Within Dirty Rotten Hippies and Other Stories, Bryan Smith’s second collection of short horror fiction, there is no hidden agenda, no profound commentary on the state of humanity, no literary acrobatics. Instead, the collection enables the reader to simply bask in engaging stories that, at their best, echo the clear and concise prose of Richard Laymon. Though these works are mostly populated by doomed, domestic beer-guzzling, blue-collar types who like rock ’n’ roll and lack ambition, make no mistake – Bryan Smith knows how to write.
Among the characters one encounters in this collection are hippie-torturing hillbillies, chainsaw-toting satanic cheerleaders, a serial killer aiming for work-life balance, and a crass, sexually aggressive date who is volatile to the extreme. Many of the storylines are ridiculous, but Smith’s clean, no-frills writing style escalates the entertainment quotient. Some characters awaken to find something strange inserted into their body or sitting on their lawn. Others get chased by or stumble upon predators.
Despite its too-long first scene with too much character indecisiveness, the opening novella “Dirty Rotten Hippies” rapidly shapes up to become a humour-infused apocalyptic nightmare in which a drug called Delight turns concertgoers into malodorous, purple-skinned zombies who go on a rampage. The story takes on more than zombies: a former LGBTQ activist and her gang of murderous hillbillies, a rock critic, and an older heavy metal singer named Kyle Bile who doesn’t even know his sixth wife’s name! Particularly inventive is the hippie trap the hillbillies use to lure an unsuspecting concertgoer into their hideaway.
“Some Crazy Fucking Shit That Happened One Day” is impressive for a story the author claims to have completed within twenty-four hours. Its loser protagonist gets into a pickle with a serial killer, Nazi zombies, and a bus full of chainsaw-wielding lesbian satanic cheerleaders. One such cheerleader even slaps him when he says the Lord’s name.
In “The Restless Corpse,” we quickly discover that the common man narrator – he refers to erectile dysfunction drugs as “boner pills” – has just inadvertently killed his wife and is concerned her corpse might become reanimated. Though the outcome isn’t surprising, following the narrator’s train of thought is humorous at times.
“Chainsaw Sex Maniacs from Mars” offers exactly what the cover promises. A woman decides to use an outhouse at a country bumpkin party. What happens from there unsubtly and comically merges the sci-fi and slasher subgenres.
“The Thing in the Woods” introduces four teenage hoodlums getting smashed on Budweiser and debating Van Halen’s latest album in a house under construction. When the cops chase the boys into the woods, the protagonist encounters something unexpected.
The protagonist in “A Slasher’s Dilemma” is a serial killer who’s been in the game for twenty years. As he waits in a bedroom closet for what could be his last hurrah (i.e., torturing and killing a babysitter and her boyfriend), the pressures of family responsibilities weigh on him.
In “Pilgrimage,” Jason, George, and Karla (on whom Jason has a crush) get off a Las Vegas tour bus when it stops in a parking lot in which punk rock legend Johnny Killgore of the Sick Motherfuckers killed himself. Things get trippy and nightmarish when the drunken guy on the back of the bus gets off the bus with them. Be prepared to travel back to a legendary concert and meet some infamous characters.
The couple in “We Are 138 Golden Elm,” one of my favourites, plans on doing something nefarious to another couple anticipating a kinky couples’ night. The would-be predators’ evening, however, takes a turn for the worse when they step into the eerily silent house.
“The Barrel” resembles a Black Mirror story. An alcoholic whose wife left him wakes to discover a barrel in his yard. The concept has intrigue built into it – we all want to know what’s in the barrel. The guy’s dog goes crazy while he delivers a series of crass DMs with someone on Twitter who claims the barrel is a gift. But all gifts come with a price, don’t they? Initially, I was concerned Smith was going to stretch the concept too much, but he reeled it in. This concept has been done before, but Smith proves it can be done again and done well.
In “Take a Walk,” a man who’s fed up with failed relationships, entertainment options, and life in general takes a walk at one in the morning. After a harrowing experience, he ends up with a new vocation, though not necessarily a good one.
The average Joe in “Date Night” is hoping for a good time (and maybe a little action) with an attractive woman he met at a cosplay convention. When he takes her to an Avengers movie, she turns out to be much more than he bargained for.
They say you’re not supposed to start a story with a character waking up, but in the case of “The Implant,” it works. The protagonist, who has had several DUIs, wakes up with something embedded in his neck. Must be aliens … or maybe not.
“Highway Stop” introduces a family on the way back from a vacation where everything went wrong. When the abusive husband goes into a gas station, his wife receives a frightful visitor while her children sleep in the backseat. The ensuing conversation reveals more about the husband. The wife’s lack of terror despite her visitor escalates the humour of the piece.
In “The Doll,” an overweight security guard freaks out when he discovers a doll on his table. By the end of the story, you will discover why the doll terrifies him.
“Bloodsucking Nuns for Satan” is about a man who decides to walk the long (and wrong) way home. Hint: if you’re walking down roads with names like Impaler Avenue, you might want to be vigilant. When the man investigates the female moaning coming from a nearby church, he finds something both arousing and threatening.
“South County Madman” involves a Vietnam veteran falsely accused of being the South County Madman and getting into a row with his accusers.
True to ’80s culture and B horror films, Smith keeps his stories light and his mostly male characters, who may not necessarily be good, dumb. They get into trouble and either die or come close to it. Even if Smith is sometimes covering topics that have been done a thousand times before, he finds a way to make them fresh and undeniably entertaining.—Douglas J. Ogurek****