 1997)

Following a ghastly subway accident, a male courier attempts to escape through the carnage, only to find himself inexplicably aroused by his surroundings. Ultra-vivid and incredibly gruesome, it’s not a pleasant story, but it’s one of Shirley’s best.

Just Like Suzie (Cemetery Dance #9, Summer 1991)

When a prostitute dies on the receiving end of a blowjob, a crank-fueled junkie must turn to her pimp for assistance with the body . A bleakly funny story that grows increasingly repugnant with each passing paragraph.

“I Want to Get Married,” Says the World’s Smallest Man (Midnight Graffiti, 1992)

When the world’s smallest man announces his intent to get married, a gold-digging crank junkie pursues him until he consents to marry. But once they’re finally together, they begin to question each other’s evil motives.

Call Girl, Echoed (Dark Wisdom #8, Winter 2006)

A twisted piece of pervy sci-fi, in which a horny john realizes that his robot prostitute is more…human…than she initially seems. Capped with an ending that’s simultaneously brutal and somber.

Although I’ve been a die-hard fan of short horror fiction since pre-adolescence, my tastes have generally slanted toward the “classic” horror of Charles L. Grant anthologies, rather than the “splatterpunk” aesthetic of John Shirley, Skipp and Spector, et al., that seemed to dominate the early 90s. It’s not that I can’t find any cultural value in extreme horror–I believe it provides a satisfying emotional outlet for those who can stomach it–it’s just not my personal preference. Still, I can certainly enjoy a really good extreme horror story, and In Extremis has got a few to offer.

Underland Press will release In Extremis:The Most Extreme Short Stories of John Shirley on August 1, 2011.

3/5 Skulls