The Essential Sick Stuff is an omnibus edition of three separate collections: The Sick Stuff, More Sick Stuff and Even Sicker Stuff. The first of these, originally published in 2009, includes a few stories from the early nineties when author Ronald Kelly’s career was just beginning.
“Housewarming” is a fairly straightforward ghost story in which a man moves into the house of his deceased aunt, whose lingering presence is symbolised by an infestation of spiders. While this story reserves graphic horror for its very end, “Diary” – about a serial killer sharing memories of his formative years – is less sparing with the visceral details. A typical passage: “They sent me to reform school when I was seventeen for cutting off my girlfriend’s breasts with a pocket knife. After all these years, I still haven’t figured out what my true motives had been. Maybe someday I’ll call her up at the state asylum and ask her if she remembers why I did such a horrible thing.”
The other early story in The Sick Stuff shows Kelly’s propensity for the outright bizarre. Entitled “Old Hacker” it has a narrator reminiscing about a strange local man who had the disgusting habit of hacking up gobs of spittle – that turned out to be alive.
The remaining stories in the first anthology are comparatively recent, being originally published in either 2008 or 2009. Nonetheless, the themes of Kelly’s early work are still evident. His fondness for fiction about serial killers turns up in “Mass Appeal”, about an eight-year-old boy who is obsessed with mass murderers and has dreams of spending time with historical evildoers: giving Vlad the Impaler a cake for his birthday, sharing bubblegum with Uncle Adolf and having target practice with Charles Whitman. “Pins and Needles” is about a man who hides poison and sharp implements in trick-or-treat candy for the banal reason that he dislikes children, and then receives an ironic punishment worthy of an EC horror comic.
A similar EC-like structure of a build up to a sick-joke punchline, albeit with subject matter that would have been a little touchy even for EC, is “The Abduction”. In this story a widower starts a relationship with a BDSM-obsessed new flame, only for her to end up sending him a ransom note with a threat that turns out to be stranger than it seems at first.
The motif of people coughing up living creatures, as seen in “Old Hacker”, is another detail that turns up more than once in the book. “Mojo Mama” (which turns out to be the longest story across all three volumes) takes place in the postbellum south, where a slave-owning family suffers the effects of a curse placed by a black witch. The younger son periodically coughs up scorpions, wasps and other creatures; the elder son is cursed with rotting flesh; and the daughter must pass menstrual blood though her skin, and then drink it.
Then we arrive at the second collection in the omnibus, More Sick Stuff from 2019. This opens with another early tale: “Consumption” from 1990, a curiously slow-burning body horror in which a farming family is attacked by a flesh-eating caterpillar-like creature. Also from 1990 is “Dead Skin”, about a doctor who uncovers a genetic experiment while having flashbacks to his own infancy. The other nineties story in the second volume is “Exit 86”, in which a man returning from Disney World with his family has a run-in with a cannibal. Body horror is a dominant theme, as can be seen.
Parasites are another recurring topic. In “Cell Number Nine 2019” a surgeon operating on an armed robber finds a spider in the patient’s body. He then hears of similar medical occurrences and realises that across the area, a species of spider is turning people into violent maniacs. “Suckers!”, meanwhile, sees a Louisiana sheriff investigating a series of gruesome deaths and finding that something is mutating the bayou’s parasites. Also on the theme of deadly animal life are “Snakehandler” (a smalltown church receives a new pastor who expects his flock to undergo extreme measures as a means of proving faith) and the turns-gory-quickly “The Thing at the Side of the Road” (a man passes a furry black thing on the side of the road, and becomes obsessed with finding out exactly what kind of animal had ended up as roadkill).
Even if the stories share common motifs, the author is able to vary his tone. “The Day UPS Brought Zombies” is, as its title suggests, a humorous tale. In it, a horror-loving woman orders a cookbook online, but instead receives an occult tome called the Xenophramonicon which creates zombies; the story is full of genre references, and even has Brian Keene as a character. Later comes “Pelingrad’s Pit”, a genuinely weird story about a boy who sneaks into a neighbour’s rubbish pit at night and finds increasingly unsettling things: calendars and newspapers from circa world war II, a puppy that is somehow simultaneously alive and dead, a baby in a similar condition, and more besides. The resolution is rather pat and a little too EC Comics, but the story achieves a strong atmosphere of the bizarre. At the end of the second collection is “Devourer”, a story about a rural community being terrorised by a mysterious monster; this piece turns out to be quieter and more subtle than it sounds.
The third and final volume in the omnibus is Even Sicker Stuff, originally published in 2020. This includes the earliest story in all three volumes: “Miss Abigail’s Delicate Condition” from 1988. Fairly tame and old-fashioned by the author’s standards, this is a period piece set in 1920 about a girl with a strange affinity for snakes. Another older work is “Scream Queen” from 1995, in which a grad student goes looking for the b-movie actress who stars in his erotic fantasies – but, of course, gets more than he bargained for.
The remaining stories in Even Sicker Stuff are original to the collection. “Traps” is a character study of an embittered pest-controller, who shifts from trapping vermin to trapping much larger annoyances; “The Nipples in Dad’s Toolbox”, meanwhile, is the tense story of a twelve-year-old boy who stumbles upon a dark family secret, the nature of which is suggested by the title.
The author’s recurring themes are present to the end. “Eating Hearty” is another EC Comics-style story, this time involving a man who recovers after losing his legs and a chunk of his memories, subsequently learning that the doctor treating him is not what she appears to be. “Quetzalcoatl’s Revenge” returns to the motif of snakes, including snake-swallowing. A Mexican labourer is trapped in the construction of a textile plant; when his bigoted superior refuses to save him, his wife (a woman of of Aztec descent) calls upon the vengeance of the serpent-god Quetzalcoatl.
A chunky tome and no mistake, The Essential Sick Stuff allows us to see Ronald Kelly’s development from a raw talent to an author of more polished horrors. Along the way, we see a number of his favourite themes – serial killers, body horror involving snakes, twisted childhoods – being turned kaleidoscope-fashion into one new form after another.