Soothing the Savage Swamp Beast

Review by Joey Madia

If you are looking for a weird but fun ride this summer, this novella might just be for you. But a quick word of warning. Know what you’re getting into. As you’ll notice, this is published by Bizarro Pulp Press. So let’s get some definitions from Wikipedia:

Bizarro fiction: a contemporary literary genre, which often uses elements of absurdism, satire, and the grotesque, along with pop-surrealism and genre fiction staples, in order to create subversive, weird, and entertaining works.

Pulp fiction: lurid, exploitative, and sensational subject matter
So, Bizarro Pulp… you can only imagine. And you should.

But this label has nothing to do with quality. Although it is in many ways the ink-on-paper analog of Slasher Films, complete with lots of violence, sex, and, well… bizarreness, it can also be just as fine and releasing as a Rob Zombie film.

If that’s your sort of thing. If it is, read on. I don’t read a lot of Bizarro, but I have read and reviewed some anthologies and stand-alones. Knowing what I am getting when I am going in, I adjust my mindset and just enjoy, if the author’s talent allows.

Because all the same standards apply. You need interesting characters with an arc, and an at least semi-cohesive narrative and an interesting problem to solve.

Although, in Bizarro, the characters are often deeper in the shit at the end than when they started. And this is truly its appeal.

Life isn’t always jolly. And this subgenre revels in it.

Earlier this year I read and reviewed McGaha’s debut novel, Locker Arms. It was a fun homage to small town high school politics with an overlay of edgy horror. It seems the trend in modern horror is to make it a social commentary on towns and families—the way Stephen King has always done it—and it works.

So I was a little surprised as I began to read Soothing the Savage Swamp Beast. As far as Locker Arms went on the sex and violence scale—and it went pretty far (I am not a prude)—the follow-up novel from this college-aged writer of promise goes plenty farther. And the circumstances do go considerably off the rails.

In other words—McGaha did his job in writing Bizarro Pulp.

Soothing the Savage Swamp Beast (the cover of the book recalls the film O Brother Where Art Thou? but dressed in a provocative surrealism) primarily concerns the little lives of a couple named Vogel and Aldert who live in a backwater town, eking by with little expectation and even less imagination. Like Locker Arms, much of the story takes place in a school where Vogel teaches. Hopelessness and ennui prevail. Hormones rage, violence simmers, and, although some of the teachers and students—usually while stoned—dream or blab about getting out, they know the odds are infinitely against them.

In the downward spiral of the socioeconomic Cycle of Shit that is the end result of rampant neoliberalism, they are swimming with the turds that have inevitably trickled down.

To pass the time, Vogel reads a book. An odd little number like the one by Fingerling in The Number 23, although this one is written by Intentionally Anonymous (IA). It’s chock full of serpent-symbols and ill omens, which makes it compelling but complex reading. The book’s contents recur throughout the narrative, undergirding and commentating upon it, and, in the final few pages, the reader is given the template to write one of their own. If they dare.

The characters around which Vogel and Aldert constellate are mostly engaged in a stunning dance of dueling simplicities. Carnal. Visceral. And born of the understandable hopelessness that comes with knowing you are Nowhere and will be there Forever. Even the community college kids are screwed, despite current propaganda to the contrary.

McGaha, as well read and gifted as any mainstream writer, is never afraid to let the reader know that he takes none of this too seriously. He swims with turds of his own devise and the ink on the page is smiling. An interlude about a third of the way through, titled “Cheesy Existentialism,” is a case in point. We shouldn’t take any of this too much to heart. It’s a romp, a fantasy—but chock full of hard and prickly truths.

Again reminiscent of O Brother, another central character is Junior Hicks (gotta love the name), a native of the eastern Tennessee town of Johnson City (do you hear the lyrics to “Wagon Wheel”?). He lives back to nature but woos the crowds with his old timey, down homey fiddle-playin’ and croonin’, which serve as a potent form of preachin’. He could be at least one banjo-pickin’ character’s way out of Nowhereville, or just as easily his ticket to destinations even worse.

Junior’s got layers.

It’s a little before half way that things get real weird, real fast—like most contemporary horror—including Vogel being attacked and telling the operator just after, Juliette Lewis style, “There’s a crazy dude in my house. I stabbed him.”

When Aldert is exposed to a mysterious, supernatural goop that ups his physique and sexual appetite, things truly start to unravel. Vogel looks to IA’s book for answers as thing collapse around her.

The answers are not forthcoming.

Classic Bizarro-Pulp.

As I was writing this review, news broke that McGaha’s third novel will be available in September. We can only guess what horrific wonders await.

TITLE: Soothing the Savage Swamp Beast
AUTHOR: Zakary McGaha
PUBLISHER: Bizarro Pulp Press, an imprint of JournalStone
ISBN: 9781947654891