I like it when I can’t predict a story. Actually, that’s not true. If I’m reading a piece of suburban erotica, ending it with, “And then a hellbeast ate them,” is unpredictable but also unsatisfying. I see a twist as a balancing act between it being a logical development in the story, and being so well foreshadowed that it loses any element of surprise.
Your reading experience of today’s story might be different. But for me, I felt like it kept me on my toes. Every couple of pages, when I thought I knew what the rest of the story would be, something different would happen instead. And, crucially, not only does all of this make perfect sense in retrospect, but Jones makes it look easy.
The protagonist is a high school dropout at twenty-two, the sort who’s estranged from his family but doesn’t want his little sister to follow in his descending footsteps. He has vague dreams of becoming a tattooist but has only been practicing on himself so far. His friend Dell is in a similar predicament, and it’s only with help from an uncle that he gets a job as a night-shift morgue attendant.
Before you get worried, no, this isn’t some necro-thing about to happen.
He invites the protagonist to join him, and while they’re surrounded by bodies waiting to be cremated he gets a great idea: practice tattooing on the bodies, take photos and build up a portfolio, and the proof will be incinerated after he’s done. This part of the story is full of gallows humour, a lighter-hearted second scene. I mean, Dell reveals he brought laser tag guns into the morgue, and they start using the gurney carts as cover. The protagonist plays around, like tattooing x’s over a corpse’s eyes, before drawing an exquisite lizard coiling on a particularly nice young woman’s chest. But before these kinds of jokes oustay their welcome it comes to an end:
[…] As it turned out, Dell’s uncle’s reference didn’t mean much when the boss man’s just-dead, honor-student, choir-singing, yoga-bunny neice he’d been saving for the morning to embalm personally turned up with an evil bug-eyed lizard of some kind trying to crawl up her side, its tongue reaching up to circle her nipple in the most lecherous fashion.
Some people got no sense of art, I mean.
Dell in particular.
And while Dell and he think life is going to return to normal, a low-key supernatural element enters the story and makes the plot go in a darkly humorous direction. Not that the characters see it as humorous, but it plays off the earlier part of the story so nicely I laughed out loud the first time I read it.
Welcome to the Reptile House by Stephen Graham Jones
Availability: print only, e-book coming soon
Word count: 3,000
First published: Strange Aeons #9, Spring 2012
Where to find it: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror: 2013 Edition, edited by Paula Guran, Prime Books (soon to be available as an e-book from Weightless Books)