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Book Review: Penetralia

PenetraliaPenetralia by Jordan Krall

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Okay, we need to get one thing out of the way: The title of this book, Penetralia, is not actually as dirty as it sounds. The definition is:

1. the innermost parts or recesses of a place or thing.

2. the most private or secret things.

Okay, so you can get your mind out of the gutter.

Okay, now put your mind right back in that gutter.

Penetralia by Jordan Krall is a hard book to get your head around. You’re constantly slapped around by images of physical and sexual violence, and yet there’s a constant promise that there’s going to be a grand revelation of wisdom through these actions. The story follows a family who is seeking through violent experiments on unwilling subjects/victims for an ultimate Wisdom as prescribed through ancient texts. The grown-up brother and sister, Philip and Elizabeth, are conducting these experiments on their own in their father’s absence, who dresses in a plague doctor costume and is away for unknown reasons but will be returning soon.

Right away, you will realize that it takes a strong stomach to get through Penetralia. Krall has never shied away from gross and violent gross imagery before. In some books, like Squid Pulp Blues for example, he seemed have a strange obsession with characters releasing their bowels at inopportune times. In Penetralia, Krall has kicked it up more than a couple of notches. Almost from the get go, you’re shown that this is a very incestuous family, and that some of the experiments performed on their subjects/victims to reveal the ultimate Wisdom involve extraction and consumption of numerous bodily fluids and substances. Seriously, do not read this right after you’ve eaten. I have a cast-iron stomach, and even I felt a little queasy after one of the early scenes where Philip consumes one of their subject’s vomit.

If you can get past this (or even if these parts were cut out or rewritten), it’s not so much a story about torture, murder, and incest, but becomes a story of an extremely dysfunctional family that suffered continual and extreme abuse at the hands of their patriarch. While Philip resents his father for the abuse with every fiber of his being, he still does everything he can to continue his father’s work knowing full well that he will never earn his father’s approval. Elizabeth, on the other hand, has a case of Stockholm syndrome, loving her father deeply even for or because of the abuse she has suffered, despite knowing in the back of her mind that what she has suffered through was horrible and violent.

This made the book very frustrating. Krall is a great writer, and the prose is brilliant throughout, clean (not counting the gross imagery), and quick to read, even with making you stop to reread something or think about a particular scene carefully. But the imagery felt unnecessary to what would have been a fascinating story, and even distracted from it. The disturbing images felt like they were put in for sheer shock value. In that respect, they do their job well. But the story underneath it is actually very interesting. The story of a dysfunctional family who finally come to terms with the abuse they’ve suffered and confronting their abuser is actually quite engaging, but it becomes buried in the shock scenes so heavily that it’s difficult to see. You practically get two separate books, one for shock value and one for a heartbreaking story, but the two don’t mesh well and are constantly fighting for your attention.

Overall, Penetralia has some great writing, a potentially powerful story, and vivid if disturbing imagery. I know that Krall has recently moved away from writing bizarro fiction, and Penetralia may have been his swan song in the genre. It’s certainly a strong and powerful way to bow out, but it was a little too extreme for my tastes. I sort of wish he had bowed out sooner and written Penetralia with more focus on the story than the imagery, which based on his False Magic Kingdom series he can clearly do. Don’t get me wrong. Krall has a real talent for descriptive imagery and storytelling, but in Penetralia, those to forces seem to be at war with each other rather than support each other, making it confusing and not my particular cup of tea.

Penetralia by Jordan Krall earns 3 plague outfits out of 5.

Book Review: Piecemeal June

Piecemeal June
Piecemeal June by Jordan Krall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been reading Jordan Krall’s books out of order. I’m not sure why. I seem to have started with the longer ones of late and have worked my way down to the shorter books. After reading Beyond the Valley of the Apocalypse Donkeys, Fistful of Feet, Squid Pulp Blues, and King Scratch, in that order, I’ve finally gotten around to reading Piecemeal June.

This book was Krall’s rookie effort for Eraserhead Press, and you can definitely see why people have paid attention to his work from the beginning. If there’s one word that comes to mind when trying to describe this book, it would be “solid.” The plot is solid, the world is solid, and the characters are solid, even if we don’t see all of it.

