A Perfect Introduction to a Genre Bending Master

Jeremy Robert Johnson’s Entropy in Bloom is an instant classic

Jeremy Robert Johnson’s Entropy in Bloom opens with an introduction by Brian Evenson in which he warns readers that the collection they are about to read could possible alter them in profound ways. The introduction is fitting for a plethora of reasons, but two of them deserve to be mentioned here. The first one is that Evenson introducing Johnson’s biggest release to date is the equivalent of a literary passing of the proverbial torch; one of the best living American writers welcoming someone into the club and letting readers know how he earned his membership. The second reason is that the opening paragraph mentions author Stephen Graham Jones. Along with Johnson and Evenson, Jones complete an (un)holy trinity of the most creative, wildly entertaining, most genre-bending voices in contemporary literature, and everything that follows proves that Entropy in Bloom is an instant classic, a carefully curated manifesto whose main goal is to tell the world one of the brightest stars in indie lit is now too brilliant to remain hidden.

Entropy in Bloom contains fifteen short stories that are arguably the best produced by Johnson since the beginning of his career and one previously unpublished novella, “The Sleep of Judges,” which would be worth the price of admission even if it was being published alone. The narratives are a mix of horror, crime, bizarro, sci-fi, and literary fiction, and all those genre appear mixed each other in different stories. The selection is superb because it offers a look at the larger themes that have crisscrossed Johnson’s oeuvre since his first publication while also offering readers tales that have either been option for film, won awards, been translated, or actually been turned into award-winning short films, which is the case with “When Susurrus Stirs.” Loss, fear, revenge, desire, paranoia, the apocalypse, body horror, the impact of drugs on the human psyche are all elements of cohesion that make Entropy in Bloom a strong collection that lets readers know they are reading the work of a consummate storyteller with a knack for words and a deep understanding of the darkest recesses of human nature.

There are no throwaway tales in this collection, but discussing them all would lead to a too-long, uninteresting review that would keep readers from discovering some of the gems that lie within the pages of Entropy in Bloom. However, there are some narratives that deserve special attention. The first one is “When Susurrus Stirs,” a tale that uses an intelligent parasite to explore identity while never ceasing to be an outstanding story that pushes the boundaries between literary fiction and body horror:

“He doesn’t speak to me as an individual; I can feel that in his voice as it creeps through my nervous system and vibrates my tympanic membrane from the inside. The idea of “self” is impossible to him. When he speaks to me as “You” I can tell he’s addressing our whole species, every last human representing a potential host.”

Other exceptional stories include “Persistence Hunting,” which explores loneliness and desire through a regular man who becomes a thief in such a way that it ends up being one of the best crime short stories of the decade; “The Gravity of Benham Falls,” which manages to somehow make the classic ghost story something new and exciting; “Dissociative Skills,” a story about mental illness and self-harm that is as gory as it touching and opens with a line that captures darkness like few others: “Curt Lawson felt like a surgeon right up to moment he snorted the horse tranquilizer”; and “A Flood of Harriers,” where fear and revenge collide in the ruins of a man’s shattered sense of masculinity after a wild time doing psychedelic drugs at a festival right after an attack by some Native Americans:

“My body is in the grasp of tremors, shaking to this rhythm that was never mine. The sun drifts behind a mountainous ridge and dusk floats down, spreading gray light across the Sheenetz River. I can see the rest stop. My pulse is the sound of long dead tribesmen calling down the flood.”

Those same feelings of paranoia and inadequacy are also present in “The Sleep of Judges,” the crowning jewel of this collection. In this novella, a man is forced to deal with crippling fear and a shattered sense of masculinity after burglars break into his house while he and his family are away and take some of their priciest possessions and mess with a family photo. With his wife and daughter safe in her parents’ house, the man tackles the project of walking through the property with a cop, securing the house, cleaning up after the robbers, and dealing with the insurance. Unfortunately, the burglars seem to want more than his earthly possessions.

What follows is a tense, atmospheric, gripping narrative with a Lovecraftian touch that quickly spirals into a surreal nightmare of deadly proportions. Between the neighbor’s warnings, what the man finds inside his house, the strange cop that showed up at his door, the mysterious house in the neighborhood that is occupied by bizarre people no one knows, and the sounds he hears coming from outside his house, “The Sleep of Judges” is as creepy as anything else Johnson has written and as strange, touching, and smart as readers have come to expect from him.

After the success of Skullcrack City, Johnsons’s previous novel, Entropy in Bloom feels more like the next logical step than an impressive but unexpected outing. Johnson has been the writer other great authors talk about (he’s been praised by Chuck Palahniuk, Laird Barron, Ben Loory, and John Skipp, among others) for a long time, and this collection should turn him into the writer everyone is talking about. These fifteen stories and one novella show a powerful imagination, a great talent for storytelling, writing chops that allow him to tackle any genre, and a flowing, dynamic voice that, if Johnson were a singer, would extend to an impressive eight octaves.

Coming of Age at Harvard and in Hungary

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