||[Aug. 26th, 2008|01:12 pm]
International Bon Vivant and Raconteur
(Full disclosure: Greg Lamberson is a good friend of mine -- we've gotten lost on Canadian road trips together more times than I can count -- and he's also my editor at FearZone.com. As always, I try to maintain objectivity when reviewing books written by people I know, and sometimes even judge them more harshly than books by strangers.)
Unless you've been living under a rock for the past year and a half, or don't have glamberson on your LJ friends list, you've no doubt been well aware of the promotional blitz leading up to the publication of Gregory Lamberson's second novel, Johnny Gruesome. And what a blitz it was! There was a ten-song CD, featuring music and lyrics by dean_italiano and gsguitar (with jack_yoniga on drums!), a music video (featuring two songs from the CD) that played at film festivals all over, a comic book, and collectible trading cards featuring Zach McCain's illustrations from the limited edition hardcover.
The only thing missing was a Don Post-like Halloween mask of the title character. Oh wait, no, there was one of those too.
But what about the novel itself? After so much anticipation, how does the entree stack up to all those delicious appetizers? Well, in order to understand the answer, you have to know one very important thing. Johnny Gruesome started life in the mid-1980s as a screenplay. After all, Lamberson is best known for his low-budget 1980s fright flicks like Slime City and Undying Love (a.k.a. New York Vampire). Unable to find funding for the movie, he backburnered it for nearly twenty years before turning it into the novel that is about to be released in trade paperback from Medallion.
Lamberson does a good job adapting his screenplay to novel form, fleshing out the characters in a way movies rarely can -- by getting deep into their heads. Unfortunately, he has the "this happens, then this happens, and then this happens" prose style of someone more used to writing screenplays, and it makes for some clunky passages. He also wanders into the floating POV that's prevalent in so many movies, suddenly turning close third-person scenes into omniscient ones by getting into two or more characters' heads simultaneously. That's certainly not a deal breaker -- omniscient can be done very well, such as in Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones -- but it is something I'm acutely aware of whenever it happens, probably because I'm a writer myself. The casual reader may not even notice or care.
Storywise, it's everything one might expect from a 1980s revenge-from-beyond-the-grave slasher flick, which is both the novel's strength and, for me at least, its shortcoming. I guess I wanted something a little deeper than an homage. But the tale of Johnny Grissom, a hard rockin' high school rebel who comes back from the dead to wreak vengeance on those who killed him, and deal with some enemies he had in life while he's at it, is certainly a fun one, and if it had been made into a movie back then it would undoubtedly be a cult classic today. After setting up the characters in the first half, including Eric, Johnny's one responsible friend and the protagonist of the novel, the second half is devoted to a series of "creative kills" as Johnny takes his revenge on a town that never much liked him. Some of the deaths are chilling and well done, such as that of wrestling team bully Todd, while a few felt pointlessly gratuitous: What Johnny does to the town priest who molested him as a child is ridiculous to the point of offensiveness. (Oddly, though the priest survives Johnny's attack, he's never seen or mentioned again.) Ultimately, for me, the novel sort of played out by the numbers, with nothing truly surprising happening (except, to Lamberson's credit, one kill that I definitely wasn't expecting).
So do I recommend Johnny Gruesome? Yes, if '80s slashers films hold a special place in your heart, as they do mine, to my frequent chagrin. For what it is, Johnny Gruesome is a fun, quick read. But like many '80s slashfests, I wouldn't advise going into it looking for more than that.
You should definitely buy the CD, though! That disc rocks hard!