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The Razorblades in My Head (Donnie Goodman, 2021)

I will start by judging Donnie Goodman’s debut collection The Razorblades in My Head by its cover. Justin Coons painted a loving homage to Paperbacks from Hell, those garish horror paperbacks that inhabited the lower shelves of the horror section of my local bookstore, down below the Stephen King shelf, the Dean R. Koontz and Robert R. McCammon and John Saul shelves, down where the Zebras and Leisures dwelt. The title shouts in a gothic font in incongruous hot pink above a collage of evil snowmen, devilish kids holding shrunken heads, a menacing crab; the edges of the cover are distressed looking, like the lovingly read paperbacks Goodman is referencing, the same ones I bought (and sometimes shoplifted when money was tight) and read to pieces as a teenager. It’s lovely, and it would have been a huge disappointment if the stories inside hadn’t lived up to the promise of this insane cover. But they do.

The twelve stories that make up this slim volume show a remarkable range of themes, topics, and styles, from grossout splatterpunk to folk horror. Some of the concepts might sound ridiculous (although, honestly, that’s part of the fun): snowmen and turkeys seek revenge on their tormentors in “Magic in the Hat” and “Gobble, Gobble,” a possessed teddy bear wreaks havoc in “Teddy,” and the title story’s title must be taken literally. (Ew, Donnie. Just, ew.) But good horror is in the telling, and a good writer can turn any outlandish-sounding idea into nightmare fuel. Because Goodman is a good, at times great writer, almost all of the stories work, both on their own terms and as literature.

I went in expecting fun homages to 1980s horror, and they’re here, but there are also moments of sheer brilliance. The best of the stories, “Stargazing” and “It’s Not Always Why,” are astonishing miniature masterpieces that will dwell in my head for a long time. “Stargazing,” especially, is rich and alive, a novel’s worth of regret, loss, and contemplation of eternity in a mere eleven pages. I read it, and then I read it again, and then I read it again. It keeps giving.

Goodman switches tones effortlessly, equally comfortable writing brutal, disgusting vignettes like the title story and deadpan comedy-horror like the delightful “Hourglass,” which shares a setting with “Magic in the Hat”—a gated community where the HOA is the least of your problems—that I hope he returns to in future work. Another highlight, “The Stranger in the Squared Circle,” is a deep dive into the inner workings of regional professional wrestling that becomes a poetic, mournful meditation on being given a chance to do what you love forever. It’s honestly hard to believe this is Goodman’s first collection. I can’t wait for the next one.