Midnight in the City of the Carrion Kid by James C. Carlson (2022 Splatterpunk Awards)


When it begins, Midnight in the City of the Carrion Kid gives little indication of just how bizarre it will eventually become. When we are introduced to heroin addict Alistair, his girlfriend Eden and his dealer Angel – and the characters’ dialogue points out to us the irony of people involved with the drugs trade having names like “Eden” and “Angel” – it threatens to be no more than a heavy-handed jaunt through inner-city squalor. As it transpires, however, this opening sequence is Dorothy’s Kansas, and there is an extremely twisted Oz in store for us.

After passing out from his latest fix, Alistair regains his senses to find that Eden has gone missing. When he goes looking for her, he runs into a band of monstrous nuns:

Peering from the nuns’ black veils are the pale, grotesque visages of nightmares. One has Saint Christopher medals lodged in the ravaged cavities that once housed her eyes. In her right hand, she clutches the wooden handle of a rusty-headed hammer. Beside her, the lidless, shriveled eyes of an especially twitchy nun stare dryly from her head. The corners of her mouth have been carved upward into a permanent smiling wound. In each bloody hand, she wields a sizable shard of glass like a deadly transparent dagger. The next noun looks as though her face has been crudely molded out of clay but never given features.

Alistair is rescued by a mysterious stranger named Nico, and learns that he has ended up in the In-Between: a realm that is not so much a physical location as a state of being. His body is still on the surface, unconscious, but his essence is trapped in this nightmare world until his fate is decided. Some denizens of the In-Between eventually regain consciousness and are freed; others, however, die on the surface world, and are doomed to haunt the underground as wraiths.

Nico and his partner Miles inhabit Haven Below, a network of decommissioned service tunnels illuminated by Christmas lights. They share it with beautiful Imogen, who was placed in a coma by burns sustained in a house fire; Jinx, an elderly, gibbering man who was sent to a vegetative state by a botched surgery; and Ferret, a mute preteen girl unable or unwilling to divulge her history. Also present is Mister, a talking cat responsible for explaining the workings of this strange world.

If Mister is a guardian angel, this limbo also has its very own devil. According to a local legend, a young boy was possessed by a demon which forced his body into a coma. Sent to the In-Between, his soul merged with the attached demon into an entity known as the Carrion Kid. While Alistair has the straightforward goal of rescuing Eden, his new friends have the broader mission of defeating the Carrion Kid (somehow, the enigmatic Ferret is the key to this) and averting an apocalyptic threat.

Midnight in the City of the Carrion Kid packs its broad-ranging quest narrative into a modest pagecount, and so inevitably takes a few shortcuts. When conveying the workings and implications of its world, it has a tendency to spell things out rather than let the reader use their imagination. Between its literal-minded stretches, however, it has flashes of genuine weirdness, whether these derive from the characters (as in Jinx’s strange ramblings) or the supernatural twilight world. The denizens of the In-Between are otherworldly creatures worthy of a Jan Svankmajer surrealist film:

Coming at me from the shadows are scorpions the size of small dogs. Black carapaces glint in the dim lighting. Between giant pincers, their faces have been replaced with plastic baby doll heads. And their curled tails end in stingers that terminate in hypodermic needles.

While we see the characters primarily through the carnival-mirror of fantasy, the novella does give us some idea of who they were in their mundane lives via some well-placed quirks. We are told that Nico and Miles once belonged to a technical queercore band called Infinite Scrotum, which specialised in a “hybrid of screamo, mathy metal, and experimental punk”; elsewhere, we learn that Eden’s tastes run from Beatnik literature, nineties pop music and art house films through to “these weird Japanese plushies shaped like fantastical creatures.” Most significant, meanwhile, is the religious undercurrent to the story and its cast.

Before his ordeal in the In-Between, Alistair sees heroin culture as a religion “where we prayed to a terrible god whose sacrament kept us sick and promised a sort of living damnation”. He comes to doubt if he even deserves redemption, or if he is no more than “a parasite clinging to the digestive tract of the world… a bezoar in the guts of the universe… more disease than human”. Indeed, he wonders if he is even different from the monster at the heart of the story: “I was a Carrion Kid of sorts – everything I touched turned to hell, and I did nothing to stop it.”

These spiritual themes of sin and redemption do much to lend the novella an overriding sense of purpose. While Midnight in the City of the Carrion Kid shows the occasional lapse in self-confidence, explaining when it should be implying, it has a fundamental faith in its core ideas. The story is at its strongest when this faith becomes firm enough for it to let loose and give the reader an all-out fever dream.

Midnight in the City of the Carrion Kid is available at Godless.com and many other online retailers.

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