By SHAWN MACOMBER
Somewhere out on the Soul Road, hauling a truckload of damned souls, Deke Larch stops into the Rise & Shine Diner. He’s on the hunt for an oracle who may be able to divine the identity of the killer who not long ago sliced his way into an abode parked in the last row of the Morning Glory Trailer Park, and left Deke’s beloved wife Lucille in a pond of her own blood.
This establishment, however, is not your typical greasy spoon:
The string of bells tied to the door clanged when he entered. Deke frowned a little at their loudness but walked to the counter and hopped onto one of the waiting stools. He cased the joint and his brow furrowed. There was no one here. Not a soul besides him and the two waitresses. They paid him little mind as they scuttled back and forth from the kitchen with trays of food, steaming orders that disappeared as soon as they sat them on tables. The women smiled and talked to no one and went on as though this was normal.
When Deke finally does find his seer—a suds-festooned dishwasher boasting a T-shirt emblazoned with an image of gas-mask-clad Santa Claus, no less—the man officiates over a shotgun marriage of the matter-of-fact and the fantastique in his explanation of the nature of this beguiling, otherworldly way station:
“We’re in the wrinkle, Brother.”
“So it isn’t real?” Deke asks. “The food and all is a trick?”
“Fuck no! There is no chicanery when it comes to Ralph’s cheese steaks or Tommy’s fried bologna sandwiches. Bite your tongue.”
This scene is not merely an indicator of how gobstoppingly great and weirdly transcendent John Boden’s salt-of-the-earth supernatural noir SPUNGUNION is—though as a slice of a novel that improbably bridges the divides between Ray Bradbury, Elmore Leonard, Cormac McCarthy and Joe Hill, it should certainly help get that job done. The Rise & Shine Diner also, in fact, serves as a pretty damn good approximation of the amazing tear its visionary author has been on the last few years: Eclectic and ghostly, but also homey, satiating and delectable.
From the gorgeously rendered, elegiac coming-of-age tale JEDI SUMMER WITH THE MAGNETIC KID (2016) to the monster-strewn weird Western WALK THE DARKNESS DOWN (2019) to the lyrical rural neo-folk horror of OUT BEHIND THE BARN (2018, with Chad Lutzke) to the wild crime thriller RATTLESNAKE KISSES (2019, with Robert Ford) to the through-the-looking-glass love story DETRITUS IN LOVE (2016, with Mercedes M. Yardley), it seems there is no sub-subgenre upon which Boden cannot make a major mark as he serves up one unique dish of literary soul food after another.
Are fans of dark fiction living in a John Boden moment? A chorus of legends certainly seem to believe so…
“I love Johnny,” says John Skipp, the legendary splatterpunk pioneer who also picked up SPUNGUNION for his fabulous boutique imprint Fungasm. “He’s got a great weird brain full of singular visions, a great big heart and a beautiful soul. And all his compassion, his kindness and sorrow, his genuine strangeness and authentic down-to-earth-ness pours directly into the work. He’s an honest creative, in it for all the right reasons. And I’m so glad his no-bullshit blue-collar nightmares are getting the notice they deserve, ’cause he’s really good. It’s a pleasure to know him, work with him and be his friend.”
“The first thing that impressed me about John—and the thing that continues to impress me—is the earnestness in his writing,” adds Brian Keene, the Bram Stoker-winning World Horror Grandmaster and author of highly influential new classics such as THE RISING, EARTHWORM GODS and CASTAWAYS. “You used to see that with the best of the Splatterpunks. It’s why Joe R. Lansdale, Skipp and Spector and David J. Schow still have an impact today. There was an honesty to their work that elevated it above genre expectations. John Boden is one of the few torch-bearers who has actually carried that forward.”
And then there are the voices of Boden’s co-authors, who have emerged from their collaborations with an even higher estimation of the writer than the already lofty ones with which they walked in. “I’ve known John for close to a decade now, and over time, we realized how much our childhood and backgrounds were aligned,” offers Ford, whose works include SAMSON AND DENIAL and THE GOD BENEATH MY GARDEN. “We were familiar with so many of the same kinds of music and influences and became fast friends. Eventually, we got around to discussing the possibility of working together. RATTLESNAKE KISSES was the love child of that discussion. There’s a beautiful rhythm to how John writes, a deep-South poetry that brings such a unique voice and tone to the work, and we definitely played off of each other as we developed the characters and storyline—all without an outline. The world we developed was so much fun, we decided to create a series set there—The Knucklebucket Thang series—and wrote CATTYWAMPUS as a follow-up. We’re about a third to halfway through a third entry, and are having such a blast with it.
“John’s solo work has always floored me,” Ford continues. “He takes the stories in directions that are beautifully unexpected, and leaves the reader feeling haunted with these feelings of nostalgic heartache. There are lots of talented writers today, many of whom I am proud to call friends, but Boden’s voice is a standout, and I’m so happy and humbled to call him a friend and partner in crime.”
Lutzke—whose THE PALE WHITE, readers may recall, made our 2019 “essential reads” list—is not reserved in his praise either, calling Boden “the Richards to my Jagger, the Lennon to my McCartney. One thing about Boden’s work that stands out from others is his use of poetic similes and metaphors. They’re beautiful and well-thought-out, making each line feel like he spent hours searching for the perfect one. None of his descriptiveness is traditional, and neither are his ideas. They all come straight from the heart. When you’re reading Boden’s stuff, you can tell it’s him. He has a very unique voice.”
Of course, if you want to get to the animating core of the current Boden renaissance, you have to dig a little deeper, down into the roots, where the seeds first germinated. “I was there in the beginning,” author/publisher K. Allen Wood recalls, “before John and I started Shock Totem Publications, before his stories, before his books, back when he wrote in snippets and scraps—raw chunks of meat that would someday be stitched together into an amazing body of work. John didn’t recognize his talent back then, but I did. Everyone else who read his work did. And now the world has that opportunity as well, to read one of the most unique voices not just in the horror genre, but any genre.
“John’s brand of darkness is an emotional sledgehammer that pummels your gut, then your heart,” Wood says. “Always your heart. He breaks yours to give you his—bloody but still beating, full of life. To say I am proud of what John has accomplished over the years would be a colossal understatement. John is an amazing talent, but more important, a wonderful, sincere human being. I think that matters most.”
Not all of us are searchers. Not all of us want to pierce the veil. But if you’re ready to spend some edifying, consciousness-expanding time in the wrinkle—to see the gears of life and love, of light and darkness, of corporeal grittiness and ethereal mysticism—it has never been easier. Simply find a book with John Boden’s name on the cover, turn to the first page, and prepare yourself for an odyssey unlike any you’ve experienced before.