OCTOBER 29, 2020
UNBEKNOWNST TO THE general reading public, something has been growing for two decades under their radar. Originally birthed in Oregon, its tentacles now worm their way through every state and even burrow their way into minds beyond our country. All this time it has been infecting those it comes in contact with, dazzling them with its sadistic array before settling deep into their subconscious. Any efforts to eradicate it are now too late. The organism has taken root inside us, where it has flourished and fed upon our curiosity. It doesn’t care about our rules, our morality, or even our criticism — it cannot be stopped. It knows change is a constant and it will devour those who try to deny it. What I’m talking about is the genre called “bizarro fiction,” which has given us the first of its horrific fruits to contaminate the mainstream — The Loop, a new thriller novel written by the abominable appendage that calls itself Jeremy Robert Johnson.
All kidding aside, Jeremy Robert Johnson is a fantastic new voice in mainstream fiction, but to understand him, you must investigate the scene where he has already been a well-known pillar for over a decade. Bizarro fiction is difficult to define, particularly for those unfamiliar with the genre. It’s a subdivision within a subdivision, where horror, fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, and grindhouse seem to mix and interchange unimpeded. It’s probably best to refer to a description from fellow bizarro author Gabino Iglesias in his Litreactor article, “The Little Genre that Could”:
In bizarro, there are no rules. If you can think it, it can go on the page, and no one will tell you it’s out of place. […] Some genres allow authors to stretch boundaries, but bizarro allows writers to take them all outside and chop their little heads off before making a delicious stew with their eyeballs. If you’re looking for a revolution, come to bizarro.
Along with many others, Jeremy Robert Johnson is a defining name within the genre. His work is most aptly described as a mixture of all these things — thrillers that become bloodbaths, horrors that blend into fantasies, and apocalypses that transcend into high art.
Looking back on Johnson’s releases, the titles alone evoke the same kind of visual mania as his prose. Angel Dust Apocalypse (2005) and Extinction Journals (2006) are both well-known early examples of his work, both highly sought out since the demise of their publisher. In many ways, they are the biological predecessors of The Loop, chock full of nuclear zombies, drug overdoses on insectoid fluids, and boiler-room gore freak-outs transforming into religious experiences. I was introduced to Johnson by Skullcrack City (2015), a pulse-pounding noir story where the hapless protagonist must navigate a mystery in a world populated with brain-eating mutants, mad scientists, and drug-addled cults that could destroy reality. I’d never read anything like it — each page was like a Raymond Chandler novel had been stabbed with a hypodermic needle of adrenaline laced with LSD. I still consider it one of my favorite books.
The year 2017 saw the release of Johnson’s short story collection Entropy in Bloom (Night Shade), a collection I described in another review as crackling with “dirty electricity,” a term used in the book for a particular kind of high, but also perfectly describing Johnson’s focus on the democratic nature of chaos in the world. Many of Johnson’s stories integrate the everyday horrors we already face — drug addiction, heinous crime, extreme poverty, racial inequality, and corruption of the wealthy. He takes stories of our awful species and interlaces them with his particular brand of unimaginable hyper-gore. The truly ironic part is that the antagonists of these stories — the rapist, the corrupt cop, the bigot — often get the deserved comeuppance that they don’t get in the real world, often to spectacularly gruesome effect. Speaking of gruesome, one of the stand-out stories of this collection, “When Susurrus Stirs,” gained so much buzz that a short movie based on it was created by the media company ALTER. I could try to describe what the story is about, but pretty much any detail would give it away, not to mention ruin the particularly shocking ending. You’ll have to read (or watch) it for yourself.
The Loop takes place in modern-day western Oregon, in a small town called Turner Falls where all the teenagers dream of leaving. One of these teens in Lucy, who along with her friend Bucket, survives and tolerates the town’s residents. As Lucy is an adoptee from Peru and Bucket is from the only Pakistani family in town, both of them gravitate toward each other and have difficulty mingling with their very white and socially divided classmates. Things aren’t made any easier when one day in class, a boy they hardly know starts gouging out people’s eyes and kills their teacher with his bare hands. It is a saddening comparison to draw between the ultraviolence of this incident and the real violence that entire generations now experience with school shootings in the United States, where selfish adults have forced the most vulnerable populations to treat impossible trauma as normal life. Even when her well-meaning adopted parents seek to help her deal with this experience, they could never understand how she feels, as Johnson captures so well:
Lucy wanted to say the right things to them, the true things that would let them breathe, and she imagined herself saying, I love you and I will always love you for saving me, even if I don’t feel safe right now. But two boys and a teacher have died in the last two weeks and I saw something I can’t explain and it’s a nightmare I can’t escape, and I’m terribly scared and I need you now. And then she knew she would cry, in that way that left her shaking and far too open, and they would come to her and hold her and be grateful for the chance to love her back.
