The Gulp by Alan Baxter is a collection of five novellas that take place in the same setting, which is Gulpepper, Australia (fictional). The author shares with us (in the Afterword) that it is more of a concept than a place. I was turned on to this work by some of my favorite fellow readers. Col’s Criminal Library and Books, Bones, and Buffy who each wrote 4+ star reviews of this work. Also, this reader (aka Well Read Beard) made a YouTube video-review of the book, and I enjoy his reviews, as well. Heck, since I am posting URLs, here is the author’s website: Alan Baxter. Anyway, I have made a bit of a small effort to sort of read some things outside my “usual” selections. So, instead of vintage science fiction, I have read a few small publishers’ prints, some crime, some horror, some non-mainstream and The Gulp is one that normally I would never have considered reading.
I do not read much horror at all, if any. I think I can count on one hand the amount of horror I have read – and most of it counts only as “classic/vintage” horror. I am referring to stuff like W. W. Jacobs and H. P. Lovecraft. I read Needful Things by Stephen King when it first came out and I liked it. Liked it so much I watched the movie, which I also enjoyed. Honestly – I cannot think of much else that I have read that might be in this genre. The truth is, there is a lot of horror and terror in the world, and I usually like to use my reading for learning or entertainment. I can understand the argument that others might use reading as catharsis or that not everyone shares the same entertainment opinions. But for me, I get enough horror already without seeking it out. Also, well, sometimes “horror” means “gross.” There are a lot of examples of media in which these two are jumbled and I do not enjoy the gross too much.
So, before I ordered the book, I did read some reviews from trusted reviewers. I also went to the author’s website. Or Facebook. Or something. Something of his online. I skimmed what was there. To be completely honest, I do not know that he and I would get along. Or, maybe we would be chums. I do not know, but there is something about him that I find aggravating and/or abrasive. There are things we would agree on and then there are other things I think would end in a front yard fisticuffs. So what? I do not have to like an author to read their stuff.
There is a reason I am mentioning both of these points: I am the tough sell. I am the outlier and the reader that yeah, if I am praising the work, it does mean something stronger. And yes, like my book blogger friends listed above, I am going to give this work 4 stars.
The Gulp consists of five novellas that take place in a country/coastal town in Australia. I have never been to Australia, nor is it on my list of places I would like to go. And this is after one of the most significant people in my life having been from Sydney. That being said, The Gulp could really be anywhere, so shuffle the lingo a bit and yeah – its the creepy coastal town in Your Country. This is really cool because the universality of the setting is important to this particular type of writing, I think. Drawing the readers in and immersing them in this town is really key to these stories.
All five stories are very original. I mean, the storylines themselves have an originality that was striking. I feel after all that has been written in the horror/crime/science fiction genre, coming up with something original is quite challenging. It seems like it was not difficult at all for this author. As I consider this, I think that perhaps the trick is these stories are all somewhat “slice-of-life” stories. Meaning, the mundane is one of the most powerful elements in the stories. That is kind of odd to say considering some of the events that take place. But Baxter makes the reader believe that those events take place because of the setting in which they take place. Nicely done.
The first novella, Out On A Rim, was the one that most interested me when I read the other reviews. Something about this idea was interesting to me and I figured if it was good enough, it would be worth it even if the rest of the book was not great. I think that it was the most suspenseful and scary of the group. It is strategically placed at the start of the collection – because one of the characters actually takes a walk around The Gulp – and introduces the reader to the setting. Again, smoothly done. However, the story gets quite gory and shocking really quickly and ends with a kind of flashbang. Pay attention: this is horror, crime, and it is very violent and gory.
