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I read a lot of zombie books. I've also watched a lot of zombie movies. What's more, I've even played a lot of zombie arcade and video games. I know the difference between a science fiction zombie (DAY OF THE DEAD) and a supernatural zombie (TO WAKE THE DEAD). I also know the difference between an actual Zombie (THE RISING) and a person who is diseased by a microbe (28 DAYS LATER) or mutated by toxic chemicals (C.H.U.D.) or radiation (NIGHTMARE CITY). I know that THE MUMMY is a zombie and not a Vampire or a Ghoul. In short, I know all of the many permutations of the zombie mythos. Zombies run in my veins (metaphorically speaking, but anyway...).
So Bad Moon Books sent me a novel by Greg Lamberson (Writer and Director) called JOHNNY GRUESOME.
Johnny Grissome and Eric Carter are highschool friends after Johnny saved Eric from drowning in the high school swimming pool. Otherwise they are nothing alike. Both were on the High School wrestling team until Johnny quit. Johnny quit after his Mother died and Johnny, who was never all that social to start with, slid downhill fast. Their differences bring them together as opposites sometimes attract. Eric considers Johnny his best friend and Johnny seems to feel the same way. Orbiting the duo are Johnny's girlfriend, Karen, and their source of drugs, Gary.
We are introduced to all and sundry over the course of a High School day that has its share of the typical popular, jocks, and bully kids. The same as any school past or present. The same as any school I attended. The same as any school you attended. But lately, Johnny is having trouble controlling his anger, and the drug induced ministrations by Gary aren't helping. So one windblown snowy evening, just outside of their town of Red Hill, Gary, under the influence of something, murders Johnny, also under the influence of something. With both Karen and Eric boozey or drug woozy as well, Gary convinces them that he saved them from Johnny. Johnny was out of control and about to kill them all if Gary hadn't stopped him. Gary saved their lives, and now they have to help Gary cover up the evidence of murder.
Karen and Eric oblige, but Eric has a gnawing suspicion, even slightly drunk and drugged, that Gary is lying. As Eric sobers his suspicions over Gary grow. Gary purposefully murdered Eric's best friend, and Eric helped him cover it up. But why? Why would Gary murder Johnny? Eric would sure like to know, but he's now under Gary's thumb: He helped Gary cover up the murder of his best friend. If he doesn't keep Gary's secret, he'll expose himself. Eric isn't the only one who wants to know why Johnny was murdered.
In the halfway zone between life and the afterlife, Johnny's rage for revenge wins over any desire for reward in the hereafter, and he returns to a sort of life with a...
Not with a vengeance actually. Even as a supernatural entity, it takes Johnny some time to figure out how to re-animate his dead body. Which means he has to endure the humiliation of autopsy and funeral home corpse preparation for his open casket wake.
Greg Lamberson makes sure we understand that JOHNNY GRUESOME is indeed a supernatural story and not some half-assed SciFi zombie tome still dry humping Romero's talent (Shoot 'em in the head! It's the only way!).
Eventually Johnny does indeed come raging back into Red Hill. Johnny isn't simply intent on getting revenge on his murderers, but on terrorizing or killing everyone he feels did him wrong. - Or even everyone he just didn't like. Anger propels him and his evil grows every day until he is soon assaulting people who never wronged him.
Greg Lamberson creates, in Johnny Gruesome, a vicious, violent monster without remorse or hope for salvation. This is Horror where many of the victims are innocent and few deserve the fate in store for them.
But some do...
JOHNNY GRUESOME was re-written from an old script by Lamberson and he fretted over whether or not he could pull it off. The novel reads with a cinematic feel during those moments where it doesn't come off like a comic book. Not a funny "Ha! Ha!" comic, but a graphic novel. For Horror fans there are some very fun moments. But there are also some chilling moments. Lamberson draws his characters complete even with a brevity of language. We don't have characters going on and on in their minds about their sad miserable lives. Greg has a steady hand in knowing when to pull the plug on one moment and move forward to the next. As such, JOHNNY GRUESOME never drags - even in those between-the-horror moments.
Greg Lamberson gets back to the basics of a good old fashioned Horror tale without paying tribute to anyone or attempting an inane homage. JOHNNY is original in execution even while it is standard in plot. Greg wisely avoided some of the major pitfalls that I've seen too often in too many books. Chiefly that of the psychoanalytical reasons for why the killer has become a killer. Too many writers with little to no knowledge of psychology, try and give an incredibly lame reason for why the killer has gone off the deep end. Their Dad was abusive and drunk. Poof! They're a killer! They saw their Mom having sex with an abusive boyfriend, Poof! They're a killer! Or the one that's the most pathetic: they were traumatized by another serial killer which made THEM grow up to be a serial killer.
Johnny is none of that. He's a guy who made his choices, his world view was all about him and his choices were the wrong ones. Even better, unlike the standard monsters of this form, we know what is going through Johnny's rotting brain, why he does what he does, and where he expects it to get him, which injects some serious adrenalin into this story as Johnny's plans either go smoothly, or derail disastrously.
In JOHNNY GRUESOME there are good people, bad people, and flawed people, oh, and there is one wicked, freakin' monster named Johnny!
It's rare in Horror Thriller novels that you can actually find old school cool in a book, but JOHNNY GRUESOME is a power pop hook on the printed page!
This review copyright 2008 E.C.McMullen Jr.