Reviewers of Josh Malerman’s Goblin: A Novel in Six Novellas (first published in 2017 as part of Earthling’s limited-edition Halloween book series; re-released as a Del Rey hardcover in 2021) have been quick to invoke Stephen King’s Derry. The comparison is no doubt apt–Malerman’s central locale (more Michigan city than small-town Maine enclave like Castle Rock) is rooted in/haunted by the otherworldly. There are also discernible echoes of Creepshow here, especially considering that the book’s opening frame story features a mysterious crate that seems to contain something monstrous. The reader, though, should not be led to expect simplistic, E.C.-style tales of garish comeuppance, as Malerman takes his horror narratives in various and unexpected directions.
The first novella, A Man in Slices, recalls Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. But the childhood friendship of Richard and the more mischievous Charles (Malerman’s answer to Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade) is extended here into adult life and grows increasingly troubled when Charles gets involved in a long-distance relationship with a woman requesting self-mutilating gestures of love that would make Van Gogh cringe. Matters shade off finely into mortuary darkness by narrative’s end, and the novella tantalizes with its introduction of the folklore of the typically-rainswept Goblin–a place where the sun sets a full minute before in neighboring towns; where people gather in “Perish Park” every winter to reenact a historic death-by-strangulation; where the off-limit North Woods are said to be the habitat not only of mythic owls but also a sinister witch whose whispering words can explode a person’s heart.
Kamp concerns a Goblin resident petrified of being scared to death, and who accordingly takes some drastic measures to ghost-proof his apartment. It’s a wonderfully offbeat premise, and since the eponymous protagonist is also a local-history buff, much more of Goblin’s shadowed history is revealed in the course of unsettling events. The tale deftly draws readers into Kamp’s dreadful fixation, demonstrating all the strengths of Malerman’s writing: original situations, filtered through the viewpoint of well-rounded, psychologically-complex characters.
The next novella, Happy Birthday, Hunter!, constitutes the book’s most satisfyingly shivery entry. The renowned big-game hunter, Neal Nash, decides to punctuate the night of his lavish birthday celebration by attempting to bag the missing piece from his trophy collection: one of Goblin’s Great Owls. Nash’s ill-advised adventure (with his colleagues) into the dark woods delivers white-knuckle tension. The plot is shot through with startling twists, and fortifies the bloodshed with a rich dose of irony.
Presto! conjures both Bradbury and Clive Barker (“The Last Illusion”), with its story of a Goblin child’s idolizing of a dark-carnivalesque figure whose magic act relies on more than just prestidigitation. But Roman Emperor is no standard villain–rather a tragic, Faustian character. A lot of the fiendish fun here comes from the discovery of the source of Emperor’s “dirty magic” and the macabre lengths the entertainer must go to to fulfill his end of the bargain.
A Mix-Up at the Zoo reads like Winesburg, Ohio by way of The Twilight Zone, in its focus on an obsessive, mentally-disintegrating “grotesque” of the Sherwood Anderson variety, a lonely young man feeling ground down by his dual positions at the Goblin zoo and slaughterhouse. Slow-moving and overlong (the shock ending is foretold by the very title), this is arguably the least successful of the book’s sextet of novellas. Nevertheless, the protagonist’s steady descent into nightmare is distinguished by a slew of disturbingly surreal images.
As a site of misdirection and twisting turn, the hedge maze in The Hedges forms a perfect symbol of Malerman’s narrative approach. When a precocious young girl is the first to solve the sculpted puzzle, she discovers something shocking hidden within the heart of the maze, but this MacGuffin (un-identified for much of the suspenseful novella) ultimately defies reader expectation. The action detours back into the North Woods, and includes a dogged pursuit by Goblin’s bizarre police force (who form a grim joke on the very notion of protecting and serving).
The book’s epilogue (which returns to the story of the strange crate) ties everything together, showing that the interconnections between the novellas involve more than the overlap of character- and place names. Reminiscent of Trick r’ Treat, Goblin‘s narrative folds back over itself: the events of the individual novellas all trace to a singular stormy night in town, where further grisly mayhem appears to be in store for the hapless residents at epilogue’s end. Malerman invokes some of the horror genre’s hoariest elements (cursed land; disgruntled/displaced Native Americans) yet still manages to produce an original work containing no shortage of surprise.
The (fictional) town of Goblin itself is not a nice place to visit, and you likely wouldn’t want to live–or die–there. But Malerman’s Goblin is an inviting haunted attraction, a creepy and darkly atmospheric novel/linked-collection that makes for a terrific read on a dreary autumn evening.