The Odd and the Dead by Jody Smith

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

Remember when books were gross and fun as hell? Like, those beat-era paperbacks that Charles Keating got mad about, and presumably also hard as a bar of steel? Remember rewinding Day of the Dead so you could watch Joe Pilato get turned into string cheese a second time? Jody Smith remembers. The Odd and the Dead is a being-covered-in-tiny-wet-bugs simulator, and horror anthology.

I’ll take a deep dive into one story, The Boyfriend, but they’re pretty much all in the same vein. Our protagonist, Justice, lives in a vaguely defined postapocalyptic Buffalo. The original draft of this review had a series of jokes about how one might distinguish postapocalyptic Buffalo from regular Buffalo, but in light of recent events I think I’ll just link to this food bank that serves the Kingsley neighborhood and others. Now that we’re all miserable, that’s actually the perfect mood for reading this story. Jody Smith paints a disgusting picture on a dirty canvas with bear bile. And the picture is a butthole. Justice works a five-to-nine at Globodyne or whatever Fafkanopticon passes for an employer in this future dystopia, where she is constantly pressured to find a mate so she can advance in a society trying to shore up its population. Around her, gaunt survivors shamble down the ruined streets of Buffalo, riddled with disease and with no hope for a better life. God, how am I supposed to not make fun of modern day Buffalo? It’s right there! I guess I could tell you about Homespace instead, a charity that helps young women in Buffalo forge a better life for themselves and their children. One day, Justice learns that she is up for a promotion, but it’s not right for a manager to be single. She makes up a hasty lie about a Canadian boyfriend, and proceeds to stress and fail her way through the sitcom plot of trying to find a male who doesn’t suck to rope into her scheme.

The defining feature of this story is that Jody Smith hates your lunch. Jody Smith doesn’t think you and your lunch should be friends anymore, and intends to do something about it. The Buffalo of the future is full of danger and disease, and people die in ways that are at once quick and ridiculously graphic. Smith types out loving descriptions of human bodies bursting like time lapse footage of fruit on a hot day, and you can hear the squelch of the author’s clammy tentacles on the keyboard. Jody Smith loves this shit. Oh, speaking of, every sort of bodily discharge is involved as well. Normally I would include that to say “do not read this book,” because even I, give-me-every-dubcon-shibari-tickling-you-have Madeline, have standards. A list of my least favorite things would begin with private dog parks, the State of Indiana, and bodily functions in books. But the visceral body horror is purposeful, and believe it or not builds up to the final twist. Somehow all the ooze and slime really makes you feel like you inhabit the body of the protagonist, makes you feel like you’re in a miserable, inescapable hellscape, also known as every day in Buff- God damnit! OK, look, PUSH Buffalo is an organization working to end the lack of affordable housing, one of the main engines of inequality in the Buffalo area.

If you’re anything like me, you live your life like it’s a mission to ruin the recommendations algorithm for all the friends and loved ones you’re stealing streaming passwords from. Your girl will never say no to a sci-fi horror offering, be it a tongue-in-cheek slasher in space like Alien, or that one where Elizabeth Moss runs from a gaslighting CGI shimmer for two hours. It’s such a natural combination for a pessimist like me: speculation about the future and scaring the hell out of myself. But sometimes I’m not fully on board with what authors think will make their stories scary.

There’s a theme running throughout science fiction that it would blow a person’s mind to realize how insignificant they are compared to the crushing enormity of the universe. In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (admittedly not a horror story) this is made overt: grasping the scale of the universe and oneself in relation to it drives people insane. I’ve always wondered what kind of sociopath would have this reaction. Who thinks that they are important? Who is surprised to learn how paltry they are in the grand scheme of things? Every time I read scenes like this it makes me want to give the tears in the rain speech about all the bullshit going on in the part of my brain where I’m apparently supposed to store my feelings of enduring specialness.

Similarly baffling is the Lovecraft truism that “the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Like, literally what? My internal demons and I laugh over salad about how stupid this idea is. What’s scary is all the stuff that’s chasing me of my own creation, the stuff I know every contour of. What’s scary is that any of those voices in my mind might be right about me. Bleeding Christ, give me the unknown! Give me whatever bashful, Disney-eyed beast slouches toward the Bethlehem of your untroubled mind, Howard Phillips. Swapsies, no backsies. Jody Smith gets it. The Boyfriend draws all of its creep factor from what the protagonist knows that no one else does.

I usually avoid short story and poetry collections, because I’m worried I won’t have enough to say, and I can’t let my readership the size of a middle-class Protestant family down. But maybe I should rethink that, because it’s been a while since I enjoyed something this much (and the last anthology I read wasn’t bad, either). Is it revolting? Is it scary? Does it make you clench every time you turn a page? Do I need to examine why I giggle at descriptions of people’s skin being sloughed off their bodies while a bus driver clicks his tongue at the mess? Yes on all counts. If you’re looking for something disturbing, you could do a lot worse than The Odd and the Dead. It’s one dollar on Kindle.

Ask me how I know Lovecraft never met a clown.

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