The Gulp by Alan Baxter

Review by Brennan LaFaro

I’ve really come to be a big fan of the mosaic novel, looking at it almost as a cross between a themed short-story collection and a more traditionally linear novel. Gabino Iglesias’ Coyote Songs caught my attention earlier this year, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is an all-timer, and now Alan Baxter offers his take the form. In contrast to the others mentioned, Baxter focuses in on a locale. Specifically, the small harbor town of Gulpepper in Australia, known by residents as the Gulp.

A series of five very vaguely connected novellas make up the almost 300 pages of the novel. A few characters appear in multiple books, a few people wander through the background a few times – their stories yet to be told, and some locations and businesses are visited repeatedly.

“Out on a Rim” is a great introduction to the town and the theme. We spend the story behind the eyes of Rich, a new trucker who doesn’t listen to his seasoned counterpart. The reader sees Rich’s point, because George, the veteran trucker, isn’t rolling in compelling arguments. The Gulp is weird enough by day and you wouldn’t want to be caught out after dark being the long and short. The two men are put in a position where they get stuck in town overnight. George heeds his own advice, Rich doesn’t. Shit ensues. Rich travelling through town gives us the types of sights and people we can expect to come across going forward.

“Mother in Bloom” borders on body horror, but is full-fledged coming-of-age, as two siblings try and cover up the death of their mother. Her remains take on a life of their own, and the two find out how far they’ll go to move on and find a sense of normalcy. This one isn’t for the faint of stomach.

“The Band Plays On” introduces legendary band Blind Eye Moon, although only legendary in this area. After an unforgettable show, four travelers are invited to come stay at the band’s home for a few days. The introduction of the nightmare sequences here are top notch, and one of my favorite parts of the book.

“48 To Go” is Baxter at his best. Tension driven, a character tries to come up with a substantial sum of money in just 48 hours. The lengths he goes to and the outlandish obstacles Baxter dreamed up made this by favorite story of the bunch.

I was on the fence with ‘Mother in Bloom”, but “Rock Fisher” is definitely body horror. A rock fisher catches something a bit strange and it takes over every aspect of his life. This story does a phenomenal job of bringing the book together.

Baxter leaves us in a spot where this feels like The Gulp: Volume One. It’s not so much that he leaves loose ends as he leaves opportunities for further exploration. If you enjoyed last year’s Served Cold, you’ll love this one too. Baxter weaves through different tropes and sub-genres to paint a picture of just how messed up this place is. I, for one, hope I get to visit again.

I received a copy from the author for review consideration.

Review by Patrick R McDonough

Never thought I’d say the following, but I’ve been introduced to a Derry down under. Gulpepper, otherwise known to its denizens as The Gulp, is that place. Where everything seems normal on the surface, but when you start looking around and talking to the people, you’ll find out that the truck driver that delivers to this sea coast town on a regular basis doesn’t like it for a reason. In the Gulp you’ll find an array of criminals, good seafood, a legendary band to match the likes of your favorite rock and or metal bands, and whatever the sea spits out of it.

Without a doubt, my favorite story in this mosaic novel is “48 to Go”, it’s horror, graphic when it has to be, straddles the line of supernatural and weird. I read one particular scene involving guinea pigs while eating a meal. I had to put the book down and finish said meal before returning to that book.

The stories do exactly what they intended on doing. They brought you into Baxter’s fictional world, loosely inspired from the town he lives in, and creeps into your mind, body, and soul, until it’s attached to your brain. Ready to manipulate your muscles and consume your essence. 

Let’s reel back (hehe, see what I did there? Shoutout to the last story, “Rock Fisher”) to the first story “Out on a Rim”. I could relate on a personal level. We start out with a driver (I used to be a driver’s helper, delivering booze throughout my home state), and the new guy, Rich, learning the route that he’ll soon take over. One of the stops is at a chain grocery story in the Gulp. They’re forced to stay the night, the new guy is warned to be careful, but he does not heed the older trucker’s warning. It was the perfect story to begin to ease us into just how strange everything, through the eyes of someone as unfamiliar to this town as you, the reader.

The next story, “Mother in Bloom”, dives into some weird and creepy stuff, involving a mother and her two teenage children. “The story does something for family that only a horror fan could appreciate. That’s what all these stories come down to, family. The perception of what family means, the idea of what it could be, and the dream of the idyllic relationship to get said family. 

The last story, “Rock Fisher” is body horror at its finest. The sea is a strange and alien world within its own right. This story shows us just how otherworldly and terrifying of a place it can be and what lives in it. It wraps up the mosaic novel nicely, bringing all the stories together to a place where everyone knows your name (don’t know if kids will understand that reference, google it).

After finishing “Rock Fisher”, all I said to myself is, I want to read more. There are so many other options to explore. So many places, people, things. Baxter teases the reader with that possibility at the end. Hope it happens!

Highly recommended.

Grade: B

I received a copy of this book for review consideration.

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