'The bones - a scapula, shinbone, breastbone, collarbone, the little hazelnut-sized ones in the hand, the broken ball joints from the leg and humerus - they begin to spin, gently at first like a mobile, but soon at a speed that the gentle wind outside can't be creating...'
'Bonespin Slipspace' p.32
By Leo X. Robertson
Psychedelic Horror Press, 2016
Early in Robertson's mind-bending Bonespin Slipspace, something terrible happens to Kingsley Blackburn Jr. He is nine years old when, for the third year in a row, his father takes him to the Freak Show. Every year at a certain point the side, his father's hands wander and Kingsley leaves his body, refusing to witness his own sexual abuse. However, in the opening to this bizarre book, Kingsley Jr is no longer afraid. He is determined to keep his eyes open and be brave, though at first readers aren't privy to the true horror he plans to overcome. When they reach the hall of mirrors where Kingsley Sr's begins his sickening act, Kingsley Jr. stabs his father twice with the sharp Transformer pencils his father won in the raffle. He tells his father to 'close his eyes and dream' as life seeps away from him.
Fast-forward to the present day and we meet Rudy, Ollie and Tammy. Free from drink, drugs and the dodgy lifestyle of his student years, Rudy begrudgingly convinced by Tammy - a Doc-marten-sporting drug-addict looking for a good time - to attend the 'Bonespin' event at the Blackburn Manor site. Ollie, Rudy's ex-boyfriend who he hasn't seen in three years, has a job at the Manor and sent the tickets to them. Tammy can't resist the opportunity, as the typical Blackburn Manor Experience has a six-month waiting list, and persuades Rudy to go.
Once in the Manor grounds, Tammy and Rudy meet up with Ollie, but in typical horror-story fashion it isn't long before all of them split up. Tammy seeks out her own fun while Ollie confesses to Rudy some of the creepy goings-on at the Manor and the kind of initiation rituals they give to newcomers (lets say American college sororities/fraternities can't compare!). Ollie takes Rudy 'behind the scenes' - in an attempt to impress him and win his old-flame back - but is rumbled by Kingsley Blackburn Jr. now fully grown, intimidating and creepily friendly. Rudy is taken away by Blackburn, who reveals some shockingly sick truths about Ollie's initiation ceremony, which involves incest with his older brother Alex. Blackman offers our protagonist "what [Rudy's] always dreamed of" (30) and gets him to sign a contract. Now Rudy, Ollie & Tammy are all separated to fall into their own horrific nightmares.
What happens next is a psychedelic journey through erotica, torture, the darkness of fairytales and every under-the-bed monster you've ever dreamed up as a child. Tammy is attacked by Ollie's brother Alex before fleeing into a series of spaces that appear to be infested with the carnival grotesque, here is a lovely fragment:
"the tents, like birth canals, spill out strange creatures in black fluid: naked women screaming like crows with deep cuts all over their bodies, still fresh and red; men with goat's legs who run to stamp on a screaming woman's face, sticking out from the grass; a gimp wearing a bloody pig's head wrapped in barbed wire." (33)
She climbs the the car-made-contours of a junkyard, jumps into a river and finds herself on a merry-go-round before passing out. Ollie meanwhile is emotionally destroyed when Blackburn throws Rudy's dead body to his 'guests' (a mix of aristocratic-style cannibals who seem to be in league with Blackburn's twisted worldview). They take Ollie 'upstairs' where they torture him. Tammy and Ollie find each other in a world with no exit, a eerie space where whales jump in slow-motion and there are charred bodies everywhere. Without food or hope, the pair resort to cannibalism of the bodies and live out decades of their lives in a creepy other world. Eventually the heavenly spirit of Rudy comes and rescues them from their hell, revealing they are inside Blackburn's mind. They find a way out, get freed from their bodies and ascend to Heaven.
This novella surprised me with its powerful beginning. Robertson wields language with the precision of a surgical knife in the hands of a mad-doctor. The writing was bold, unapologetic and the pacing drew me in before delivering the sucker-punch of Kingsley's murder. After four pages, I was hooked. Anyone who can deliver a short but powerful opening chapter like that deserves to be read to the full.
Carrying on to his trio of characters, there are things about them that instantly set our 'plot senses' tingling. Rudy appears to be the most innocent of the three, striving to live a pure life but who also still harbors a soft-spot for Ollie and a curiosity for the unpredictable, fun and careless types like Tammy. So you just know Rudy is going to be led into trouble here. Tammy is your typical troublemaker who is simply looking for fun, whether that takes the form of sex or drugs purely depends on what comes her way. We know she is going to end up biting off more than she can chew. Ollie is portrayed almost as a 'sinner redeemed' type who has finally found his calling. We can make a guess that all is not as it seems there. Blackburn only appears for a short time physically, but the world in which the trio fall into his undoubtedly his. He is physically intimidating, gay, sexually aggressive and if the few flashbacks we receive are to be believed, he's always exuded disorder.
