It’s fitting that the final story in Goblin, Josh Malerman’s collection of six interconnected novellas, features a maze – the collection is, at its core, a kind of labyrinth challenging the reader with many dark passages, foreboding corners, and shifts in direction.
All stories focus on the eccentric residents (both likable and unlikable) of Goblin, a fictitious Michigan town where people are buried standing up and where significantly more rain falls compared to surrounding towns. At many points, the collection is thrilling and hard to put down… especially in those scenes involving excursions into the forbidden North Woods, where a witch is rumoured to haunt.
The stories explore a lifelong friendship that gets challenged when one friend gets strange requests from a would-be lover, a secretive magician whose tricks appear a little too real, a historian who fears he’s going to be scared to death, an orgiastic party thrown by the city’s most prolific hunter, a zookeeper/slaughterhouse worker with some mental issues, and the widower builder of an elaborate maze. In each case, the characters want something desperately: a ticket, a body part, a mythical (or is it?) beast. Framing these stories is a tale of a driver delivering to a resident of Goblin a mysterious box with some detailed instructions.
The collection is a triumph of imagination that injects classic horror settings with a fresh voice and introduces terrors both supernatural and raw. Among the elements Malerman repeatedly references to create an eerie atmosphere are Goblin’s incessant rain and the Goblin police officers characterised by stilted speech, flexible arms, and putty-like skin.
“Happy Birthday, Hunter!” keeps the reader wondering how far renowned hunter Neal Nash will take the lavishness of his sixtieth birthday party, replete with drugs, sex and, most disturbingly, a meat smorgasbord – there’s even a meat cake – made of out his most recent canned hunt. How far, the reader wonders, will Malerman take the party’s profligacy? Guests are gluttonous and avaricious, but none of them more so than Nash, who has one last creature he hasn’t killed. The bacchanalian celebration leads to a drunken hunt that Malerman describes with exacting detail and heavy suspense.
In the last novella, “The Hedges”, a little girl overcomes one-in-seven-billion odds to complete the most popular tourist attraction in Goblin: the Hedges, a maze built by Wayne Sherman in devotion to his deceased wife Molly. Once she sees the prize, the identity of which Malerman withholds from the reader for a lengthy time, the girl goes to Goblin’s strange police. Thus begins a compelling story that bridges the girl’s situation and Sherman’s past.
In “A Man in Slices”, Charles engages in strange behaviours in front of his only friend Richard, then a woman’s extreme requests take Charles’s peculiarity to the next level. This story dips into Goblin’s history, including the conflicts between its indigenous inhabitants and its first settlers, called the Original Sixty.
“Presto” introduces magic aficionado and middle schooler Pete, who discovers his idol, the enigmatic Roman Emperor, is coming to town to do a show. Pete wants more than anything to get a ticket to the midnight event. Emperor is closed-mouthed and not cooperative with other members of the magic community. A profile in Magic Monthly reveals the mysterious nature of Pete’s hero when it compares him to a leading magician. Whereas the latter has a long list of awards, Emperor has none. And he leaves blank the fields for origin and hobbies. Emperor embodies the artist who focuses solely on his art… even if improving it means engaging in nefarious behaviours.
Occasionally, one comes across a passage in a book that delivers an emotional wallop. “Presto” conjures one such reaction, not in the form of magic but rather through a chess game between a father and his son and the implication of acceptance it imparts.
“Kamp” enables Malerman to dump information about Goblin’s dubious history and its connection to Native Americans through the viewpoint of fraidy-cat historian Walter Kamp. He’s so terrified a ghost is going to scare him that he renovates his apartment to ensure he can see all the way across it and there are no places for would-be apparitions to hide and pop out. Alas, Kamp must always contend with the corners of his mind. Though this tale was not as compelling as others, Malerman invites the reader to see what’s under the bed, to hover over what could be a horror cliché.
“A Mix-Up at the Zoo” reveals the darkness swelling within Dirk Rogers as he continues to experience the “indefatigable horrors” of the two Goblin institutions at which he works: the zoo and the slaughterhouse. Malerman, ostensibly attempting to compensate for the protagonist’s lack of introspection, uses dream/hallucination sequences to depict his unravelling. Alas, it’s difficult to portray the thoughts of a troubled character without going overboard. My attention waned.
Most of the scenarios that play out in Goblin are not new, yet Malerman manages to keep the reader under his spell. Take, for instance, the mystery package delivery story that bookends the collection. Not so innovative. But the author repeatedly brings up the rules (e.g. the package should only be delivered between midnight and 12:30, ignore any sounds coming from it) and details the everyman driver’s anxiety-provoking experience to create a gripping story – that box becomes an embodiment of the sinister and enigmatic stories that Malerman delivers to the reader, and by the time Goblin ends, that reader will feel a sense of triumph but also a sense of dread. What a strange combination.—Douglas J. Ogurek ****