I had to take a break for awhile after reading that story, honestly. Not because it was bad. But because I knew whatever came next was going to be intense. And wow, it sure was. The second story in the batch is, I think, the best written. However, it COULD come with valid content warnings all over it. There is a lot of gore and its not just splatter – it is emotional gore. This is the story I would be most concerned about when recommending this collection to other readers, to be honest. I am not a particularly sensitive reader, generally, but I could not help but worry about certain readers being just too open and gentle for this one. As key reading material, the author has a solid blog entry on this sort of thing. The entry is entitled: “Content Warnings Are Not Censorship” and it was posted June 12, 2021. It is very worth reading – get over there and read it. Here is a statement from that entry: “Horror is meant to be confronting. That doesn’t mean it should be traumatic, or that people avoiding trauma are somehow wrong, weak, or censors.” Horror is meant to be confronting – this is an phrase/idea that I am going to ponder and turn around in my brain for awhile.
Anyway, Mother in Bloom was great. Unfortunately there are not as many readers that can confront this one as I wish. But the writing is so skillful, I really appreciated it. I like how genuine the characters seemed and their slice-of-life felt realistic.
The third story, The Band Plays On, was good, though it was somewhat predictable. I mean, it was not difficult to see where this was headed. That does not mean its a bad story. And again, it subtly gave us background info and developed the setting even more. I felt sympathy for the main character and I am glad it ended the way it did – Baxter was not cruel to the reader in this one, wherein he could have been. Also, I did appreciate the music details throughout.
The fourth story, 48 To Go, starts circling the collection back to the start ever so gently. Finally, a story that is taking place not on the coast – but on the water. Again, a slice-of-life of one of The Gulp’s residents. Things suddenly go wrong for the main character. I did not feel a whole lot of compassion for him at this point, though. And then things just go sideways, downhill, and inside-out. I think this is the story that is the most bizarre of the collection. Its original, its gory, its full of what-in-the-ever-living-______!!!!! But, because it is so chock full of bizarre and gore, it somewhat takes the edge off of the pandemonium. As events get to a fever pitch of outrageous, yeah, I started to feel a little compassion for the main character who somehow maintains some level of functionality while the world turned inside out. This is a good story, but it is also the most wild.
Rock Fisher is the last story and I think the shortest. A lot of tie-ins to the rest of the collection occur. The Gulp is very claustrophobic. Anyway, here we have another basic main character with his slice-of-life struggles. Like every main character in these stories, it seems there is a real and honest characterization in which family, peace, contentment are strong goals. These are not necessarily bad people is what I suspect Baxter is telling us. However, fate, luck, and the monsters of The Gulp coerce and instigate and maul these people into doing outrageously horrific and unthinkable things. Troy is twenty-five years old, lives on his own, owns an aquarium, goes to work at a manufacturing plant, and enjoys fishing. The story starts and he is upset about his girlfriend, whom he knows is not exactly a class act, ditching him for another fella. Troy takes his troubles to the shore and brings his fishing rod. After a long day, he hauls in a very strange and somewhat disgusting catch; and it ain’t a bream or a sea bass! Eventually, as Troy becomes more obsessed with his catch, he also becomes sicker – until he is transforming into………..? The writing here is really good because Baxter shows (not so much bludgeons) the reader with how this magnetism-obsession is overtaking Troy. Troy loses time, whole hours and then days go by where he is in a trance-like state near the thing he hauled in from the sea. Its creepy and the loss of will is truly the horror here – not just the “creature.” It is a good story, especially rounding out this set.
And here is the thing: I was planning from the end of the first story, to read this collection and send it onward. I have mentioned I am downsizing some of the bookshelves in this house. (I say that all the time, don’t be fooled.) Anyway, I had every intention straight up through halfway of the fifth story of finishing this book and plopping it on the stool that currently has about a dozen books on it to be shared elsewhere. After finishing Rock Fisher, I asked myself, should I get rid of this? Who can read it – it does “need” content warnings? Maybe I should keep it, it isn’t like they have copies at all the bookstores in town. And then I laughed and laughed and laughed – because I felt just like Troy…. maybe I should just keep it. Gollum moments, right? If y’all don’t hear from me for a good long while, maybe I’m in a fugue state staring at the book on a bookshelf.
Yeah, I’m definitely all in for a second helping if Baxter writes one!