The way Robertson navigates his kaleidoscope of horror is truly incredible. I was impressed by his talent for minimal descriptions that generated the maximum impact (results of course vary depending on the reader), his ease at taking us from one nightmare to the next but without leaving the actions of the character in the sidelines, and finally how he draws on the darkest sides of the human psyche in order to create fresh, exciting scenarios that involve vaginas, limb removal, cannibalism and dying landscapes. This is quite a fast-paced novella which can be read in one sitting and while I have never read anything like it, it did remind me of a lot of 70s/80s horror movies, a period where I feel the studios were still crafting good horror movies and delved into trippy gore-love fests like the work of David Lynch, Ken Russel and David Cronenberg. Today you have to delve into indie filmmakers to get that good stuff, whereas Hollywood keeps making the same mistakes over and over again.
What I also enjoyed about Bonespin Slipspace was something a mainstream audience would have rallied against - which is perhaps the biggest reason why this beautiful book won't ever be published by a big shiny bland publishing house - and that is simply this: it doesn't give you all the answers. We don't know why Blackburn set up this manor, we don't know why he gets away with it, we don't know how our protagonists are sucked this psycho's mind (though I have a theory folks! Keep reading!), we don't get to know why the hell Ollie and Rudy are so happy to join in with some seriously fucked up stuff, we don't know how Rudy manages to come back as an antlered savior and we don't know whether this annual event is normal or whether this is the result of the 'one off' event. Are we in a world like Stephen King's The Walk where everyone treats death like a TV show and makes 100 young men walk until only one is leave alive? Or does Robertson's present us with an experience analyzing just how thin the divide between civilization and grotesque depravity and horror truly is? I invite each reader to seek their own answer.
My theory on how each of the three characters ended up in Blackburn's mind is purely the result of guessology, as we are never told directly how (with the exception of Rudy, whose spirit became trapped in it after death). Tammy goes into a tent with Alex and witnesses bones spinning while Alex begins an incantation in a voice that isn't his own. Seemingly she escapes Alex and then starts her race through the junkyard, to the river, and finally at the carnival. My theory is that Tammy never left that tent. Her spirit was sucked out of her body and trapped in Blackburn's dominion, while her body was molested and torn apart by Alex. After seeing Rudy's body, Ollie is taken away for torture. His nipples are cut off and his body is destroyed. In the final lines Ollie describes how he is now free. So it is conceivable that Tammy died also and that is how all three ended up as trapped spirits.
However, there were a few things I think didn't work as well as they could have given Robertson's talent. This takes place more in the human elements of the work rather than the horror. While characterization doesn't appear to be the main-focus of this novella, I would have liked to have delved more into these characters. Robertson starts off very strongly, clearly portraying their 'blueprints' to us, but then their development stops. Their fight for survival is what takes over. While the 'need to survive' is what characters are left with in traumatic and horrific scenarios, Ollie and Tammy's reactions are interchangeable. Towards the end, they might as well be the same person. While I will not subject this novella to reality-testing, there were some parts where I felt the human reaction wasn't quite what I would have expected. For example, Rudy's reaction to hearing Ollie's been doing some incestuous activities with his brother and his initiation ceremony involved blood loss, dehydration and humiliation, he asks why Ollie didn't tell him because he would have joined in if he knew! That to me is not the reaction Rudy should have had, at least not so quickly, particularly as a page or two beforehand he was freaking out about the maze of genitals. When post-death Rudy appears to Tammy and Ollie after decades in Blackburn's mind, their first reaction is to apologize and talk to him as if his death was yesterday. There is a clash here as Ollie definitely saw Rudy's dead body - which was promptly torn apart by the cannibals - before getting trapped in Blackburn's mind. However when spirit Rudy meets up with them, Ollie genuinely has no idea that Rudy died. Author mistake or result of Blackburn's world?
We also don't get to know enough about Blackburn to truly understand why he does what he does and although I'm a fan of not getting all the answers, I would have liked a little more background to him.
While the novella explores sexual depravity, it is sexual love that gets the trio into Heaven. They have to fuck to ascend and I had mixed feelings about this. While I could see it - and the novella as a whole - as the exploration of the sexual psyche, what good/bad sex can result in, I felt this was a little bit of a throwaway at the end.
Overall this was a well-written, highly imaginative novella and despite the areas I mentioned, it is still a very worthwhile read and I'm eager to explore more of Robertson's work!