This is, unfortunately, only the beginning of Lucy and Bucket’s problems. Speculation flies connecting missing children and unsolved murders in Turner Falls to a local biotech company called IMTECH. Between excerpts from a podcast called the “Nightwatchman” and the company’s own cryptic claims, one can already hear the drum beats of strangeness starting to build on the horizon. Despite these hints, both the town and the reader are unprepared for the true extent of the monstrous apocalypse about to rain down from on high. Lucy and Bucket’s concerns are much more immediate, seeking out their friend Brewer to drive them to party in some nearby caves to blow off some steam. While Brewer chases an eighth of mushrooms with a bag of Skittles, they head off to a series of events that will change their lives — and the town — forever.
What follows is a chaotic gore-fest, reminiscent of the Evil Dead movies, where Lucy and her friends must fight their former classmates — now infected with something beyond their understanding — to survive. At times, the violence becomes so extreme it borders on cartoonish, which is exactly the kind of detail that makes Johnson’s writing so visually rich and unique. Again, much of the description of the plot would give it away, and The Loop is the kind of book that is best enjoyed when unprepared for the weirdness within. Suffice to say, Johnson pulls many plausible ideas from the headlines to incorporate into the plot. For example, the studies that claim that octopuses may have extraterrestrial origins, the dangers of medical devices becoming part of the “internet of things,” and the callous nature of monolithic corporations that put their own goals over human lives and safety.
In my opinion, Johnson’s greatest gift is not his ability to imagine the worst things and present them in pulsing Technicolor — it is the human connection he makes with his characters. Lucy, as the narrator, has already lived through horrific trauma and is forced to hide it every day. Hers is a narrative like many others that are often steamrolled in favor of the white and wealthy, and any attempts of the world around her to acknowledge it can only amount to tokenism. More so, the world reinforces her fear that any true feelings she has would only be met with misunderstanding and condescension: “So when the Hendersons pushed her to ‘embrace her heritage,’ she felt they didn’t understand — her heritage was a dangerous feeling in her heart that she did her best to reduce to a permanent ache, and she feared that if she embraced it she might burn to death.”
With this in mind, Lucy’s character development will have the reader standing up in their seat when, in the midst of her reality shattering, she acknowledges the elephant in the room:
“No.” Lucy put a hand on Bucket’s shoulder. “You don’t have to calm down. That would be insane. I think we’ve been calm too long. That’s what I’m trying to say. We’re not going to be calm any longer. We’re going to fight this. We’re going to show these motherfuckers the truth.”
It’s an assertion that is timelier than ever, one we are already starting to see versions of echo across the entire world. In that vein, I have seen many comparisons between The Loop and Stranger Things or The Walking Dead, which I don’t consider to be very appropriate. Both of these shows feature small-town people fighting monsters, but they show how humanity can survive in the aftermath of a disaster. In the world of The Loop — but hopefully not in ours — things are so far gone that the stakes lie on the blade of a razor. In other words, unless Lucy and her friends can succeed, there will be no going back.
The Loop is very much the culmination of Johnson’s career thus far. It contains nearly all of the elements of the psychopathic high strangeness of his previous stories, but streamlined into a premium package. At its heart, I suppose The Loop could be categorized as a “Biotech Thriller.” However, none of the organs of this books are as they seem — they are mutated, pulsing, growing into something unrecognizable. There are many aspects of science-run-amok in the plot that are reminiscent of Michael Crichton’s writing, although thankfully not his page length. It is a gripping read, one that holds your attention from the very first chapter and won’t let go until the very end. Most readers — myself included — are reporting that they consumed The Loop in less than a few days. Like the best of Crichton or Benchley, it is a great beach read, but it is infused with the neon blood of a brave new writer with his finger on the racing pulse of our society and everything wrong with it. To me, it is some of Johnson’s best work, and a revelation that I think will catapult his immense talent into the public eye. Things are difficult for everyone right now, which goes without saying. But I challenge you to look at The Loop as a kind of literary roller coaster. It will take you to thrilling highs and terrifying lows, and when it’s over, the only thing on your mind will be the adrenaline high and the overwhelming desire to ride again.