DEATHGRIP: EXIT LAUGHING

Edited by Walt Hicks

Reviewed by Gary McMahon

First let me apologise for the lateness of this review. In true comic fashion, I had a tidy-up at home and misplaced the half-read book, and then proceeded to lose the notes I'd made...but enough of my intolerable absentmindedness, and let's move on to the job at hand!

In my humble opinion Deathgrip: Exit Laughing suffers from the same syndrome a lot of small press anthologies struggle to overcome: there are a handful of good stories in there, some half decent stuff, and one or two forgettable pieces, but nothing that really blows off the top of a reader's head. This is doubly difficult when the theme of a collection of stories is that always tricky territory where terror meets laughter, but all the same this book gives it a good shot.

With the table of contents stretching to take in 28 stories--most of which are by American writers I'm only vaguely aware of, or are aware of but have never read anything by--the book sets itself a Herculean task. This many stories are never going to please everyone; the range is too broad, the landscape too wide. I think the book might have benefited from a more specific theme, or perhaps by cutting down the number of tales therein. Because of the sheer volume of stories, I'll mention only the ones that stood out during my own reading of the book.

But now to the good points, of which there are a few.

The first story to grab my attention is one of the best in the book: The Socket by Jeff Strand. This one starts with the lead character losing an eye and gets more extreme--and oddly amusing--from there on in. I really enjoyed this one; the more gruesome aspects are carried off with aplomb.

The next to turn my head was the wonderfully titled Chicken Trucker Clucker Fuck-up by Steve Vernon, a writer with a brisk and folksy style. His account of weird voodoo mayhem involving an accident with a chicken truck has a welcome anecdotal quality.

Scott Nicholson is a writer I've been meaning to catch up with for a while and his Dumb Luck proved worthy of the effort. This one is a tale of opportunity and how one man tries to embrace it, and the ending is terrific.

Bags by Mark Zirbel is another good piece. This one focuses on a man's obsession with...well, bags. Paper bags. Plastic bags. All kinds of bags. The plot moves in an interesting direction, and the ending is a killer. I liked this one a lot.

The ever reliable Steve Redwood provides what is easily my favourite contribution. Sanctuary tells of a near future where euthanasia is not only legal, but a matter of law. The story spirals to a sick conclusion, taking the idea to its limit, and the last line is oddly moving.

The final story, On Becoming Immortal deserves a mention because it's an original from the pen of the legendary William F. Nolan. The tale is a bit jokey for my tastes; however it's fun and light-hearted, but with a slight edge. It's also a vampire story of sorts, but don't let that put you off. Despite my initial reservations, I enjoyed it.

Al in all, I find fiction that deliberately sets out to be both funny and horrific rarely succeeds in these lofty aims: such stories end up either neither fish nor fowl, and often simply unscary. Deathgrip: Exit Laughing is an admirable attempt at combining these two emotional responses in an anthology, but for my money they are best left as separate entities, unless your name happens to be Robert Bloch...

(Addendum: I've been informed that Hellbound Books have ceased trading as a publisher, but copies of this book can still be tracked down from various dealers and online stores.)

Deathgrip: Exit Laughing edited by Walt Hicks. Hellbound Books paperback, 476pp, $9.99 and available from various online outlets, including currently at 'sale price' from Shocklines


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