We’re the ones who shape their nightmares: A review of Orrin Grey’s Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts

Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts by Orrin Grey
Published by Word Horde
Available here

Do you like monsters, horror movies, old dark houses/haunted mansions, skeletons, kaiju, giallo films, Vincent Price, F.W. Murnau, spooks, specters, or ghosts?

Of course you do. And so does Orrin Grey. He likes them. He likes them a lot, so much so, that he’s built an impressive body of short stories that function not only as thrilling, entertaining reads, but also as masterfully-crafted love letters to the great (and countless not-so-great) celluloid monsters and horror film actors and filmmakers of the past and present.

While some might not appreciate cinematic storytelling in horror literature (as baffling as that is to me), I wholeheartedly embrace it as a reader of the form. Grey goes further than merely mimicking or taking inspiration from horror films—he directly and indirectly references a great number of them in these stories. But he incorporates both inspiration and reference in a way that doesn’t feel contrived, wink-laden, or forced. Sometimes, the characters are aware of the intersection of their present circumstances with those that exist in specific cultural artifacts and the broader horror zeitgeist. Combine this horror geek sentimentality with a voice that can deliver action, detail, pathos, and atmosphere in equal measures, and you’ve got one hell of a fun ride.

Yes, this book is fun to read. Grey’s storytelling is liberating and utterly unpretentious—a fresh breath of midnight air.

It’s difficult to pick just a few stories to highlight, as there’s not a single clunker in the book.

In “The Worm That Gnaws,” resurrection men pay a high price in their final dealing. Back-to-back vampire tales “The White Prince” and “Night’s Foul Bird” play with different concepts of the vampire in different classical settings. “Walpurgisnacht” is likely my favorite story of the collection, a simple occult-inspired tale of an elite’s goodbye party gone wrong, chock full of haunting imagery right out of a Roman Polanski or Kubrick film. “Red Church” drives us into slasher territory, but with nods to Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model” and Kathe Koja’s The Cipher.

“Persistence of Vision” gets a mention for a PaintedMonsters_cover_001_FC_small-663x1024positive Ghostbusters 2 reference (it’s great, dammit!). Although heavily inspired by Pulse (a film that tried my patience [does my preference for Ghostbusters 2 over Pulse publicly confirm that I’m a philistine?]), this one stands on its own as a tale about despair amidst a ghostly apocalypse. “Strange Beast” is an example of how the found footage motif can be used to great effect, even in literature. It’s a tribute to both the best of the subgenre and to Japanese kaiju films.

“Painted Monsters” is the main feature here, more of a novella than a short, and functions both as a great final ride through Grey’s spook-filled imagination and as a coda for the rest of the book. It’s a tribute, among other things, to foreign horror films (in this case, specifically Mexican mid-century horror cinema), and contains elements from many other stories within this collection. It’s powerful in its symbolic burning of auteur ego and classic conventions to make way for the new, while simultaneously celebrating the very legacy it sets to the flame.

This is a writer having a good time, and his love for the tropes, characters, and settings here is infectious. Grey’s work is a wonderful counterpoint to the genre’s drift toward more vague, cerebral weird fiction. That’s not to say his stories lack intellectual reward or stylistic value. Far from it! But Grey is channeling pop-horror, niche-horror, and classic-horror in fun and exciting ways. Painted Monsters is one of the best books of the year, and Orrin Grey has cemented himself as one of my favorite contemporary writers.

Painted Monsters is a thoughtful, fun, and spooky ride through the horror culture of films and literature of the last hundred-plus years, filtered through the imagination of a man who sees the most ridiculous of rubber-suited monsters, the creakiest of old dark houses, the brightest of Technicolor bloods, the vampiest of horror cinema icons, and the foggiest of midnight graveyards—and smiles.

If skeletons could smile, that is.

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