{Book Review} The Half-Freaks by Nicole Cushing

Die-hard fans of Nicole Cushing have something to rejoice this year, not one but two new works for the Stoker Award winning author. The fans of Cushing here at Signal Horizon already have a review up for her simply incredible new book A Sick Grey LaughNicole’s novel length work from Worde Horde. While that novel is getting considerable buzz, there is another that just might be slipping under your radar. The Half-Freaks is from Grimscribe Press and is the first novel offering from the Jon Padgett owned press that publishes Vastarien: A Literary Journal. Vastarien is smart, dark, and always on the cutting edge of horror, so the partnership between Grimscribe Press and Nicole Cushing is a match made in heaven. Or that other place, depending on your perspective.

The Half-Freaks runs right about 90 pages, which puts it squarely in that literary no man’s land between a longer short story and a full blown novel. A novella, or a novelette or whatever you want to call it. It is notoriously though area to both write in and be published successfully in, but one where Cushing absolutely shines. The publishing industry and the reading public seem to be warming up the the idea of novella length works as of late, but that is a discussion for a different day. The Half-Freaks does not feel like a Half-Novel, in fact it feels like it is just the right length. Any longer and it might belabor its points and any shorter it just wouldn’t have the narrative room it needs.

There are many adjectives that have been bandied about to describe Nicole Cushing’s work, but none as often as “transgressive.” She owns it, after all she named her website Litggressive, and in The Half-Freaks she’s not letting up one bit. The story follows what may be the most unlikable character in recent memory: Harry Meyers. Harry is, well, a total train wreck. A middle aged “regular Joe, working man” who rarely works, lives with his mother, and seems to screw up everything he sets out to do. Harry could be the object of our pity, but our first encounter with him is a stream of consciousness diatribe about himself, politics (he don’t like ’em), sex (in the most vulgar fashion), with a bit of homophobia like a cherry on top of the crap sundae. No, we aren’t supposed to like him. We could laugh at him, in fact sometimes we do as Cushing’s dark humor is in full force here. Yet, he isn’t just a jester in Cushing’s court. Instead, and this is the real magic of the author showing through, we are asked only to view him humanely. While he is completely detestable, he is also broken person in a broken world, and in the end aren’t we all?

Cushing is known for using transgressive elements in her fiction, but another technique that will definitely jump out to new and old readers alike is the blatant, in your face breaking of the fourth wall right from the first page. Nicole Cushing is the author, narrator, character in, and demiurge of this short and strange novel. Something similar could be going on in A Sick Grey Laugh where the main character is an author of dark, transgressive horror by the name of “Noelle Cashman.” I haven’t read A Sick Grey Laugh yet, but after reading The Half-Freaks it is at the very top of my very large to-be-read pile for this reason alone. Here, the use of the “author as character” works in a way that I have never seen pulled off before. It works and it keeps working– I find myself thinking about this particular story long after.

Writing yourself into your own novel is a kind of high literary post-modernism and is typically used to deconstruct and draw attention to the nature of the creative effort itself. Horror as a genre is full of stories that feature horror writers main characters, partly because horror always likes to deconstruct itself and partly too because of the old mantra “write what you know.” It is a technique that draws attention to the fact that this is, in the end, just a story. From there, authors all all stripes have used it as a springboard to explore things like the relationship between authors and both their creations and their readers. Unfortunately, it can often come off as power-trippy and self-indulgent. It also often leads to a narrative detachment where it is difficult for readers to ultimately engage with the work.

This, fellow horror readers, is exactly what Cushing avoids and I can’t for the life of me figure out how.

If I had to venture a guess, and after all you can’t host a weekly podcast deconstructing the horror genre without making wild guesses left and right, it would be that Cushing is infusing these techniques and themes (trangress, author self-insertion, the surreal, and the absurd) with a deep and real sincerity that narratives of late often lack. “The Truth, as Told by a Bottle of Liquid Morphine” is a candid and heartbreaking look into poverty and the end of life. Yes, the narrator is in fact a bottle of morphine. The ending to I Am The New God is both bonkers and surreal, yet it pins down some of the problems we have as a society in very real and completely unexpected way. Mr. Suicide takes a horrific deconstruction of the human experience to its logical conclusion and then tries to make some kind of sense from there. There is a deep sincerity, a commitment to human dignity and lived experience that exists in all these works earlier works by Cushing that continues to bear fruit in The Half-Freaks. By laying her own soul to bare as both narrator and character, Cushing takes a technique that usually feels distant and unreal and makes it real.

To that end, The Half-Freaks is both terrifying and surreal, yet Cushing finds a way to create some meaning and maybe even hope out of the fully broken world of The Half-Freaks. She doesn’t conjure it up out of thin air or find it in the normal places we usually find it expressed in horror, but it is there all the same. Hidden and waiting to be expressed by her deft pen. An author can be transgressive and terrifying, yet sincere and humane at the same time. This novel proves it.

There are plenty of places to go to find good horror, and even fewer to find great horror. If you are looking to go beyond that and find horror that is pushing the boundaries of not only what horror is but what it can do, the venues become even slimmer still. It likely won’t be coming from one of the big 5 publishing houses. You won’t find it at the book store next to your departure gate and it probably won’t be written by a guy that has a mansion in Maine. To find it, I had to go to a press owned by a former ventriloquist and an author who lives in post-industrial Indiana. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Half-Freaks is out November 13th, 2019. Limited edition copies are already sold out, but you can pre-order your trade paperback or eBook copies from Grimscribe Press here.

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