Sunday, December 29, 2013

Bad Juju, by Randy Chandler

 Back in the old days, there used to be an online store, run by a wonderful guy named Matt Schwartz, named Shocklines. Shocklines specialized in small-press Horror novels, most of which were produced in signed-and-numbered limited editions. I stumbled upon Shocklines while I was looking for more from Richard Laymon, whose short story THE MAIDEN knocked my socks off. I discovered that, while there wasn't much mainstream work by Laymon, there was a whole world of small-press books out there, where he was considered one of the greats. Shocklines opened me up to a whole new world of collectibles, beautifully designed works of art published by Cemetery Dance, Subterranean Press, Necro, Bloodletting, Earthling, and many more. I probably spent enough money at Shocklines to buy a house, or a least put a really substantial downpayment on one. I bought so many books that I now have over 4000 still unread  in my study, nearly a decade after Matt closed Shocklines' virtual doors. There have been some real gems, but there have been more clunkers. Matt ran, and still runs, a Shocklines message board, which I used to practically live in. It was a tightly knit community of fans, Publishers, and Authors, and, much like Cheers, everybody knew your name. Book recommendations were tossed around, blurbs were given, money was spent....and after reading a handful of highly-touted duds, I realized that, since everyone was friends with everyone else, no one was willing to say when they didn't enjoy a book. (This is where I began to cultivate my reputation as a "Crabby Reviewer"...I called a spade a spade.) One of the most ballyhooed books on Shocklines was Randy Chandler's BAD JUJU. I bought it in 2003, and put in in "The Stack"...I later read Chandler's follow-up, HELLZ BELLZ, and was underwhelmed, so I was in no hurry to pick up BAD JUJU. Nearly a decade later, I've finally read Chandler's southern gothic epic.....the verdict?

 I should have read this a lot sooner.

 BAD JUJU was published by Hellbound Books, a wonderful little small press that is now sadly defunct. They specialized in these thick, brick-like little paperbacks that collectors loved. The pages were filled with small, tightly-spaced text, there were no page or chapter breaks, no wasted space at all...just the story. This novel, in particular, is massive. It runs 364 pages, but if it were published by a mainstream publisher, with lager type and breaks in between chapters, it could easily have been 650-700 pages. It's a huge, dense read, but infinitely rewarding to Horror fans.

 The first third of BAD JUJU is a hard-boiled hillbilly crime drama that most noir novelists would be green with envy over. Chandler introduces redneck crime czar Fate Porch, and his clan of violently inclined Sons. A couple of local boys run afoul of Fate's Son Odell, Odell ends up dead, and a violent game of retribution begins, which soon draws in Luke Chaney, a retired local Sheriff, who has been obsessed with putting Fate and his clan behind bars for years, and isn't going to let a little thing like retirement stop him. This back-woods noir was so damned good that I actually hoped there wouldn't be any supernatural element to this novel at all. I would have loved to see Chandler just keep going with The Porch Clan, who are easily some of the most compelling, fascinating fictional characters I've encountered in quite some time.

 The inevitable occult element does eventually appear, but Chandler manages to switch gears effortlessly, and doesn't miss a beat. To say too much about what happens next would reveal elements about how the first segment of the book resolves itself, and this is really a novel that needs to be discovered on it's own terms,  as free of spoilers as possible. I will say that Chandler treads thematic ground that will be familiar to readers of Stephen King's NEEDFUL THINGS, but he handles the destruction of a small town in a much more satisfying fashion.

 This is a book with an epic scope, almost a southern gothic kin to King's THE STAND, in tone, if not subject matter. the original paperback is long out of print and fetching high prices, but a digital edition is now available, and very affordable, and I highly recommend you give it a look. You won't be sorry.

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