I decided to write about Woom in an effort to think my way through certain tensions that exist within my knowledge and appreciation of horror. Woom is a short novel with a reputation for being rather extreme in both its themes and its imagery. It is this extremity that attracted me whilst also giving me reasons to pause.
I would be surprised if mine was the first review of Woom to start in such terms as we are living in times when even the people who are not bothered by extreme imagery and transgressive themes feel obliged to bracket their appreciation with a variety of caveats and pre-emptive apologies designed to ward off the evil eye of social media. My issue is not that I feel guilty or worried about expressing an interest in transgressive media; it’s more that many previous attempts to find works of extreme and disturbing horror have often left me feeling rather bored.
Part of the problem is that, as a child, my parents showed no interest in moderating my access to media and so I’m pretty sure that I started encountering works like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre before I was even a teenager. While this meant that, by the age of 18, I was pretty much impossible to shock, it also meant that a lot of genre horror wound up sitting in a mental drawer marked ‘adolescent’. In fact, it wasn’t until my interest in art-house film lead me to the works of people like Gaspar Noe that I re-discovered an interest in horror-inspired imagery and associated transgressive themes. The problem with this approach to extreme imagery is that if you re-discover transgressive imagery in the context of films with a degree of psychological and thematic sophistication then it’s kind of difficult to stay interested when that imagery leads you into trope-driven narratives involving cannibals and serial killers.
While I would never say that literary extreme horror is nothing but stories about generic cannibals and murderers, that approach to extreme horror is far more common than the approach taken in something like Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next-Door, where the extremity of the visuals are rooted in a set of themes and psychological observations that make the darker parts of my brain light up with pleasure. Even recent well-received works with extreme imagery like Nick Cutter’s The Troop left me rather bored as hundreds of pages of disgusting shit is actually quite tedious when the book manifestly has very little thematic heft. All of which to say that I approached Ralston’s Woom with a degree of trepidation as I wanted it to be disgusting but I also wanted it to be smart.. And I must say that Ralston definitely manages to pull it off albeit not in a way I had either expected or hoped for.
Woom is a very short novel that launches into the action with very little in the way of throat-clearing (unlike this review, heh). The action takes place in a rundown motel where a slightly peculiar individual calling himself Angel is awaiting the arrival of a sex worker. He has his toys all laid-out and he makes it abundantly clear that he wants his companion to be a big girl. When the sex worker arrives, Ralston describes her in terms reminiscent of the Venus of Willendorf and while Shyla reveals herself to be smart, sexy, and playful, there’s also something very nurturing about her personality. Much to Shyla’s disappointment, Angel shows little interest in actual sex. Instead, he pulls out a dildo shaped like a fist and starts telling stories while going to work on her.
The first story Angel shares takes place in the very room the pair currently inhabit. The story revolves around a pair of young kids who start experimenting with heroin and while the guy doesn’t really take to it, the girl falls so deeply in love with the needle that she soon runs up a massive debt with the local drug dealer, a drug dealer who thinks that the boy should pay off his girlfriend’s debt by swallowing and inserting 100 condoms full of drugs and smuggling them across the Canadian border. What follows is a genuinely disgusting but also funny and insightful interlude in which the boy keeps expelling these condoms full of drugs and having to try and re-swallow them while his girlfriend veers wildly between inauthentic supportiveness and angry brow-beating. However, things take a much darker turn when the boy realises that he can’t keep all of these condoms down and his girlfriend is going to have to take a few as well. The tension in the scene builds and builds before eventually collapsing into unsettling darkness but Ralston instantly lightens the tone by describing a vengeful prank that’s disgusting but also quite funny.
I won’t describe any of the other stories as that would rob them of their power but Ralston’s control of tone is really impressive as they move from the depressingly mundane to the grotesquely surreal and all the while, we are drip fed information about Angel and Shyla as well as clues.
I use the term ‘clues’ advisedly as Woom’s story-within-a-story structure initially left me wondering whether the book was actually like one of those old porn films where a load of scenes from other films were cut into the shape of a film by the addition of an over-arching narrative like a peeping motel security guard or something of that ilk. I won’t tell you how the stories connect, but they do connect and what pulls them together is not only the experiences of Shyla and Angel but also a succession of references and motifs that are scattered throughout the story but only start swimming into focus towards the end of the book.
Woom is not a perfect novel. In fact, one of the foundational parts of the book’s conclusion fell rather flat for me as I simply did not buy it on a psychological level. I understand that Ralston wanted both the event and its broader significance to come as a surprise to the reader but I feel that keeping so many of the character motivations under-wraps meant that when something terrible happens to one of the characters it feels arbitrary and forced in a way that is actually quite jarring given how well the rest of the novel sits within the psychological forces that Ralston lays out. Given that I quite like my disgusting shit to be embedded in a sense of psychology, Woom might have disappointed me were it not for Ralston’s mastery of structure and the way that all of the different stories are littered with clues and references that pull everything together to set up a conclusion which, though extreme and grotesque, I found believable, compelling, and surprisingly up-beat given the horrific violence of the imagery.
Though not completely satisfying for reasons that are more about my preferences than the book itself, Woom is a very well-written piece of extreme horror that made me go out and buy another of Ralston’s books. I really enjoyed my time with Woom, which is more than I can say for a lot of extreme horror.