The Fragmented Horrors of the Goblin by Josh Malerman


Josh Malerman’s novel Leprechaun is captioned “A novel in six novels”, a definition that might well tip the overtly literal head in confusion. Goblin is also the city in which Leprechaun is set, and the six stories that make up the book – seven if you count a framing sequence – offer a sort of portrait of a city from a myriad of perspectives. (The captioning of the book “A Town in Six Novellas” would have been just as accurate.) Earthling Publications first published this book in 2017; now, with Malerman’s profile significantly higher following the film adaptation of his novel Bird box, he sees a wider release in a new edition.

The prospect of Malerman’s six short stories is inviting, especially since his novels to date have covered a wide range of horror subgenres. The back of this edition features a complimentary quote from Sarah Pinborough, who compares Malerman’s Goblin to Stephen King’s Derry. And while this is not inaccurate – King’s influence on a generation of writers is not small – there is another writer who comes to mind even more when reading these stories and the wide range of styles they cover. But more on that in a moment.

The framing sequence follows Tom, a veteran truck driver, who is tasked with transporting a mysterious box to an address in Goblin, a town in Michigan. Tom grew up there, and he knows the way well; even so, some things about the mission disturb him. The box he was asked to carry is much heavier than it should be, on the one hand. For another, he has a 30-minute window to deliver it; if no one receives it, Tom is supposed to destroy everything inside. You probably don’t need to ask whether or not the box will exhibit strange behavior, including the manifestation of annoying sounds, on Goblin’s path. Malerman plays with archetypes here, until the city this book centers around is literally called Leprechaun.

This book is more of a collection than a novel; each of the six short stories is stand-alone, although some elements come up through the stories, sometimes in unexpected ways. Stylistically, Malerman uses the six short stories to show different aspects of horror. “A Mix-Up at the Zoo” and “Kamp” both focus on characters whose grip on reality is unraveling, while the plot of “Happy Birthday, Hunter” centers on a drunken hunt for a group of mysterious and sinister owls – and includes a journey through the woods that may be haunted by a supernatural presence. Among the common motifs in the book is a hint of popular horror, as Goblin’s story includes land avoided by the local indigenous people before the white settlers arrived because of the horrors there – a riff on familiar genre tropes that never has enough room to breathe on its own.

The good thing about LeprechaunThe structure of is that it allows Malerman to work in a multitude of styles. The tricky part, however, is that some of this news doesn’t perform as well as others. Part of that may depend on your personal taste, of course. Yet the opener “A Man in Slices”, about the tense friendship of two men, is arguably the least effective of the works here. “It was clear to anyone who met him that Charles was something of a problem,” Malerman writes of one of the two men; the other, Richard, is his only friend. And slowly Charles reveals the story of a body-horrifying courtship display to his friend, but as we’re told from the get-go that something is wrong with Charles, it makes the end of the story disappointing rather than heartbreaking.

Goblin’s best moments come when Malerman taps into a weird Bradbury-style vein of nostalgia, then takes him to an unexpected place. “The Hedges” is about a lonely artist and the girl who solves his maze of hedges, and here Malerman perfectly juxtaposes the artist’s previous life story with a slow build to reveal what is hidden in its center. The way Malerman uses time and dialogue to create suspense is fantastic, but the way the city police factor in – no spoilers, but it’s decidedly scary – adds another dimension to the narrative.

“Presto” takes a similar approach, gradually creating a sense of anticipation over a performance by an acclaimed magician who bears the name of the Roman Emperor. At first, Malerman creates tension by having other characters – a boy named Pete and the owner of the local magic store – discuss him, then gradually focus on Roman himself. Again, this sense of youthful idolatry gives way to something much stranger; we learn how Roman became such a skilled wizard, and what it cost him, culminating in an image that is both menacing and beautifully eerie. Some of the best horror fictions are those that run on invisible, alien logic. In “Presto”, Malerman demonstrates his mastery of this technique.

While reading Leprechaun remind me of the works of Charles L. Grant, especially his novel The orchard. Here, too, Grant mixed styles and tones in a composite work centered around a geographic location. It’s an interesting structural choice either way, and a way for writers to show what they can do in a number of contexts. It is not surprising that during Leprechaun, Malerman refers to immersive magic shows, zoos and mazes, all of which by design take the person who lives them through very different experiences. Not everyone can click, from person to person, but the ambition is impressive in itself.

Leprechaun is available at Del Rey.

reel-stickerTobias Carroll is the editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn. He is the author of the collection of short stories Transient (Civil Coping Mechanisms) and the novel Reel (Books of rare birds).

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