The world of MP Johnson’s excellent short story collection is littered with the grotesque: inside-out humans playing nose flutes, chest cavities forming gateways to dimensions filled with intelligent caterpillars, zombified hardcore bands reuniting to play their rare tracks. I know it sounds obvious—or redundant, or both—to say that his work is full of twists, but bear with me.
Like the best purveyors of magical realism, MP Johnson is able to create an initial mood and tone with a few deft strokes. His writing is sometimes grounded in the present day, like the handful of stories populated by knuckle-tat punks past their prime, or drag queens struggling through multiple iterations of identity. Other times, his weird horror is front and center, as in the story titled I Summoned A Demon with a Vagina Mouth, the first scene of which is exactly what you’re envisioning. Regardless of the particularly story, I came to expect something weird and disgusting in each and was not disappointed. But the horrific elements in his work aren’t the terminus of storytelling. Each terror, each gross-out in Berzerkoids is load-bearing and there to further the story’s work rather than to serve as a centerpiece. Johnson loves the shock of each story, but he does stuff with the shock. In Through Time, Knuckles First, for example, a decaying alien head attaches itself to Geoff, the story’s protagonist. They travel into the future to save Geoff’s future daughter, who turns out to be his son in drag. From there, after settling into the initial weirdness, I was shocked (see?) to find not one, but two twists, both enhanced by the setup.
Stories full of zombies and aliens and vampires require a certain amount of splatter, and Johnson is more than happy to oblige, spraying guts’n’rot liberally across this collection, playing fast and loose with description and syntax. This too, is a choice. The Songwriter’s Fingers is the shortest story herein, and also the most intricately wrought. Its gleaming prose and poetic aftershocks seamless fit to any hoity-toity MFA program’s best. Similarly poetic and no less affecting is Feed My Corpse to Sharks, less a requisite gross-out than a straightforward meditation on the metaphysics of loss. Just when you think you have MP Johnson pinned down, in other words, he mixes it up again, to a staggering effect.
I’ve read all of Stephen King’s stuff and know Lovecraft a little bit, but beyond that I have no real stake in the horror business. Yet calling MP Johnson a horror writer is like calling Black Flag a hardcore band—it’s not so simple. MP Johnson’s work is disgusting and hilarious and unsettling and poetic and resonant and genre-bending and heavy and deft. And awesome. –Michael T. Fournier (Bizarro Pulp Press, bizarropulppress.com)