Soothing the Savage Swamp Beast by Zakary McGaha
Publisher: Bizarro Pulp Press | Release Date: April 12, 2019 | Pages: 116 pages
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Soothing the Savage Swamp Beast is a slim novella with a phenomenal cover. That cover, in fact, is what immediately drew me to Zakary McGaha’s latest — I mean, look at it! A reptilian cow swamp monster! Unfortunately, the book’s cover and relatively short page-count are its biggest strengths.
To his credit, McGaha does have some really interesting ideas, any of which could make for solid stories in their own right. Put together, though, Savage Swamp Beast feels aimless and messy. The story does too much wandering about and by the time it approaches any kind of point, the sucker is over.
Aldert and Vogel are a young couple; he works in a factory, she’s a teacher, and they’re mostly content with the minor life they’ve built together, even if she does have some regrets and reservations about it all. When the story begins, Aldert is burying their three dogs, recently murdered by a pack of rabid dogs dripping green goo. Vogel’s discovered a strange book in their house, written by Intentionally Anonymous. There’s also a bluegrass singer/con artist, and a ne’er-do-well student that Vogel absolutely hates.
Most of these characters fail to intersect in any meaningful way, and frankly aren’t all that interesting for all the pages devoted to them. The meat of the story revolves around Aldert and Vogel, which could have been a damn fine story if it weren’t bogged down by so many pointless diversions. McGaha introduces some cool concepts, particularly the metaphysical aspects stemming from the swamp monster and the madness-inducing goo, and the mysterious old tome Vogel grows obsessed with, but he fails to fully and satisfyingly capitalize on any of them. All the things you want out of this book, McGaha stubbornly refuses to give you. Instead of a slithery cow and goo-crazed horrors, you get too many pages about an eighth-grader’s boner and a school administrator’s fantasies about becoming a big-time banjo star.
There’s also very, very little in the way of resolution for any of the story threads McGaha inducts, and the book’s climax is obscenely premature and disappointingly rushed. I kept waiting for something to happen. Kept waiting for all these characters to come to blows. Kept waiting for any kind of actual story development. And then, boom, it was over. By the time the book’s finale rolls around, it feels like McGaha just grew bored of telling this story, wasn’t sure how to end it, slapped out a couple more sentences and called it good enough. There’s no resolution, no closure; nothing but a sense of dissatisfaction and unfulfilled desires.
Beyond the cover art, its only real saving grace is McGaha’s writing, but even that is hampered by tendencies to break the fourth wall and an annoying insistence to create compound adjectives by tacking “-ass” onto so many words. I grew tired of this shtick a third of the way into the book after being inundated with inventive-ass, rural-ass, wicked-ass, mean-ass, tall-ass, creepy-ass, hick-ass, inferior-ass, savage-ass, snotty-ass, and sexy-ass people or creatures (creatures we never actually get to see but are told about instead). And this isn’t localized to just one individual and the way they speak, which would have still been annoying but at least contextualized to a specific personality. Is this meant to be regional patois, or maybe a generational thing? Or is it just a lazy crutch the author has latched onto in his writing? I can’t say one way or the other, but I will say I found it to be painfully cumbersome to read time and time again.
Soothing the Savage Swamp Beast is a supremely frustrating endeavor with so many unfulfilled promises. They say to never judge a book by its cover, but frankly, at the end of the day that cover is the best thing this book’s got going for it.