PEEL BACK AND SEE, by Mike Thorn
reviewed on October 25, 2021
Be warned: unlike most traditional horror, this latest collection from rising horror star Mike Thorn will make you feel less at home with yourself and your world. And the feeling may be permanent. That’s not some blurbic exaggeration or nifty hook. It’s the truth.
As the title of this amazing collection winkingly implies, horror has traditionally had a psychoanalytic element, in that horror tropes and narrative forms generally provoke a kind of catharsis: peel back and see what’s underneath—the hidden, the unrevealed, the unconscious, the repressed, the Shadow—and be the wiser, or at least the more functional, for it. Even the casual reader of Stephen King will see this element in operation. You encounter the Underworld, then return home the sadder and wiser for it, temporarily purged of your pent-up and neurotic resistance to the world’s darker elements. A novel like It is a more visceral version of the classic hero’s journey.
But almost every tale in Peel Back and See partakes less of that mythic tradition, and more of the profoundly dire traditions of Lovecraft and—as the epigrams serve notice—the pessimistic legacy of thinkers like Schopenhauer and Baudelaire.
The results are deeply and genuinely unsettling. The trip Thorn offers into the unconscious—the “Black Lagoon”—yields not catharsis or knowledge, but their opposites. The sly and bleak paradox of this collection is that it serves up not insight, but the disintegration of insight: it shows you that no particular rewards will come of encountering its fresh hells, unless permanent doubts and terrors can be considered rewards, unless an abiding suspicion that there was nothing to peel back in the first place counts as knowledge.
If there is any noetic insight at all that awaits the reader in Peel Back and See, it is the knowledge that the home you have departed for these underworlds was itself already an underworld. There is no return from these night journeys, because there was no foreign landscape to begin with, only the delusion of some veil between worlds. When that delusion crumbles, the result is not some new map to help you navigate. The result is a plunge into a dread you didn’t know existed. You ready for that, Dear Reader?
This is all meant as profound congratulation. Not much horror can really get under your skin any more. But this collection bites deep, in that it truly distresses your everyday assumptions, including your assumptions about what stories can do.
None of this is to say that Peel Back and See is exclusively about terrifying noumena infecting all experience. These stories engage real, phenomenal issues. Here you will find unflinching glimpses of trauma, addiction, abuse, depression, and every French disease of the soul. Here you’ll encounter the collapse of joy, wonder, and awe. Here you’ll be exposed to “unfeeling biological forces” that control us from beyond our horizons of perception, and “laughable masks” that cover our dread. “This is the World”—the title of the collection’s centrepiece and thematic centre of gravity—spells it out: thisis the world. Get used to it.
These stories all follow the same trajectory—down—but range across an astonishing range of topics beyond the usual repertoire. There is certainly enough familiarity here to please traditional horror fans, including the supernatural, the suicidal, the funereal, the satanic. Every story punches out the cinematic body horror Thorn is known for. But there is also public masturbation, pornography, cam girls, social media, hallucinations, psychologists, and—frequently—the hellscapes of rural and urban Alberta. Alberta has always deserved its own horror maestro. There is even, here and there, a kind of grim and absurdist humour (the title of “The Finger Collectors” is a great example).
Thorn’s singular range and expansive repertoire are also demonstrated by the sheer variety of generic tropes that are invoked, twisted, mashed up, and otherwise crushed and blended in Peel Back and See. There’s a bit of everything here, sometimes within the same story, to almost every taste: science fiction, young adult, fantasy, the doppleganger story, the Faustian bargain, even the high school drama (the mashup of horror and high school is turning out to be a Thorn specialty, as readers of his novel Shelter for the Damned know). “The Finger Collectors,” already mentioned, is an unholy combination of Stephen King, Charles Dickens, and John Cheever. Don’t take my word for it.
By the time you reach “Fade to White,” perhaps the most disenchanting tale of all, you might have imbibed more horror than you bargained for. The Author’s Notes at the end might ground you a bit, like the clown who calms the kids at the exit to the haunted mansion. That clown might peel back the curtain, do a little Wizard of Oz. But the clown may also be too late. As King showed us in It, the clown may be worse than the monsters.
At any rate, the horror of Peel Back and See may seep into your waking world, your everyday life beyond the pages. The warning is genuine. If you choose to ignore all warnings, welcome to the universe of Mike Thorn. Once you’ve been here, it’s doubtful you can ever leave.