Piecemeal June is the story of Kevin, a loner in a dead-end job who lives above a porn shop with a tarot-card obsessed cat named Mithra. Mithra begins bringing home what appears to be trash at first, until Kevin realizes that they are parts of a realistic sex doll who, when assembled, comes to life and identifies herself as June. In the meantime, they’re pursued by a pornographer who believes the doll belongs to him and a god of the Second World (we are in the First World) who loves her.

For a book about a sex doll, a pornographer, and beings cobbled together from various body parts, I’m surprised that there weren’t more graphic adult situations in this story, but the amount worked just right. It’s actually not gratuitous, but is really what is necessary to drive the story. Again, however, Krall seems to have an affinity for writing characters who have trouble controlling their bowels.

While the story is short and there’s not a whole lot of space to develop the characters, it felt as though there was a lot going on under the surface that we don’t see, giving them some depth. And the story, as I said, is quite solid and ties together quite well…sort of.

Let me explain this by saying that there are two main problems with this novel. The first and most obvious is that there are editing problems. Usually, I can overlook a few errors, but the errors here are numerous enough to be distracting, and I have to take a half-star off the final score in this case.

The second problem is the aforementioned issue with the plot. It’s really good and absorbing all the way through…and then ends suddenly. I mean very suddenly. It’s like the plot slammed into a brick wall at 70 MPH. I almost wonder if Krall either wrote himself into a corner or simply got bored with it and just decided to end it then and there. This is really disappointing because it was such a great story and I was ready to give the book a higher rating up until that point.

Piecemeal June is definitely worth your time, especially for it being a rookie effort from a talented bizarro author. Just keep in mind that it will end very abruptly and not in the most satisfying manner.

Piecemeal June by Jordan Krall earns four sex doll parts out of five.

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Book Review: King Scratch

King Scratch
King Scratch by Jordan Krall
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

If you want bizarro, Jordan Krall delivers with King Scratch. It’s certainly one of the weirder books I’ve read by him up to this point, the others being Beyond the Valley of the Apocalypse Donkeys, Fistful of Feet, and Squid Pulp Blues.

King Scratch is a weird acid trip of a book involving a couple off to help the man’s (Jim) ex-father-in-law (a moonshiner who Jim worked for) while being pursued by another man named Black Boned Keith for unknown reasons. After both are in different car accidents, things get really weird, involving sea creatures (mostly squid), Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, and pancakes. This theme continues into the appendices of the book, which are really more a collection of short stories that are loosely related to the main story.

As I mentioned, this is one of Krall’s weirder books that I’ve read, sometimes to the point that it gets a little confusing. It’s also one of Krall’s more graphic books in terms of sex and violence, so reader be warned. If books like Fistful of Feet were too tame for you, then you’ll probably want to give this one a try.

It’s hard to write a review for this one without giving much away because, despite the short length, the book feels dense with plot elements and psychedelic visions. While the common elements that run through much of Krall’s books are present (i.e., squids and common characters, like Black Boned Keith; interesting that donkeys don’t have much of a presence in this one), the style feels like a departure compared to the Krall’s other works I’ve experienced. It’s good but, in my opinion, also felt a little less than Krall’s other books.

King Scratch by Jordan Krall earns 3.5 jars of squid moonshine out of 5.

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Book Review: Squid Pulp Blues

Squid Pulp Blues
Squid Pulp Blues by Jordan Krall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Come to Thompson, New Jersey, home of longheads and Little Bing Bong, the apocalypse donkey.

Squid Pulp Blues by Jordan Krall is certainly different. It is a collection of three novellas (and one short story in the Kindle version) which focus primarily on the seedy underbelly of Thompson, New Jersey. It ties together in terms of theme with Krall’s other books I’ve read, Fistful of Feet and Beyond the Valley of the Apocalypse Donkeys. Like Fistful of Feet was a tribute to the western genre with a bizarro twist, so too is Squid Pulp Blues a tribute to pulp crime stories with a similar twist.

