Matthew X Gomez’s literary heart and soul is in good ol’ fashioned rollicking pulp fiction, or more accurately its modern evolution New Pulp, a literary movement he’s more than lent his hand in codifying and legitimizing in his stint as an influential magazine editor. His own aptitude, budding craftsmanship/artistry, and infectious enthusiasm for the form are all on full display in these twenty-two tales. He knows the ins and outs of what makes the form tick at its essence. There’s not a dull entry in this collection of tales, which run the gamut from cyberpunk, paranormal noir, sword and sorcery, and in at least two cases, that last one’s crueler, tougher, more defiant and unpredictable younger brother Grimdark fantasy. There were also more than a few tales that stood out as true showcases of what Gomez has to offer, some of which genuinely caught fire for me in, y’know, that rare, special way. It’s often in the shorter pieces where Gomez’s true, uninhibited imagination starts to shine in all its perverse, uninhibited glory (such as in atmospherically Gothic, unsettlingly erotic A Call of Vengeance, or the Weird Western Paid In Blood), though these are also often the pieces were one wishes Gomez had let them be longer, giving them room to breathe in all their perverse glory, whatever that might have been.
The standout entries here include:
Ashton & Marcus: The Mead Trip – Two mismatched dimension-hopping adventurer-for-hire buddies, from seemingly disparate realities who somehow got this far on brawn, guts, luck, and rudimentary wits, sort of like Ash from Army of Darkness paired with a beleaguered Viking, bumble their way through Michael Moorcock or maybe Roger Zelazny’s multiverse, just looking for a place for a quiet drink after the last adventure. Spoiler-altert: they get more than they bargained for. Their banter at times reminded me of Joe Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard on acid. The energy and attitude in this piece gave me a sense of Gomez truly starting to let himself off the leash, his own voice starting to crystalize into something special.
Comes A Slayer – The most meditative slow-burn in the collection, and as a result one of the most gripping, haunting and surprising. What begins as a simple, familiar lone-wandering-dragon-slayer-for-hire-comes-to-town piece steadily peals back its layers to reveal something a little different…and a lot trippy, nightmarish, and exhilarating.
Sword of the Legion – What starts as a POW-plotting-escape yarn (Roman soldier captured by Picts) tale takes a sharp left turn that caught me off guard, the results of which I’m not likely to soon forget.
The Whalebone Cane – A junkshop owner gets a strange customer who’s particularly excited about happening upon the title artifact. The best I can further describe this little piece without giving anything away is that Gomez does a very effective job at putting the reader in the shoes of someone experiencing a very unusual encounter, the kind that leaves one blinking and going, “Uh…Yep, okay, that just happened…What in the actual f**k?”
Nothing Like Getting Rained On – A fast, nasty, supernaturally flavored crime-noir story of double-cross and revenge. Perhaps Gomez at his most nihilistically mean-spirited (and I mean that as a compliment; in my opinion, the author of this kind of story hasn’t done their job right if you don’t afterwards feel just a little bit like you need to shower off the urban filth the characters call normal…and Gomez does his job right).
The worst I can say about any of these stories is that after a while, certain repeated motifs start to stick out and grow a little repetitive. No one story here would suffer on its own from, say, the “Someone shows up to hire/beg a world-weary reluctant/annoyed hardboiled protagonist to find/rescue someone for them” formula, but lumped together, it gets a little obvious…even if there were a few standouts that genuinely used said formula to maximum effect on their own, such as the opening cyberpunk piece Limitless). Some of the sword-and-sorcery pieces left me wishing for a little more sense of distinctive world-building, beyond simple “recognizable historical time/place, with the names swapped out and some magic thrown into the mix”/”could be any D&D village”/etc. But that’s a personal preference.
Overall, if you want some fast, fun short-fiction with sharp teeth and some true gems in the mix, look no further.
Order the paperback here; e-book coming soon.