Flesh for the Fire

The Drive-Thru Crematorium by Jon Bassoff

Book Review by Shane Douglas Keene

drivethruWhen I read Jon Bassoff’s novel, Corrosion, my heart signed an immediate and binding contract with my brain to read everything this phenomenal author ever produces. This newest book from Eraserhead Press does nothing to disabuse me of that, only serving to further cement the commitment, inspiring me to preach the word of Bassoff with every outing. He writes this genre crushing, impossible to define, gritty and grungy literature and he does so with the eyes of someone who has looked long into the darkness of the human soul and come away with a knowledge of brimstone and despair that gushes from his pen like blood from a slit throat.

From the time I was a young boy until I was in my late forties, I suffered chronic, lucid night terrors, recurring and surreal and always strangely familiar, though they were usually different every time. I had them night upon night without fail and there was no drug or drink on the planet strong enough to quell them or give me a peaceful rest. It was a decades-long struggle that became so much the norm it ceased to bother me after my teens. It was just a part of daily living. So it could be said that I’m somewhat of an expert on the architecture of dark dreams, and if you asked me what the inside of a nightmare looks like, I would refer you to The Drive-Thru Crematorium. Much like a surreal fever-dream, it’s an imagining born in delirium and painted in faded shades of black and gray, infrequently splashed with the red of blood on a serial killer’s blade or the orange-blues of a fire raging at 1400 degrees Fahrenheit.

In Drive-Thru Crematorium, Stanley Maddox is a ghost haunting his own life. His wife is cheating on him, his boss and his co-workers don’t recognize him anymore, and everything that gave his existence meaning has, like the man himself, begun fading away. In addition, a flap of skin has begun peeling away from his face, beginning to reveal someone, something much more sinister and potentially deadly. The author begins his tale by stripping away everything the protagonist has, starting with his job, but quickly moving on to depriving him of his wife, his bed, and ultimately, himself. It’s a study in extreme loss of identity and metamorphosis that would put Kafka himself to shame, a bizarre story made that much more so by frequent injections of normality that only serve to emphasize the odd. And it is truly an odd story, but an insidious and unavoidably addicting one too, a portrait of madness and violence painted on the insides of dreaming eyelids.

One of the many things in this book that really impressed me might surprise you, given the seeming mundanity of the point, and that is this: while it can be honestly said that most of the characters in The Drive-Thru Crematorium are mere vignettes of people, it couldn’t be said that a single one of them is anything less than critical to the story. Stanley Maddox and Kurt Wagner are the only ones with any real backstory, but you couldn’t take away any of the others. Because no matter how small their role, remove any one of them and the whole fucking house comes crashing to the ground in a smoking mound of rubble. And what’s remarkable about it is that it’s intentional, or at least seems to be so. Surreal and dreamlike though it may be, it’s an intricately planned masterpiece with every single player placed precisely where and when they’re needed. Bassoff has a plan for each and every one and he places them like pieces in a complex jigsaw puzzle, places them so well and so naturally you’re not likely to notice. But in truth, they’re key components in the structure and pacing of the story. Stanley goes through this Jacob’s Ladder-like sequence of encounters with some of the strangest, most eccentric, and quirky people as he makes his way toward his destiny. And when he finally reaches that point, the story segues into sheer insanity, and Bassoff utterly destroys any expectations you may have had about where this story was going. Like everything he’s written, it’s a narrative that could only have flowed from his pen, one that, in the end, is nothing like what you think it will be going into it. Except fantastic. If you think it will be a fantastic read and excellent use of a couple of hours, your dead on the money.

Another of those many impressive things I mentioned, and this is true of all Bassoff works, is the combination of the setting and the firm placement of the reader within it. He does an excellent job painting his set, and his ability to show instead of telling is unmatched in any genre except maybe by the great Jack Ketchum. The imagery is so vivid you’ll feel like you’ve been there, and that just serves to keep you invested in the story and the fate of it’s intensely fucked up characters. The atmosphere is dense and oppressive as a mausoleum, and even a place you expect to be bright and colorful is rendered brooding and dark under Jon’s pen, leaving you with a sense that even in the most mundane of situations, things are most definitely not fucking right. Something bad is lurking around every corner and no decision Stanley can make is the right one. And that, my friends, is exactly what Bassoff wants us to feel.

Like all of this author’s work, The Drive-Thru Crematorium is a dark, highly-intelligent yet intensely disturbing tale that is “this thing will fuck you up” level mean, not for the faint of heart or the weak of mind. Bassoff doesn’t do butterflies, unicorns, yellow-brick roads or happy endings, but if you’re here for darkness, come on in. There’s plenty of dark to go around here. Oh, and fire. There’s plenty of that, too.

Flesh for the fire, indeed. Bravo, Mr. Bassoff.

Purchase The Drive-Thru Crematorium

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