“Upstairs, the chair waited, with its bloody hooks and screws, and he knew exactly who it waited for.” —from “Guignol” by Orrin Grey
Rarely is it possible to say that a short story collection manages to not only taxonomize, but diligently explore, the massive, fractal landscape of the horror genre without forsaking its unifying themes, motifs, or authorial voice, but that is exactly the feat that Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales by Orrin Grey manages to accomplish throughout its 220 pages. With Guignol, Grey retains and honors the “monster guy” title bestowed upon him by John Langan but expands upon what the nature of monstrosity is and the myriad forms it can assume. Grey’s third short story collection, this book is a compass that orients readers toward the reimagination and reconstitution of horror pulp film narratives, a map for readers to chart their odyssey across the many-tendriled universe of horror, and a guidebook by which to learn where the edges of the horror genre begin to bend and to blur with other, outer things—and what those transmutations can offer readers as well.
For Grey, the narrative is all about the payoff (read: monster), and the reader is never disappointed. While the characters that inhabit his worlds exhibit a vast range in age, gender, class, and so on, each is imbued with a realistic charm that begs almost immediate connection from the reader. The reader, for their part, assumes in this connection some part of responsibility for the horrific play that is to unfold—sharing in the curiosity of the children at the mysterious arcade cabinet, the man illuminating the darkened corners of the attic, the woman interrogating governmental conspiracies in the tunnels beneath the radio tower as though they were less a voyeur and more a partner in crime. And where these characters and the landscapes they inhabit seem very much alive and very much knowable through Grey’s masterfully constructed prose, the monstrosities that lurk within Guignol’s labyrinthine pages provide a perfect and omnipresent counterbalance to this. These are not tales in which the harsh light of morality can perfectly sever the world into black and white. They are technicolor danse macabres each, vivid, dreadful, and endlessly provocative.
In what is perhaps the biggest departure from Grey’s earlier collections, the fourteen stories that make up Guignol extend beyond the expanse of horror proper and propel readers into other, intermediary genres colored by elements of Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Historical Fiction. From the apocalyptic and machine-ridden Steampunk vistas of “The Blue Light” to the enchanting choose-your-own-adventure Fantasy of “A Circle That Ever Returneth In,” Guignol urges readers into unexpected territory with only two handholds in place—the humanity of the protagonists and the monstrosity of the antagonists. At the heart of each story, bound tight by prose-borne incantations, is a creature who is not only representative of, but an agent of, trauma. And, in overcoming this trauma, or at least experiencing it, the characters, and, by proxy, the readers, come to understand in the creatures’ existences the duality of curiosity answered—that there are things that are at once magical and terrible, illuminating and confusing, hurtful and cathartic. In Guignol, Grey taps into the negative capabilities in us all, crafting them into the very fabric of the narrative like a puppet-maker carves life into his creations—the secrets only discoverable in the midst of the performance itself.
In the opening story, “Dream House,” Grey proffers what is perhaps the most succinct version of this cycle of curiosity, answering through trauma, and hungering for more that seems to permeate most of the collection’s narratives. Centering on an unnamed, first-person narrator attempting to reconnect with a childhood television show by researching lost episodes and seeking out the titular “Dream House” itself, the story is jam-packed with questions, of which only a few are answered—and, though darkly so, the narrator resolves to seek more answers yet. Toward the end of the narrative, after experiencing the horrific and supposedly escaping to tell the tale, the narrator confides:
I went upstairs, packed my bags, and checked out of my room a day early. I drove home without stopping except to fuel up and buy sodas, deleted the lost Dream House episodes from my computer, kissed my wife, and lived happily ever after. But of course you and I both know, dear reader, that’s not how these stories end. I called yesterday to make my second reservation at Dream House. Irene didn’t sound surprised at all.
Such scenes reach for the core of the human experience that horror, itself, has always sought to unveil—the desire, despite trauma, to continue in the pursuit of some greater, and perhaps unknowable, truth. They also highlight the fragility of familiarity—how it is that we, as people, can collectively create something, produce something, share something and still find gaps in our knowledge of that thing, how it works or the full extent of its functions. Just as the narrator knows, but does not know, the Dream House, so to do readers simultaneously know and not know the human affects that surround them daily. Just as the narrator risks traumatization and harm by seeking further truths surrounding the Dream House, so to do readers when they pursue further knowledge about that which they do not understand. And what of the acceptance of trauma as a fair price, a Charonic bargain, for truly knowing something? Would readers make this trade, pay this price?
According to Grey’s stories in Guignol, the answer to this very much seems to be a yes, and so we come to understand that the true hallmark of the human condition is to privilege knowledge, experience, and the sating of curiosity above all else—including ourselves.
In the end, Orrin Grey’s Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales presents a constellation of diverse horror narratives—one that pushes along the edges of the genre’s skin, pokes holes in it, worms its way up and out and into other, stranger things. Some of these transmogrifications are more horrific than others, some more fanciful, some more rooted in reality, but in all there is a sense of momentum—some propulsion, or compulsion, to know more. And at the heart of each story, sequestered away, lurking, waiting, watching, is a secret monstrosity that fiercely guards these secret truths—waiting for the reader to accompany a character on the journey, to fall into its trap. Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales is a treatise on the cruelty that we, as people, endure, sometimes by choice and sometimes not, in our struggle to understand the lives that we lead, and Grey feeds his readers (meat)hook, line, and sinker through a vector of ambitious storytelling, clean prose, and ancient subtexts.
At the heart of Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales is a monster, and it might just be us. The real question is, are you willing to pay the price to find out?
Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales, by Orrin Grey. Petaluma, California: Word Horde, October 2018. 220 pages. $15.99, paper.
Maxwell Malone is a ghost writing ghostwriting and ghost writing. He wrote for the first season of the Congeria podcast and his short stories have been audio-published through the award-winning NoSleep Podcast, Chilling Tales for Dark Nights, and various horror venues and YouTube channels. Additional information can be found at maxwellmalone.com