It’s surprising to learn that Riding the Centipede is John Claude Smith’s debut novel, because the tale, which blends noir with weird fiction, Beat mysticism with pulp zest, and mixes in other genres along the way, reads like the work of a writer expertly skilled in the long form.
Smith’s novel begins with one of the most basic detective novel premises: a mysterious rich woman wants a private eye to track down her missing brother, who is lost in some unknown California demimonde. So far, we could be in a Hammett or Chandler story, trudging down those famed mean streets with Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe.
The fun in Smith’s tale, of course, comes from how far he’s willing to twist that familiar framework, and by the end of the novel, he’s wrenched it so far out of its normal shape that a reader is more apt to think of hallucinatory dream journeys rather than old school two-fisted crime fiction, as everyone from William Burroughs to Marilyn Monroe has made an appearance, our sense of the possible has been altered, and we have learned about one of the most unpleasant acts it’s possible to do with a man who looks like a rat.
The novel is told, in alternating chapters, through the eyes of Terrance Blake, the gumshoe archetype; Marlon Teagarden, the scion of a Hollywood couple whose peccadilloes went beyond even the normal Hollywood decadence, now living a semi-feral existence in pursuit of the ultimate high; and Rudolph Chernobyl, a nuclear-powered hit man whose only resemblance to the heavies of classic noir is his willingness to use absolutely brutal violence to get whatever he wants.
Blake is deep into a sporadic, fruitless, years-long search for Teagarden, whose older sister, Jane, has never stopped looking for him when a visit to San Francisco, heartland of the Beats, brings the detective a series of strange clues that seem like the only good leads he’s ever gotten.
Teagarden, immersed in a personal world of unimaginable depravity in hopes of locating some ultimate, truth-conferring experience, is looking to “Ride the Centipede,” the term for a narcotic-mystical experience guarded by a version of Naked Lunch author Burroughs, who may only be cribbing from an even stranger, more obscure author named Peter Solon, who hasn’t been heard from since his second book was published, but who can be found by those who know how to look.
Everyone in the novel is searching for something: Teagarden’s quest, in fact, resembles a profane, modern version of medieval visionary literature of which Dante’s Divine Comedy is only the greatest and most famous example. In these accounts, the protagonist would travel through terrifying, Boschian underworlds and hells before getting a glimpse of the paradise that awaited the faithful, and would return to the world utterly changed.
Teagarden, who has as much to escape from as he has to gain by chasing the elusive Centipede, resembles one of these pilgrims in the purity of his intentions if not in any outward piety, but he has to contend with the other characters’ own searches: his sister, never giving up on him no matter how depraved his existence has become; Blake, looking for Teagarden and at the same time trying to find some way to forgive himself for a wasted life of missed opportunities; and the terrifying Chernobyl, an art lover, who is hired by a mysterious party to track down Teagarden, and who begins to suspect that whatever the young Hollywood exile is looking for may finally match his own monstrous cravings.
Where Smith excels is in taking familiar elements from a range of genres and throwing them all into a blender, then throwing the resulting mixture against the nearest wall. The novel contains science fiction, horror, mystery, experimental fiction, and, in maybe its most effective passage, high weird fiction, as Blake comes face to face with the elusive writer Solon in an unforgettable encounter that is absolutely unique and powerfully effective in depicting the truly otherworldly.
Other critics have suggested ours is a golden age for weird fiction, horror fiction, or whatever this type of literature is called, and novels like Riding the Centipede are an illustration of why: a new generation of horror writers, while schooled in the classics (Lovecraft gets a wry mention in the novel), are taking all of literary history as their toolbox as they fashion something new and splendidly terrifying.