With a history as a horror author, hip-hop artist, competitive powerlifter and self-proclaimed sorcerer, Charles Austin Muir is quite a character. It is hard to argue, then, with his decision to make himself the central character of This is a Horror Book.
The collection opens with its title story, in which Muir – after snapping out of a sexual fantasy involving Charlize Theron – finds a mysterious antique book lying in the ground for the taking. This elaborately-bound volume turns out to be a combination of intricate puzzles and evil texts (think along the lines of Evil Dead meets Hellraiser) and so the author and his buddy spend a drunken Halloween night summoning monsters from horror films. The story is a fond send-up of both horror iconography and dudebro culture:
When two guys get together, their intelligence quotients drop by half. When you give them alcohol and a national reason to watch horror movies, their intelligence quotients drop by another half. When you give them an evil book, their intelligence quotients drop by another half. That doesn’t leave much intelligence to spare—but enough to launch doomsday, unfortunately.
In “The Haddonfield Hit Squad” Muir dozes off on Halloween and his dreams – as well as erotic fantasies involving Charlize Theron – involve becoming Michael Myers and embarking on an action hero mission alongside Freddy Krueger and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Meanwhile, “Notes on a Cosmic Horrorcore Album” is presented as the liner notes to a cassette of music by Muir, “the only rapper to devote the last phase of his career to the works of horror author Thomas Ligotti.” From here, it spins a narrative that involves the Thomas Ligotti Online Forums and Muir’s run-in with a cult leader named Master Caligari – whose manifesto comes to form the bulk of the story.
The main character of “Skype Me at the Public Library”, a fitness instructor named George, is introduced as a friend of Muir rather than Muir himself – although in terms of personality he does rather blur together with the fictionalised Muirs seen elsewhere in the collection. George is unnerved to find gym-loving citizens abandoning their regimens to visit a new library – and is then lured there himself by his new flame, a former fitness model with a taste for online sex games. On the surface a light-hearted reworking of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with a middle finger raised at gentrification, the story also has a melancholy streak, dealing with the protagonist’s loneliness following the deaths of his mother and a female business partner.
The collection then proceeds along more experimental lines. “Catch You on the Flip Side” features a story-within-a-story about a man describing a portrait to a blind woman; this is followed by members of a writing group commenting on the narrative – which turns out to mirror the conversation about the portrait. “O Mother Goddess, Where Art Thou?” is the hallucinatory story of an elderly writer meeting a mysterious temptress; it explores sexual longing and physical shame, vivid memories and mental deterioration, artistic pride and base bodily functions, the sacred and the profane.
“Hood Sigil” is a piece of verse apparently made from jumbling together various neighbourhood signs and graffiti to spell enigmatic messages like “we will be closed March 31 (Easter) Jesus is nowhere, harden the fuck up”. Then we have “The Raekwonomicon”, which depicts a 36th-dimension rap battle between the sorceRZAs (“masters of mystical chessboxing”) and their hidden opponents (“the things under reality’s stairs created by the Shadow Master, the Shaolin’s most powerful magicians”). Between arcane worldbuilding references, gibbering dialogue and a fondness for pop culture references, the story feels as though a sugar-rushing kid wrote a fanfic set in their favourite comic universe
The final story is the novelette-length “Chaos Magick for Scumbags”, which is written in second-person. An adolescent schoolboy misfit turns to the occult in an attempt to win the affection of wealthy and popular Melissa; after this fails the boy grows up filled with resentment, evolving in stages through high school jock to graduate yuppie. Eventually he turns to mysticism again, this time to deal with his feelings of inadequacy. After successfully slaying the “shame vampire” associated with Melissa’s rejection of him, he becomes a popular author and countercultural commentator. But even this fails to give him fulfilment, and he heads still deeper into the occult. What starts out as a universal narrative of bullying turns into a more idiosyncratic story of an author’s self-doubts.
The collection ends with a “stories behind the stories” section in which the author points out aspects of his life that inspired the tales, including his discovery of a mysterious book on a street, the loss of his mother, and his hatred of roadsigns saying “Drive Like Your Kid Lives Here”.
This is a Horror Book starts out looking like a simple-minded trip through pop culture references and lowbrow laughs, but it soon turns out to be something deepers. Even its most straightforward stories have a poignant touch to them, capturing both a deep fondness for 1980s movie nostalgia and an acute awareness that, really, there needs to be more to life than sitting around watching Arnie flicks. As it progresses, the collection translates this longing for meaning into a bout of metafictional experimentation – and even then, it never loses its down-to-earth sense of humour.