Something Good, Something Bad, Something Dirty
By Brian Alan Ellis
House of Vlad, 2014
148 pages, $9.95
Reviewed by Anne Kilfoyle
Reading Something Good, Something Bad, Something Dirty by Brian Alan Ellis is like talking to your cousin who spends too much time on 4Chan and doesn’t feel bad about it. You kind of want him to stop, but then you wouldn’t get to hear the appalling story that comes next. You’re also little jealous of his apparent inability to be embarrassed. Maybe a lot jealous. Okay, you’re very jealous and wish that you could declare war on delicacy and decency, as Ellis does in his short stories. His writing is distinct from the careful, quiet pieces that make up the bulk of short fiction today. It comes off like a busted window in a stuffy room.
The stories in Something Good are loud. The pages in Ellis’s latest collection are filthy with cocaine and bodily fluids. Blood, death, and sex appear in almost every story, often in tandem. The collection is thin and trim—around 130 pages—and begs to be read in one sitting, although titles like “The Faggot Story” may make you feel uncomfortable doing so on a packed subway car. The cover art, by JB Roe, is beautiful: lively, toxic flames rise off of a garden gnome. The picture is a detail from the story “13 Down, 18 Across,” in which Daniel, a crossword genius bound to his attic room by misplaced pathos, looks out through a telescope at the world and can’t find a reason not to despair. He sees a neighbor’s garden gnomes alight and the vision apparently does nothing to convince him. Daniel is a character who says things along the lines of, “I feel like one thousand bats.” A few paragraphs later, however, he expresses post-job-interview anxiety to his girlfriend with logic that resonates:
‘I sat through the entire thing with my sunglasses on,’ says Daniel. ‘See, I’m not positive, but after the interview I had my sunglasses on. But I don’t remember putting them on. I don’t remember taking them off, either. And why wouldn’t they have told me to take off the glasses during the interview. It all happened so fast.’
Daniel’s reasoning makes a lot of sense to the neurotic within, and thus we arrive at the current that pulls readers along through the garish, alarming world of Ellis’s fiction. For those who are truly looking at what happens in the world, it often appears crazy. In these stories, insanity and unpredictability look like a distraction from reality, but really there provide an excuse for—or explanation of—why people go mad in the first place. How can anyone stay sane in a world that sets a beloved troupe of garden gnomes on fire? I would throw myself out of a window, too. So begins a negative feedback loop that creates space for stories featuring monsters, incantations, and drunken Santa Clauses.
For Brian Alan Ellis’s characters, flaming garden gnomes are the least of their worries. At times, Ellis’s erratic narrative movements may trip up readers who feel more secure in a world where a severed penis can’t transform into an eleven-foot monster, as it does in “The Watch,” with “two or three or maybe even four rows of tiny mucus-lined teeth—like something out of Alien.” The rogue member goes on to consume a woman like a snake. “The Watch” is included near the end of the collection, and by the time I reached it, I was not shocked by its contents.
Is it exhibitionism? Maybe. But it’s good, and for the most part self-aware. Readers can’t avoid drawing comparisons between Ellis and the narrator of “Raven’s Ladies,” who has been told his fiction is “too noir” to be published. While there are certainly noir components to Ellis’s seedier stories like “Kool-Aid” and “Ms. Fix,” his work could more aptly be described as Gothic Noir or Southern Gothic (although the setting is rarely, if ever, identified so specifically). In “Raven’s Ladies,” Ellis demonstrates that he knows his lineage by nodding to multiple authors: Gogol, Poe, Stephen King, Flannery O’Connor, and Tennessee Williams. Their influence shows in his writing. Brooding supernatural elements appear alongside the morbid and absurd in stories like “Halloween Decorations” and, notably, “Proposal,” in which a seven-year-old child and her mother literally torture one another for the affection of a suitor.
To place Ellis in a more modern context, if Chuck Palahniuk and William S. Burroughs had a baby, and that baby believed in ghosts, the result would be Brian Alan Ellis. Something Good, Something Bad, Something Dirty is not a book for those who want their reading to reflect the life experience in a subtle, subdued manner. It’s not a book for the queasy or for your mother, but it’s a good book, and deserves more than one read.