A Disgusting Supermarket of Death is the new short story collection by James C. Harberson III, who previously brought us the witty and gory graphic novel Stay Alive. This time around Harberson is serving up appropriately bite-sized servings of extreme horror meant to shock and entertain even the most jaded of horror readers– luckily, this is mostly the case. Like all single-author collections this one has its ups and downs, and fair warning: the book does its title justice, never shying away from brutality though it’s often in the service of darkest humor.
Harberson is at his best when he’s blending his sardonic wit with unrelenting carnage, as in entries like Ars Gratia Mortis, a story concerning a talk show host and a performance artist who specializes in assisted suicide. Stories like this, which feature that combination of ludicrous over-the-top kills and dry humor, are a lot of fun and are sure to please gorehounds. I felt much the same about the stories Easter Eggs for Christmas (which is about attempting to summon a demon through Hallmark Christmas movies, of all things), Spring Chickens, and Team Player. These stories in particular feel like they’d make great short films with irreverent punchlines.
There’s also a smattering of genuinely unsettling ideas, especially in Medical Malpractice, A Good Scare, and Unforbidden Knowledge. Medical Malpractice features a massive highway pileup as a centerpiece– the gruesome depiction of the aftermath and the states of the victims is rough before even adding the “angel of death” element. A Good Scare is about a McKamey Manor-style extreme haunt that has one of the more disturbing endings in the book and a premise which keeps you guessing until then. Last but certainly not least, Unforbidden Knowledge may be my overall favorite of the bunch. It concerns a private screening of a horror movie that causes viewers to kill themselves and those around them, and there’s a nihilistic Lovecraftian angle to it all that works really well. I’d love to see this concept expanded.
Where A Disgusting Supermarket of Death stumbles a bit is in stories that are meant to be more directly topical and provocative. There are only a few of these, but they all feel either slightly misguided or not well developed in intent. For example, #meatoo follows a mortician who sells rich weirdos necrophilic access to high-profile celebrity corpses. This entry falls in the camp of stories that didn’t feel like the point was developed enough– based on the title and subject matter there’s definitely some sort of reflection on complicity in celebrity abuse, but it either wasn’t fully formed or went right over my head. I’d rather it be the latter because otherwise, it feels like an ill-fated attempt to draw on egregious current events.
Everybody Comes First is hands down my least favorite part of the collection, so forgive my long-windedness here as it’s one story out of twenty-two. It’s about a 70-year-old man who has been diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer and who, thanks to socialized healthcare, is essentially bullied into taking a cash payout equal to part of the cost of his treatment rather than receive any treatment at all. He then goes on to suicide bomb the insurance offices which didn’t allow him treatment. I suppose to some this concept might be frightening, but one of two things needed to happen to make this story work: either the character needed to be much younger and more likely to survive treatment (as a septuagenarian likely would not to begin with) or the illness needed to be a lot less malignant, making the denial an actual affront. This doesn’t work as satire for me because there are plenty of people with less dire prognoses right now who do not receive proper treatment due to either the current model of insurance or any number of other insidious reasons. Was I supposed to be afraid of a pragmatic healthcare system or of a selfish and unhinged elderly person?
Ultimately, this book is best suited for those looking for lightning-fast reads with bite. A Disgusting Supermarket of Death is filled to the brim with grisly original and fresh concepts which leave me optimistic for future works from Harberson, who has already developed a pretty unique style and voice despite a very short bibliography. I’d be especially interested to see him tackle longer fiction again, as I imagine he’d fall somewhere in the realm of Edward Lee and Brian Keene.
Rating 7/10 Sacrifices to the Big S