Last year you might have seen a lot of news buzzing around the unhallowed halls of FEARnet about indie horror auteur Gregory Lamberson, and for good reason – not only did he release the fully restored print of of his '80s cult horror hit Slime City on DVD, but he also presented us with the CD debut of the film's remastered score, as well as another unique musical offering – the hard-rockin' soundtrack to a horror film that didn't even exist, a story near and dear to Greg's heart about an undead teen rebel nicknamed Johnny Gruesome.
Well, Greg hasn't slacked off a bit in 2008, and he's back with another entry in the Gruesome canon – this time a new printing of the cult novel. The story was first released last year in an illustrated, signed and numbered collector's edition from Bad Moon Books, but horror fans who couldn't find or afford that version, or who are looking for their first taste, can get finally their mitts on Lamberson's original blood-drenched revenge tale in a wide-release paperback from Medallion Press.
The product of Lamberson's first screenplay, Johnny Gruesome actually preceded Slime City by a few years, but while the author-filmmaker was unable to secure financing to do the story justice as a feature film, he focused his attentions elsewhere... until recently, when he initiated a multimedia campaign to unearth the heavy metal ghoul for a new generation of horror fans. Among the various Johnny incarnations was an online comic book series, which gave the public the first visual glimpse of the perverse acts the hard-rockin' zombie would perpetrate on the tiny upstate New York burg of Red Hill. As with the comics, songs and short film (co-starring Erin Brown, aka Misty Mundae), the book chronicles the death and resurrection of young Johnny Grissom and his horrific supernatural revenge against the townspeople who wronged him.
In the novel's first 100-or-so pages, Lamberson paints a doomed, melancholy picture of a tiny town with very few options for a restless kid... and Johnny is as restless as they come. Ignored by his unemployed, alcoholic father and either feared or shunned by most of the kids at school, Johnny lives a life of seething anger alleviated only by booze, drugs, horror movies and heavy metal. Tooling around in his skull-painted Cutlass “Death Mobile,” Johnny is perpetually spoiling for a fight and sees everyone as a potential enemy... except for Eric Carter, the only real friend he ever knew.
Lamberson's affection for the tale and its characters comes through on every page, assuring that there's at least one character in the cast with whom we can identify. Of these, the fairly well-grounded Eric is the most likable, as the only person in Johnny's short unhappy life who ever really mattered after the devastating death of his mother – an event which would turn Johnny's aggressive instincts from simple teenage rebellion to bitterness and rage against an uncaring God. When Johnny meets his untimely end, his belief that even Eric has betrayed him is the spark that ignites the supernatural fury which brings him back from beyond, vowing to spare no one from his violent wrath.
It's this level of character detail that helps elevate the material above the simple fun of pulpy old-school horror – a skill that reminds me of the work of the late Richard Laymon, who populated some of the most grotesque, violent and perverse stories ever written with fully-realized and often unforgettable personalities. Johnny is more than just the wise-cracking, ironic slasher villain in the Freddy Krueger mode; he's a well-rounded character whose personality traits not only survived intact after his return, but may have given him the power to carry out his mission as a zombie killing machine. Lamberson keeps the whys and wherefores deliberately vague as to how the reanimation is accomplished, leaving us to believe that pure hate, cranked up to 11 with the power of rock 'n' roll, was enough to cause his soul to flip a 180 and roar back from the afterlife.
In an affectionate and wickedly funny reference to the newer wave of zombie films (and maybe even a nod to the rapidly-dissolving antihero of Lamberson's cult film Slime City) many scenes are depicted through Johnny's undead, rotting eyes as he tries to hold his decaying body together long enough to execute his vengeance – a plan complicated by a sloppy embalming job from the town mortician, who has been cutting his embalming fluid to save money.
But Gruesome is not all fun and games – when Lamberson gets down and dirty with old-school splatter, the book becomes a gorehound's wet dream come true as blood, guts and brain-chunks burst forth by the bucketload. The same detail he expends on his characters is also lavished on numerous gory set-pieces, depicting each scene of bodily violation with a coroner's unflinching eye – the torture-murder of one character, told though the victim's point of view, is one of the most horrifying scenes I've read in a long time.
Furthering that feeling of doom is the story's mainly mid-winter setting. I've always thought winter is both an intrinsically terrifying and beautiful environment for any dark fantasy, with the constant threat of danger or death howling just outside the door, and familiar landscapes obscured by a surreal white shroud. It makes this the perfect time of year to huddle on the sofa with a real page-turner like this one... with the occasional glance toward the window when the wind starts whistling through the trees.
Hopefully far from the last word on the Gruesome saga, this is a fun and affordable way for even the casual reader to delve into the twisted, ultra-violent and strangely poetic world of the “Headbanger from Hell,” and it's well worth the trip. Find out how to get your copy by visiting the Johnny Gruesome section of Greg's official site.