written by Wrath James White
published by Two-Backed Books

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates said this more than two thousand years ago. Yet how many of us really examine our lives, our beliefs, values and opinions? How many of us question why we believe what we believe from our morals and ethics to our prejudices and biases to our politics and religion? How many of us just parrot our cultural, familial, or generational party line without truly understanding the reasoning behind these ideologies? How many of us go through life like a leaf in the wind just going with the flow without once questioning why or where it is all leading?

When your average person thinks of (extreme) horror, whether they realize it or not, they are thinking of work similar to the work of Wrath James White. When I say horror, many (of you) are thinking blood and guts and maybe randomly naked people. As a genre, it is dismissed as being too brutal, too sadistic, and too terrifying to have any redeeming value.

“He would free them from the mores, the traditions and the societal, moral, and cultural restraints that have for so long fettered the development of the human spirit.” –“The Book of a Thousand Sins”

I usually don’t read from the extremist/bizarro spectrum of horror, though I am a huge fan of Wrath James White’s blog. I always felt that it typically doesn’t have a moral core since so much of what the extreme side of the genre tries to do is get a response out of the reader, using the tools of the style to provoke arousal, revulsion, or even offense. While I do occasionally read things from the extreme side of things–Clive Barker, John Shirley, Gemma Files–without a doubt, White’s The Book of a Thousand Sins might be the most vile, disturbing, sacrilegious, and brain-scarringly haunting piece of work I’ve read. Almost prompting me to title this piece “Wrath James White: What the hell is wrong with you?” However, these things are also what makes it a notable horror work.

All that being said, why is Wrath James White’s work worth wrestling with?

“After stopping the intrusion of that one false ideology with the simplest of all defenses, a lucid question, I immediately began to wonder how much additional mental refuse I might rid my mind of with the strength of that one question. How many ideas had I accepted simply because so many others had accepted it before me?” –“Awake”

It is no secret that Wrath has some issues with religion. In his 15 short stories, many violent and some sexually explicit, he keeps returning to certain themes. “Awake” explores the power of asking the question “why?” As one man searches for God, and the journey it takes him on, in his story “He Who Increases Knowledge,” we get a glimpse of how he sees religion: as a renunciation of reason and autonomy as people become cattle. A Christian punished for the sin of pride and self-righteousness in “Don’t Scream,” which is a violent meditation on the afterlife. “Couch Potato” is a nihilistic horror show examining what the point of life is. Again, this follows the theme to his work, a search for answers to questions and heaven help us when he doesn’t like what he hears. Interestingly, the answers to the questions that he poses tend to eventuate in the same place: violence, insanity, and death.

“Pain is the nervous system’s primary indicator that we are doing something that might compromise the integrity of our bodies. It presents us from destroying ourselves. To not know pain is to not understand what it takes to survive and succeed.” –“The Sooner They Learn”

It might be unfair to say that his characters are bereft of moral restraints. One thing they have in common is that they constantly question how knowledge is passed down, whether or not people have accepted beliefs simply because tradition passed the ideas down. Their minds unravel once they hold to no beliefs, becoming assured of only one’s self. In other words, they are the product of skepticism unchecked, unable to find a reasonable reason to draw their next breath if everything was random and meaningless. And then finding themselves capable of doing anything.

In “The Sooner They Learn,” White poses that if there were a God, He was afflicted with Munchausen by Proxy. He imagines God as a woman, the ultimate mother, causing suffering in order to have us call out to Him to save us. This is the knowledge that Adam learned in the garden of Eden and such a deity affliction would be one answer to the problem of pain in the world. The book ends with the story “No Questions Unanswered,” which wrestles with the argument of faith vs. facts in the context of what happens to us if God is dead (or killed in this case)?

“You have no idea what death is. Your deluded little fanatic ass believes that there is something waiting for you after all this is over, but there isn’t. Believe me, I know this life is all there is. Religion is one big lie and you’re just another sucker. Perhaps the biggest of all.” –“A dialogue Between a Priest and a Dying Man”

In this revenge fantasy with a terrorist, testing his “faith” both wrestles with the idea of the afterlife as well as echoing the words of Paul (“And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” I Corinthians 15:14). That is pretty much the crux of things. The despair and hopelessness, the sense of (tragic) desperation to White’s characters pervade the stories. In Calvinistic terms, White could be speaking to the total depravity of man when left to his own devices. The flip side to this doctrine is that sometimes this comes out as acknowledging that man has a darker nature that he needs to resist, restrain, or “kill.” The conclusion, whether White intends it or not, is that if we have no faith in God, we certainly can’t have faith in man either.

It all comes down to hope. Hope is the anticipation of a good that is not yet here. Sometimes the good is deliverance from an evil (which doesn’t happen very often in any of White’s stories), but it is also related to faith. Faith is confidence grounded in reality, the reality of the invisible; not seen, but nonetheless real. An answer to the bleakness, emptiness we all so often feel. We live in a world of sin, suffering, and evil. Horror stories, like any other kind of story, can be an important vehicle of truth. And I certainly wouldn’t argue about the transformative power of story.

Having built up quite a following in the small press, Wrath James White is poised for mainstream success, waiting for the right vehicle for him to move to the next level. The Book of a Thousand Sins is not without its problems. The stories are inconsistent and a little uneven, with the title story being a little too long (though one got the feeling that White really enjoyed writing that one). Some have some jarring POV switches. Others are afflicted with too much brainy philosophizing getting in the way of the atmosphere of the story. One, “More Magg
ots,” though delightfully gross prove little more than one note jokes. All of his stories, however, are rife with striking images.

Wrath James White is at his strongest when he meditates on the human condition. He is quick to go to the extreme, painting with those colors when he doesn’t have to. I couldn’t help thinking that his visceral writing style has become a crutch at this point in his career, when often in his tales, the true horror lies beyond the blood and the sex. Which is why part of me felt as if this collection was a bit of a “good-bye and thank you for your support” to his early fans. While ever honing his craft, he demonstrates a creative agility with all things depraved. It’s easy to be nasty. It’s a lot more difficult to bring intelligent themes to the canvas and paint with nastiness as Wrath James White does. He may not be for everyone, but you can tell that he has definitely found his voice.

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