Written by Jonathan Woods — Phone Call from Hell is the latest release from New Pulp Press and follows the author’s short story collection Bad Juju and his novel A Death in Mexico. The publisher has also been making its name by releasing Roger Smith’s dark South African crime novels Capture and Dust Devils, Les Edgerton’s existential noir The Rapist, and CJ Howell’s almost unclassifiable The Last of the Smoking Bartenders.
Like many of the above, Phone Call from Hell has only a partial connection with crime fiction. In pretty much every story a crime occurs – as well as plenty of things which should be illegal, even if they aren’t – but crime isn’t usually the focus of each one. Certainly none of the stories could be described as mysteries.
Many of these 17 stories feature rich lazy people and have that highly combustible mix of privilege and ennui. They are spoilt and bored, even though they don’t seem to recognise it. In the story A Lucky Man, a rich executive blows off a night for his wife’s charity to go whoring and bone fishing with his dissolute son in New Orleans. Once there, a mystic foretells his death but he is able to beat fate through ingenious means. This is one of a number of stories that subvert the usual rules of noir by having the antihero get away with it.
Some of the stories have a literary bent. The Other Suitcase is a humorous search for Kafka’s lost erotic novel. Writer’s Block features Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway in a search for sex and inspiration in Havana. The former proves easier to find than the latter. Hidden away in the story is a subtle and incisive exploration of the fear a writer feels as they recognises their talent is abandoning them. Dead Heat has an unknown menace killing off contenders for the Nobel Prize until the committee are forced to give it to Michael Connolly.
Two of the stories could be considered weird fiction. Hearing Voices uses the old noir trope of a good man seduced into doing bad things by a femme fatale, only this time the siren is the recorded voice of a lift. The Old Man, and for my money the best story in the collection, could have been written by such modern masters of the dark fantastic as Laird Barron or John Langan. An old artist, who has not finished a painting in years, is menaced by his younger partner and her lover. When the rumour goes round he has finally finished a new work, they decide to kill him and steal the picture. But instead of riches, this ever changing portrait presages death.
There are a couple of occasions where the author falls flat. Usually, as in A Bad Day for Barbecue, this is because the story never seems to go anywhere. In some, endings can feel a little hurried. Phone Call from Hell won’t be for everyone. His style brings to mind a mix of the stranger side of Jim Thompson, such as The Golden Gizmo, and Hunter S Thompson if you can imagine him having written for Playboy (sex is everywhere in this book) rather than Rolling Stone. But I would urge everybody who thinks this might be worth a read to give it a go. It’s highly likely you won’t read anything similar this year.
New Pulp Press
CFL Rating: 4 Stars