Friday, February 2, 2018


Some of you probably read Clown Tear Junkies by Douglas Hackle. A few of you may even recall that I did a fairly lengthy review of it here on The Strange Edge Blog, and that was the last thing I ever posted for YEARS. It's true--I kind of stopped blogging after reading Douglas Hackle's debut collection, and I'm not sure that was a coincidence.

Now Hackle is back with his second collection (and he released a novel in the meantime, The Hottest Gay Man Ever Killed in a Shark Attack, along with the novella The Ballad of TERROR TINY TIM included in The Strange Edge Press' Four Gentlemen of the Apocalypse). I really liked his first collection, Clown Tear Junkies. It may have some of my all time favorite bizarro-absurdist stories in it. However, Is Winona Ryder Still with the Dude from Soul Asylum? and Other Lurid Tales of Terror and Doom!!! transcends that one on every front.

Every front. Eastern. Western. North Africa campaign--ALL FRONTS.

The book, like the title, is couched in the kind of humor and references that come from growing up a late Gen X-er, and that's who the humor is primarily targeted toward. Many of us in that age group recall the starlet Winona Ryder and the dude from Soul Asylum (who it may behoove us at some point to remember is named Dave Pirner) hooking up in the 90s. Then we got older, stopped caring as much (or at all) about celebrity gossip and are currently clueless as to whether they are still even a couple. I mean, Ryder is back on Stranger Things, so who knows what ever became of Pirner. Much like our cluelessness about this one-time power couple, the characters in this book are often just as clueless, though not always about the same things as the reader.

So there's quite a bit of 80s and 90s nostalgia soaking the pages, as could be expected, like the thoroughly apocryphal mythology surrounding Phil Collins' hit "In the Air Tonight" or the story behind the "ghost" seen in Three Men and a Baby. Hackle has a knack for picking up on all the urban myth and unsubstantiated conspiracy-rumor of his generation. But Hackle also has a knack for picking out absurd modernisms from all throughout the Internet Age, so the youngsters (those under 35) may find some comfortable hand-holds along the way. But really, there's a lot of "you had to be there" moments here, so if you aren't circa 40 years old, you may find this somewhat alienating, which may add to the overall absurdity, but won't make it hit home as hard as it did for me personally. If you didn't use tokens at an arcade, and you haven't seen Krull twenty times on TV, and didn't hear Uptown Girl a million times in elementary school, then you, sir or madame, are not me.

An artist's interpretation of what Dig-Doug Hacksaw might look like today.

In terms of style, the rough-edged journeyman of Clown Tear Junkies is with us no more. These stories are far more polished, far more nuanced, and perfectly targeted, even while combining several absurd premises into one. The random experimentalism has been replaced with deliberate and scalpel-sharp attacks on the psyche. The stories are all still, for the most part, FUN to read, he hasn't lost that, but they are also resonant on a deeper emotional level that makes me more inclined to raise his Surreal level as high as his Absurd. This time when he mashes keys to end a story with a (seemingly) random series of characters, he's definitely doing it to signify he's already accomplished his story goal, instead of merely not being able to think of an ending. Most of these stories are laugh-out-loud funny and yet the most powerful ones are also troubling, haunting, and existentially threatening, like a megadose of Kafka fell into your bowl of Lucky Kharms®. There's the horror of not knowing one's place in the universe, and the horror of the bureaucracy that goes into planning a really special birthday surprise and the clean-up thereafter. There's the horror of becoming someone other than who you thought you were, and the horror of realizing the author has seen Amadeus too many times. There's the horror of being perpetually pursued, and the horror of becoming the pursuer. Really sophisticated, and yet still silly.

Hackle breaks new ground for himself here. "Our Hearts Will Go On, Yo" begins as the most ridiculous of Titanic-spoof premises and winds up a very compelling story of bonding while watching James Cameron's Titanic with an evil scarecrow. "The Two Times I Was a Mean Man" shows Hackle's skill at both repeating a gag without making it boring and constantly redirecting his narrative in unexpected ways, which would challenge even the most skillful guys and gals of capital L Literature. "All Superhero Movies and Shows Are Fucking Boring, Zombies Are Lame, Cthulhu is Stupid, and Everything is Fucked" presents its title thesis very subversively--not one of the things listed is actually directly stated, but instead Hackle presents a story that is the very antithesis of modern "genre," while at the same time poking fun at the postmodern (i.e. everything is fucked, indeed). And "The Unpursued Person" is bordering on being a Brian Evenson story, a full exploration of social illusion, paranoia, violence, and the primal urge to fill societal roles with no clear purpose. My personal favorite, though, is "Not That It Matters, But the War of 1812 Was Kinda Hawt." Just so many delicious absurdities to this one and they all pair nicely.

Full disclosure, I originally published three of these stories: "I Won the MegaSuperLotto" here at this blog, "The Case of the Already-Solved Case" at Bizarro Central, and "The Powell/Fourth Dog Incident" in The Strange Edge Magazine, Issue 0. Those are three solid stories (the first two are flash fiction pieces), but they're not even the highlights of this collection. Though, Powell may continue to haunt you with refrains of "Would you mind telling me this story again, Mr. Hackle?" But by that point, Hackle has already transformed, no longer the Hackle who told you the story in the first place.