Most of the characters in these novellas are criminals in some form or another. In addition, there has been a war in which many of the veterans came back with elongated heads and exhibit weird behavior, hence the name “longheads.” There’s also a comic strip described in the novellas about Fauntleroy Leroux and his attempt to stop Little Bing Bong, the apocalypse donkey, something that may be more real than people think.

The first novella, “The Haberdasher,” focuses on the goings on one night near the Solar Lodge Motel, involving several criminal types, an unidentified crazy woman, and the Haberdasher himself, a bipolar mafioso captain with strange sexual fetishes. The second novella is “The Longheads,” which focuses on some other criminal types running from an incontinent partner out for revenge, all while the longheads in town begin exhibiting particularly weird behavior, even for them. Finally, we have “The Apocalypse Donkey,” following the comic artist of the current Fauntleroy Leroux comics, who becomes the victim of a case of mistaken identity. All the novellas loosely tie together.

The characters are generally interesting if somewhat cookie cutter. There does seem to be a common problem with some of the characters being able to control their bowels. Note to self: Bring your own water when visiting Thompson, New Jersey.

The main problem with the book comes in with the stories themselves. While the stories are all entertaining, they become predictable in the overall sense. The details are different, but as the second novella plays out, you realize that it’s going to end very similar to the first one, and there’s not much surprise with how the third one will play out. It’s mostly a question of who lives and who dies.

Despite this, the stories are fun reads and worth your time, especially if you like violence, depraved sex acts, squids, and donkeys.

Squid Pulp Blues by Jordan Krall earns 4 straight razors out of 5.

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Book Review: Fistful of Feet

Fistful of Feet
Fistful of Feet by Jordan Krall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I should admit right off that I’ve never been a big fan of westerns, movies or books. That’s not to say that I’m opposed to them or haven’t enjoyed them. I’ve found several western movies enjoyable if a bit derivative. But I’ve never sought them out, and have really just seen them in passing.

Fistful of Feet is one of those enjoyable westerns but with bizarro overtones. In fact, the bizarro parts are mostly in the details, which would make this an otherwise normal western tale. I’ll explain about this part more in a little bit.

The story follows the town of Screwhorse, Nevada at so point after the Civil War. In from the desert wanders a stranger with a burping pistol and a wooden donkey who has a run-in with the local bullies, who work for the town’s wealthy citizen, William Lyons, who is friends with the mayor, who both have the town sheriff under their thumb. Did you get all that? Rounding out the cast are a card cheat, the local crazy gunslinger, a group of robbers, the general store manager, a hostile Indian tribe at the gates, and the local madam and her girls, and you have a cast mixed together from all the great western movies. See? A perfectly normal western mashup.

But this is Jordan Krall we’re talking about here. My only previous standalone experience from Krall was Beyond the Valley of the Apocalypse Donkeys. So it’s not going to be that normal. The interesting thing about this is that, as I mentioned, the bizarro elements are relegated to the details of the novel. For example, there are lots of appearances and references to two-tailed scorpions, in dreams and being used as drugs (that one takes some explaining, but you’ll have to read the book). Or the appearance of a starfish creature in one the rooms. But for the most part, this book remains an easily identifiable western.

There are multiple plot threads that intersect to varying degrees. There’s the stranger in town causing trouble with the local bullies, the robbers out for revenge, the con man trying to make a big score, and a murder mystery. These aren’t all immediately related, and Krall does jump around between various viewpoints easily and quickly, sometimes to the point that it gets a little confusing. It’s a pretty big cast for a reasonably short novel, too, which can add to some of the confusion as you switch between viewpoints and ask yourself “Wait, who is this person again?”

Ultimately, Fistful of Feet is an enjoyable western novel, and a worthwhile bizarro read, and while the writing is really solid, it does come up a bit short from being a perfect novel. There can be feelings that things got away from Krall a bit and that it may have been a more ambitious effort than was really needed. Still, Fistul of Feet is definitely worth your time, and comes off as a genuine if twisted tribute to the western genre.

Fistful of Feet by Jordan Krall earns 4 pistol burps out of 5.

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