09 September 2008

Gil's All Fright Diner: Literary diner stack coming right up!

Gil's All Fright Diner
A. Lee Martinez
Tom Doherty Associates, 2004

Envision a diner stack: hash browned potatoes, hamburger and/or breakfast sausage patties, fried eggs sunny side up, buttermilk biscuits, sausage gravy, and a helping of grease, plus Tabasco. It certainly isn't the most nutritious meal, let alone health food, but there are very few folks I know who don't harbor the occasional craving. Call it satisfying junk food. So it is with Gil's All Fright Diner.

Just like a diner stack, Gil's is chock full of varied (and tasty) ingredients. Its plot conjures unspeakable Lovecraftian elder god cosmic horror type stuff (in pig Latin, no less), while stylistically it evokes the lighthearted New Southern Gothic of Charlaine Harris's Southern Vampire Mysteries. The two protagonists' pickup truck breaks down in a tiny town in the Texas panhandle, the diner of which has become the focus for nightly zombie attacks which turn out to be something far worse: the first stages of The End of the World. There is a Buffy the Vampire Slayer-flavor to the mix of teenage sexuality and black magic that is Tammy the teenage necromancer and her perpetually horny boyfriend/assistant, Chad. The town of Rockwood, the setting for the story, is suffused with a surreal atmosphere, sort of like Douglas Adams except Texan. And there's a sweet romance that breaks some taboos: it's between a vampire and a ghost.

The novel is actually more thoughtful than I initially gave it credit for. By having Earl, a vampire, and Duke, a werewolf, as protagonists, but more importantly as regular guys, the novel's very premise calls into questions our normal understanding of what it means to be monstrous.
"Pushing monsters away into childhood fantasies was much harder after you've become one. He'd discovered that most of the terrors that stalked the night weren't really terrors at all. They were mostly like regular folks, just trying to live their lives. As long as they were left alone they were perfectly harmless except for the occasional bite on the neck. Humans were the real terrors, always getting worked up and looking to kill something." (pp. 32-33)

Here's an example of that surreal quality that I mentioned. Zombie cows.
"Damn," Duke swore under his breath. This sort of thing would happen now....

Melinda raised her head and uttered a low, haunting howl. The rest of the herd joined her in a bloodcurdling moan that seemed to bubble up from the sulfurous pit of Hell itself.


Eyes full of unnatural hunger, loose lips smacking, the herd closed in. The clang of cowbells marked their otherwise silent advance." (p. 53)

I think that was the first time I actually had to catch my breath from laughing so hard. This is funny stuff.

Speaking of funny, there's the aforementioned Tammy, an Asian-American high school hottie who moonlights as Mistress Lilith, Queen of Night, contemporary priestess of the old gods. She's the perfect combination of The Wicker Man and Mallrats:
"[I]t was hard enough to resurrect the old gods without having to deal with curfews, groundings, and math homework. She didn't know what the big deal was. A C-plus was passing. Maybe she wasn't "living up to her potential," as [her dad] so often put it, in geometry, but in the new age geometry would mean little. Denise Calhoun has a straight-A average. It wouldn't save her from the special hell Tammy had in store for pig-faced sluts who thought they were so smart just because they knew all about planes and points and parallel lines and other completely stupid stuff that nobody ever used in real life." (p. 70)

The surreality of the town makes for good laughs too. After coming out as a werewolf to the sheriff, Duke discovers that the tiny town of Rockwood is a little different from most places:
"'Bout seven years back, had an outbreak of vampire turkeys. And four years before that, Charlie Vaughn's daughter got herself possessed. And the Stillman's scarecro took to wandering around at night and scaring the bejeezus out of the kids. Point is, Rockwood has itself an unusual history..." ((p. 85)

Vampire turkeys? And the sheriff's voice is written so clearly that I can hear the deadpan delivery in my head, and so I laugh all the harder.

Martinez describes our heroes' visit to Wacky Willie's Deluxe Goofy Golf, the only attraction in Rockwood:
"Wacky Willie had added the 'Deluxe' when finally ridding the thirteenth hole windmill of a stubborn family of bats after a great and terrible struggle that would forever be known as 'The Fearsome Bat War of Rockwood County' to Willie, but was usually referred to as 'That Time Willie Had To Get Rabies Shots" by everyone else." (p. 94)
"These incidents were a mere sampling of the many inexplicable events at Wacky Willie's. Willie had pamphlets made for the tourists. He'd even sold one which, at an asking price of five bucks, was something of an inexplicable event in itself." (p. 95)

The humor gets downright Monty Python-esque when the vanquished ghouls (or, more properly, the scattered-and-as-yet-still-animated parts of the vanquished ghouls) confront the approaching daylight and with it their collective doom:
Detached arms twisted to cover their squinting yellow eyes. They squealed in the ghoulish tongue.

"Bugger, I hate this part."

"Well, no point in complaining," another ghoul replied.

"True, true," a head agreed somewhere from the center of the pile.

"Moof glu tlak," a jawless head seconded.

"See you gents on the other side."

"Any plans?" the head atop the pile asked.

"Oh, nothing much," the buried ghoul replied. "Just float around in the sullen ether. Wait to be called upon again. Review my performance this go-around."

"I thought you did a marvelous snarl."


And then the sun poked its way over the horizon, and the melting began. Green flesh liquified. Eyes oozed from their sockets. Foaming bubbles boiled and burst in loud, popping splatters. The ghouls shrieked their death rattles. Not that any of it was all that painful for things that were already dead, but they were determined to enjoy their last remaining moments of form with a good screeching contest. (pp. 144-5)

"Bugger, I hate this part." " I thought you did a marvelous snarl." "A good screeching contest"! Need I say (or quote) more?

If you are in the mood for a tasty read worth every empty calorie, slide on up to the counter and give it a read.