The horror-comedy combo genre is not an easy feat to accomplish in literature. David Wong nailed it pretty damn well in John Dies at the End and its sequel, This Book is Full of Spiders; Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It, and Christopher Moore’s basically the world champion at this point, with books like The Stupidest Angel, Practical Demonkeeping, and A Dirty Job. But nobody is as consistently on the ball as my boy, Jeff Strand. I claim he’s “my boy” because once, during a World Horror Convention in New Orleans, I passed him in a hallway and said, “Hi, Jeff Strand! I like you a whole lot!” and he did not call security or even tell me not to breathe on him. Of course, I’m sure he was grateful I did not breathe on him, but I’m fairly certain I could have gotten away with it.
Jeff Strand is the kind of guy who could make you laugh at a funeral, even if it was your own. Laugh, yes, and also burst into unexpected sobs. His latest novel, Cyclops Road, begins with a series of vignettes reflecting Evan Portin and his wife, Becky, spending time together as she slowly dies from cancer. Scenes of beauty and sadness masterfully mixed together during one of the most powerful prologues I’ve ever read. Sentences of contrasting emotion bouncing off each other like two helpless pilots battling for the last parachute:
“I’m not going to lie. When we play Crazy Eights, it brings out a level of competitive ferocity in Becky that would cause your average coach in the Super Bowl to run yipping back to his mommy.
“It doesn’t even matter that I have to hold the cards for both of us.”
Reading a Jeff Strand book is like wandering a field of booby traps, unsure whether you’re about to step on a land mine or a whoopie cushion.
Fortunately, Evan’s wife does not survive the prologue, and the rest of the book follows Evan as he figures out how to cope as a widower. I say “fortunately” because by the end of the prologue, Strand has basically already drained you of all emotion and you just want it to be finished, which of course could be compared to Evan’s own state during his wife’s passing.
Shortly after her funeral, Evan experiences some technical difficulties with his boss, and goes for a walk in the park to cool off, where he encounters a woman in the process of being mugged. He attempts to save the day, but discovers he’s pretty much useless compared to the woman’s kickass fighting skills. Once all of the muggers have been properly disposed of, she recollects her backpack containing every possession to her name, and continues hiking toward her destination. Understandably curious, Evan starts following her and vomits out a stream of questions, audibly noting that she “doesn’t look Amish”. The woman, who reveals her name is Harriett, doesn’t seem to understand most of the questions Evan asks. She refers to cars as “mechanical transportation” and claims she doesn’t watch movies, which Evan finds just as baffling as the rest of us surely do.
Oh, and she’s also walking across the country to slay a cyclops.
Yes, a real honest-to-god one-eyed monster.
And this is where Cyclops Road truly begins.
Since this is a road-trip novel, it’s safe to reveal that of course Evan eventually joins her on her quest, whether he actually believes there’s a real cyclops or not. Along the way their duo will increase in numbers and we will meet a wonderful cast of fiends and misfits. Fans of RPGs will find themselves right at home with the various side-quests Evan and Harriett encounter. There’s even a goddamn cave chapter pulled right out of an Elder Scrolls game. It’s important to note that even at its geekiest, Strand doesn’t so much parody game culture as he embraces it. While highly amusing, even the cave chapter comes across as surprisingly genuine. With the wrong hands, it could have easily turned into an insufferable Wayansesque catastrophe.
The beauty of this novel is it doesn’t even matter if a cyclops actually awaits their journey’s end. At its heart, Cyclops Road is a novel about grieving, about finding a way to continue life at its absolute darkest. The characters are fully fleshed and their arcs evolve naturally. Everything here is earned. Strand is as honest as they come, and his Cyclops Road is an essential addition to the road-trip genre.