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Book Review: Guignol and Other Sardonic Tales by Orrin Grey-Old School Horror with New School Sheen

In the multi-faceted world of horror, it seems lately that the genre’s progression has settled into a rhythm pocket of shared influences. This isn’t so much a criticism of the genre (because honestly, horror right now is better than it has been in years) as it is an observation. Weird influence has become the norm, names like T.E.D. Klein, Laird Barron, Thomas Ligotti, and Ramsey Campbell are oft cited. Haunted houses and gruesome ghouls have given way to increasingly more heady concoctions. For the first time in a long time, horror is saturated with serious attempts at making literary genre fiction.

So, where does that leave a guy like Orrin Grey?

Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales is Grey’s latest collection and doesn’t fit neatly into the genre’s state of affairs. That’s not to say Grey is un-literary or somehow less talented than his kin, only that he is aiming for something altogether different, and in doing so, is hitting a rather refreshing bullseye. Guignol is fourteen stories of “fun horror.” Think Tales From the CryptTwilight Zone, Hammer Horror, sci-fi monster flicks from the 50s. Orrin Grey takes the joy of macabre discovery, the energy and excitement of late nights and silver screens, and uses it as the seed to his fiction. In his stories, there is horror, but there is also the wide-eyed wonder of our inner child.

“Dream House” begins the collection, an excellent story about a mysterious episode of an old, grudgingly appreciated television series. It’s a classic setup that makes me wonder if this is what horror looks like as it slowly accepts the fact that creepypasta is here to stay. “Dream House” is a lot more sophisticated than any creepypasta of course, and a lot creepier too. His characters are drawn in short, realistic brush strokes—enough to know as real, but quickly and deftly. Grey’s greatest hallmark is his relative speed in getting his stories off the ground and hurtling toward their conclusions.

Keeping with his vibe of grotesque, Corman-esque horror, Grey uses a variety of settings to evoke his atmosphere. In “Shadders,” we follow London chimney sweeps and their dreary and deadly day-to-day lives—culminating in an encounter with a bat-like monster that lives in the shadows. Surprisingly, what begins as a pulpy romp ends with a sense of profundity. It’s a story of progress and poverty, intertwined with the rise of industry—the sort of ending that adds immeasurable weight to the monsters within. In “Invaders of Gla’aki,” Grey paints a picture of the 1990s, a time that for many readers represents their youth. Here, spent in the welcoming glow of arcade game machines. “Invaders of Gla’aki” is an indisputable highlight of the collection (and another possible repurposing of a creepypasta trope into the world of more authorly horror), following a sinister game that complicates a youthful friendship. Both are depicted in vivid details, but it’s the latter story that breaks the reader’s heart.

Through Grey’s sense of guignol fun, there is also ambition. Which is why I don’t want to totally partition him off from the literary herd. His compass just takes him in a different direction. “A Circle That Ever Returneth In,” a great title cribbed from Poe’s “The Conqueror Worm,” is a wildly cool sword and sandal-horror hybrid told as a choose your own adventure. It offers a rare reading experience, one most of us haven’t encountered since our respective youth. This, to me, is what Guignol is about—that rediscovery of the wonder inherent in fear. “A Circle That Ever Returneth In” is a clever, tone-setting, throwback that highlights Grey’s unique approach to horror, as well as the ease in which he steps outside the box.

Guignol is a fitting love letter to a time and place we all inevitably have to leave—marked by dress up and plastic fangs; blanket forts and monster movies. It was all real, and it was all amazing. No other story captures the feeling of being a monster-enamored kid more than “Baron von Werewolf Presents: Frankenstein Against the Phantom Planet.” The story concerns an airing of a never before seen monster movie, made by a protege of Willis O’Brien, unseen for unknowable reasons. Grey peppers in movie lore throughout Guignol (a charming hallmark for anyone who grew up on those orange Ian Thorne Monsters books), but it’s here that it feels the most fundamental to the plot. In “Baron von Werewolf…,” these details build the world that propel the mystery, the kind that makes the kid in all of us salivate freely. Nostalgia aside, Grey doesn’t pull his punches. These are still horror stories, after all. In the end, it subverts that same wonder into an unsettling rite of passage—taking us from Saturday mornings to the loss of innocence.

Orrin Grey has his own voice, and he has the skills to execute that unique vision. His characters never feel perfunctory, and often, they inhabit a kind of lived-in sorrow. For a collection of fun, Halloween-ready horror stories, Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales has a surprisingly human center, made all the more poignant by the horrors encountered. While the stories themselves are deeply indebted to the greats, they are also inventive and well told in their own right. Orrin Grey looks toward the past with a transformative eye, sublimating an encyclopedic knowledge of monsters—spanning book and film—into self-expression. Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales isn’t just a reminder of where we are in the genre, it’s a reminder of how we got there.  It is scheduled for release October 2nd.  Preorder now.