By SHAWN MACOMBER
To call the richly realized, perception-scrambling fiction of Philadelphia-based graphic designer and writer Scott Cole “imaginative” would be something of an understatement. From the recently reissued translucent green brilliance of SUPERGHOST (“When Dr. Rains assembles a giant ghost-monster from the phantom limbs he’s stolen from hundreds of amputees, the city is in for the most bizarre nightmare it’s ever seen!”) to the uber-grindhouse bonkers-ness of 2018’s TRIPLE AXE (“A deranged killer is on the loose, targeting adult entertainers, and choking them to death with a weapon that leaves no trace of itself. When the authorities refuse to help Jesse and her two closest friends, the three women decide to take matters into their own hands…with axes”), Cole has proven himself an artist ready, willing and able to drag readers into fun, horrifying, beguiling, surrealist alternate universes they never had the slightest idea existed.
Now, in this already strange moment of global pandemic, comes CRAZYTIMES (Grindhouse Press), his most kinetic, weirdly prescient offering yet. This short novel fuses Cronenbergian body horror and visions of the apocalypse onto a wry, heartfelt-yet-absurdist first-person narrative that falls tonally somewhere between Joe Lansdale and Sam Raimi.
Trey wakes up to a world gone mad. But it takes him a little bit of time to realize it, because a) his senses have been dulled more than a bit by the implosion of a long-term romantic relationship and b) well…it’s difficult to sense a shift in the degree of madness when modern-day urban life is already so nuts. As if to illustrate the way real and fantastical madness now intermingles, on his way to work, Trey sees a man at an intersection holding a sign. CLIMATE CHANGE IS REAL! one side reads; BECAUSE PENGUINS KEEP PISSING ON ALL THE GLACIERS! warns the other.
Trey begins to catch on, however, when he turns up at work and a series of distant booms inch ever closer, his boss is inexplicably curled up under his desk playing with his feet, a strange neck rash is spreading like wildfire and co-workers are breaking industrial precision paper cutters into more portable weapons and lopping each other’s heads off. You know, typical Monday-morning office drama. On angel dust.
It isn’t exactly the kind of scene one sticks around in, waiting for someone from HR to tsk-tsk everyone back to normal. Which means Trey has to brave the streets of Philadelphia in search of an increasingly scarce safety. There are gaseous meteors and primal depredations unshackled from the mores of conscience and telepathic connections between the ghosts of dead twins and zombies and…well, let’s not tread into spoiler territory. Suffice it to say, the twists are many and virtually unpredictable, the pace is breakneck, the gore is epic, the pathos is real. Though Cole covers a lot of ground, some of it extravagantly odd, he never loses his grounding in character and honest, vulnerable human emotion. This is weird fiction with an extraordinarily big heart.
More than anything, CRAZYTIMES is about finding resilience when your sanity has already been stretched thin by the constant bullshit of the world. “So maybe regular crazy is from the water and killer crazy is from the meteors?” a co-worker of Trey’s posits early on as the pair search for weapons in a big-box store. “Could be,” Trey replies. “And maybe some of us have a natural genetic defense against whatever this shit is. Who knows what kind of germs are out there, in the water, or out in space. Ya know? Not everybody gets the flu every year, right?”
But I abandon the thought there, Trey thinks. We have no way of knowing what’s happening. We’re not scientists. We don’t have any data. This is all just speculation.
In this way, Trey is an everyman hero for our time. Conflicting opinions, conflicting realities, conflicting consequences—ours, like his, is to endure in the shades of grey, not to establish or enforce someone’s black and white.