Less Than Pulp, Issue 44
Bryan Smith Plays the Hits in Dead End House
I’m twenty-six, working for the uncle of the woman I hope to marry. My band has broken up three years prior after the suicide of my guitarist, and subsequent attempts to start another musical project have fallen through. I need a creative outlet because the noise in my head won’t stay quiet otherwise. Telling stories was always what I wanted to do. Even the songs I wrote formed a loose narrative when put together in the correct order. But I don’t want to work too closely with others. Losing a collaborator in such a dramatic fashion has fundamentally changed me. It’s something I’ll later write about in American Garbage, a book that reads like something between autofiction and horror-adjacent novella.
Without his music, my words painted an incomplete picture, but I remember that words can stand on their own in other mediums. I remember how when I started my creative journey, I planned to write books. Horror books, specifically.
King and Barker, Rice and Brite, Lovecraft and Masterson—these are some of my go-to authors as a reader, but what each of them has accomplished feels like something ethereal, something crafted from a magic I can’t begin to comprehend. Out of those six, Brite feels the closest to my sensibilities, books laced with references to Trent Reznor, the films of Lucio Fulci, and a fearless sensuality. Even so, Brite’s work at this point feels so outside of my capabilities—I haven’t yet learned that every writer has their own voice, their own things in which they specialize.
I go into a Borders one afternoon. It’s the only store near me that has a horror section. I learn about Leisure Books and something called the midlist. Out of all the Leisure titles I grab on subsequent trips to the store, there’s one book that stands out. It’s called The Killing Kind. Written by Bryan Smith, the novel is a tale of serial killers, the people who obsess over them, and those who become their victims. The book is equal parts mean-spirited and darkly humorous, fast-paced and written in a workman-like style that feels a lot more like someone telling me a story than something I’ve come to expect from Writers (capitalization intentional).
There’s also a death scene that sticks with me where a defiant victim tells one of the killers that she isn’t afraid to die because she believes in God. In a rare stroke of subtlety, Smith describes her eyes in her final moments, never outright saying that her spirit breaks, but still making it clear. It’s a haunting scene I never forget.
Flash-forward a few years, and I’ve got a novel on my hard drive called The Gory Girls. It’s more than a little inspired by Smith’s splatter movie irreverence, but because I’m still young, I’ve also tried to imbue it with the literary aspirations of Jack Ketchum’s The Lost. It’s my sincere hope to pitch it to Don D’Auria who is acquiring manuscripts for Leisure. Unfortunately, the book still needs a lot of work by the time Leisure goes under, so it goes in the 21st Century version of the trunk—the G Drive—where it remains unlikely to ever be unearthed.
In February of 2023, Bryan Smith published his latest novel.
My life is different now. Thirteen years after reading The Killing Kind, I usually save his work for the month of October. The energy in his novels and novellas seems appropriate for every horror fan’s favorite holiday, but Dead End House, with its blood-drenched hand-painted cover and the author’s updates during the process of its writing, make checking it out impossible to resist.
I’m obsessed with stories that appear to be set somewhere out of time. It’s part of my fascination with the concept of liminality and the whole Vaporwave Dad aesthetic I’ve cultivated over the past few years. Dead End House features a pair of true crime TikTok personalities, which would seem to place the story in the present. However, the approach to violence makes the text feel like something more at home in the torture porn era of the 2000s, a time when the likes of Rob Zombie, Eli Roth, and Alexander Aja showed filmgoing audiences just how far you could push the envelope when it comes to mutilating the human body. By further contrast, the story beats in Dead End House embody the cynical playfulness that made 1980s horror in books and film so compelling. Given this mishmash of elements, the book comes across as a scrambling of signals, each broadcast from different moments in time—and that’s a good thing.
Dead End House features some jarring plot twists. I won’t spoil them here, but they give the impression of a book taking shape in the moment, as it’s being written. This may be off-putting to some who prefer that MFA-style, refined approach. I find the twists entertaining; they make the book feel more like a living thing. If one thinks of the writing of a novel as the author interpreting a transmission (be it from their subconscious or some spiritual ether), such an approach to plotting simply means the transmission changed or, perhaps, became clearer.
Dead End House is classic Bryan Smith. By that, I don’t mean it’s a return to form. This would imply his career had a fallow period when nothing can be further from the truth.
There’s a concern among readers and writers that an author going full-time often leads to a drop in quality due to deadlines and a need to stay relevant in the ever-growing cluster of content. This is not the case for Smith, who seems to have only come to a deeper understanding of what makes his books so enjoyable. He almost makes it look easy—as true magicians do. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned in the decade plus I’ve been writing for publication, it’s that writing an “easy read” is anything but easy. We writers tend to get in our own way, struggling to write the sorts of lines that get highlighted by readers on their Kindles, all the while forgetting what makes a book special. Smith doesn’t seem to have these concerns. He understands the importance of invisible writing when immersing your reader into a story or a particular vibe.
When I say Dead End House is classic Bryan Smith, I mean that it’s the work of an author who knows what he does well and commits to exploiting those talents to the highest degree. It’s a downright vile read at times, especially throughout its second act, but it’s a confident, crowd-pleasing text, and it's cool to see authors who inspired me in the beginning still going strong.
After Terror Firmer, it seems Lloyd Kaufman and company aimed to up the ante in the offensive content department with Citizen Toxie, the final film in the Toxic Avenger franchise. Did they succeed? Jeff and I try to get to the bottom of it in the newest episode of Make Your Own Damn Podcast. You can check it out here or by clicking the video below.
That will do it for this week. Thanks to all my subscribers, old and new. As always…