Books

{Book Review} The Absurd, Horrific Tragicomedy of TERROR MANNEQUIN

I don’t really remember where or how I first encountered Terror Mannequin—or, as the book itself styles it throughout, TERROR MANNEQUIN—the seemingly self-published tale from absurdist author Douglas Hackle.

What I do remember is that, before the author sent me a copy for review, he warned me that it was “more of a bizarro horror-comedy than a conventionally creepy tale,” which is a good warning for me to pass along to readers.

I am someone who has glanced off the periphery of the bizarro fiction scene more than once. I know many practitioners who are fine folks and good writers, and I’ve loved several books put out by bizarro imprints, but the form isn’t one that I’ve ever really dabbled in, and it isn’t one that’s as likely to speak to my sensibilities as a reader, compared to a more traditional weird or gothic tale.

(If you’re not already familiar with bizarro fiction, it’s good to be forewarned. At least google the term. You’ll want to have some idea of what you’re in for.)

But the author also told me that Terror Mannequin was “partly infused” with his love of Tourist Trap, Thomas Ligotti, and “all things ‘uncanny valley.’” So I took the plunge, based partly on the fact that I love stories about creepy puppets and simulacra, and partly, let’s be honest, on the strength of that eerie yet absurd cover art by Hauke Vagt.

In case you’re wondering, yes, that cover art is a direct depiction of the eponymous TERROR MANNEQUIN of the story—or, rather, sort of. To say more would be to delve into spoilers. So instead, I’ll say that “eerie yet absurd” is a good description of Terror Mannequin at its best.

This means that you’ll encounter sentences like, “He now realized he was witnessing the organic movements of a single entity, the mannequin functioning as the center of will and intelligence, passing its commands down a chain of malevolent ventriloquy.” It also means that sometimes characters will die because their heart spontaneously turned into a Totino’s pizza roll, while their brains turned to maggoty dog shit.

And that’s all within the prologue. To say that Terror Mannequin is a comedy would be to downplay the nihilistic tragedy of it all. To call it a satire of office culture—and Thomas Ligotti’s weird tales of same—is to minimize the often-gruesome horror at play. Yet it’s all of those things, and none of them—that’s a bizarro book, in a nutshell. There’s a reason the genre kind of sits off in its own awkward corner, scribbling in the margins and muttering to itself.

Terror Mannequin is a novel in which a famous Frank Lloyd Wright house is home to an unstoppable monster and a Halloween tradition. A novel in which two of the main characters are a diminutive version of the figure from Edvard Munch’s The Scream who is simultaneously two years old and countless years old and an amorphous living skin called The Membrane.

A novel in which a character is forced to legally change his name to “My Tiny Little Weak Bitch,” and in which supernatural powers force a couple’s skeletons to tear themselves from their bodies and dance a bloody waltz on the lawn.

It is deeply satirical—poking fun at society and at itself. Early on, we meet the character who would, in a more typical novel, be the protagonist’s shoehorned-in love interest. “Like all women in the world,” the omniscient narrator informs us, “Amanda was more or less constantly aware of her breasts.”

It’s a joke, of course. A gag on how male writers so often write female characters. And if it wasn’t obvious that it was a gag, it drives the point home with all the subtlety of a jackhammer in the following sentences.

“And should my knowledge of female anatomy and sexual awareness and stuff like that not be perfectly accurate,” the narrator concludes in a parenthetical, “man, I dunno—just deal with it, I guess.”

There’s also a lot of salty language in this book—sometimes literally, as it spends an inordinate amount of time discussing Totino’s pizza products and chicken McNuggets.

Is it funny? Sometimes. It probably depends on your tastes and—perhaps more importantly—on your tolerances. Like many bizarro books I’ve encountered, literally everything in Terror Mannequin is like a shock jock radio host cranked way past 11. Nothing is over the top unless it is a hundred thousand miles over the top.

This is a world where the Taken series of films continued long after Liam Neeson’s death, after which they simply became a camera placed in his coffin, showing his decomposition in real time. A world where a character named Ma-He’s-Makin’-Eyes-At-Me has a giant, invisible monster for a mother who will tear you apart if you look at her for too long.

Nothing here happens in half measures. Everything is blood and shit and filth and absurdity. No one just dies; they come apart in ways that are almost abstract in their brutality. The motives of the characters are bizarre cartoons—that they sometimes illuminate the human condition anyway is maybe a happy accident, or maybe a scathing indictment of the human condition, after all.

Yet, for all that bizarro fiction is often not my thing—and Terror Mannequin is often no exception—there are moments that are genuinely brilliant. From the layered monster at the heart of the tale to the notion of “reverse trick-or-treating,” there are elements here that feel almost classical in their purity.

Would they have been right at home in a Ligotti story? No, not quite; they’re still too bizarro for that. But they’re close in ways that manage genuine sparks of the uncanny, even if there’s also a werewolf with sharks for arms, or a scene where a dude masturbates with spaghetti.

I guess when there’s a malevolent jack-in-the-box with a McNugget for a head on the cover of your book, you kind of get what you pay for.

Have your say