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Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Review: Toplin by Michael McDowell.

Toplin is a short novel by Michael McDowell. First published in 1985, it has seen print by Scream/Press, Dell Abyss, and Valancourt. Quite the all-stars of horror presses! A sort of obscure classic of underground horror literature, Toplin is the kind of book more discussed than read. 

Toplin is the story of a damaged man, mentally unstable and living in a hallucinatory state. On the way to get some groceries, he stops at a diner and encounters what he claims to be the most hideous woman he has ever seen. And he makes it his mission to kill her as a mercy to what must be her miserable existence. From the start, the main character is clearly living in a state of unreality. Sliding in and out of delusions and paranoia, the tale is a surreal and bizarre journey with a completely unreliable protagonist. 

There is a real sense of disgust in this book. A seething disgust at society and other bodies. But the story does get sidetracked at points by boring asides into the obsessive traits of the protagonist. There is a section where he talks about how when buying furniture you have to be careful because the furniture may be malevolent and take action against you. There is also a section where he talks about his cleaning routine and in what order he cleans the sections of his apartment. Meant to show the unstable mental state of the protagonist, these sections read as cliche and uninspired. But the surreal body horror and the miserablist sections are really top-notch. So what the book becomes is a kind of mildly flawed masterpiece. Is the protagonist insane or is the world scheming against him? The palpable hatred that underlies the narrative is quite wonderful, but the author lacked the conviction to carry on with it, adding comic relief and some rather goofy passages ruining the overall atmosphere at times. 

At its best, the writing is crisp and poetic. Some of the passages in this are gorgeous. The main narrative resembles the urban gothic of Ramsey Campbell and Joel Lane along with a touch of Herman Unger’s The Maimed. I think this short novel is quite wonderful, I was just disappointed by the breaks in the lush prose and misanthropic atmosphere for the cliche “oh look how insane he is” asides and the unnecessary humor. If you cut the book in half and got rid of the fat this would have been a masterpiece of miserablist horror of the first tank. But flaws and all I do feel this is essential reading for those who enjoy tales of the grotesque and the obsessive. 

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