By Ben Arzate
Jimmy Green has been a fan of the TV sitcom Zoltergeist the Poltergeist since he was a kid. As an adult, he works as a bodyguard and limo driver, having moved to Hollywood hoping he could work for the star of the show. However, he’s forced to settle for working for a famous bowl of broth. One day, a visit to a church confession booth lands him a less than voluntary stay at the Penance House, where he’s required to spend six months repenting for his sins. While isolated in the house and trying to avoid the mysterious creature called the Clicking-Thing living inside it, he passes the time watching his favorite show. One day, he learns that Zoltergeist himself will be joining him.
“Shit was janked-up as heck.
While that broadly describes the plot of the book, it’s difficult to give a real summary. The one above doesn’t even cover anything close to the number of the absurdities that the novel piles on. It’s easy to see the individual ingredients. There are aspects of the haunted house genre in the Penance House, the descriptions of episodes of Zoltergeist the Poltergeist remind me a lot of “lost episode” creepypastas, and there are many scenes that read like throwbacks to 80’s comedy films. However, all of these ingredients are chopped up and blended in ways I haven’t seen before.
Hackle, for the most part, relays the absurd aspects of the book with straightforward prose that takes sudden weird turns. One of the most admirable aspects of the book is the way that Hackle can move between a pleasant description of the countryside outside of the Penance House to making jokes about the size of a leprechaun’s dick without blinking. The protagonist Jimmy will often lapse into a weird mish-mash of slang that seems pulled from different time periods when frightened or under pressure. For example, when Jimmy first confronts the Clicking-Thing, a monster living in the Penance House, he devolves into screaming, “Please don’t kill this! Man, I’ll suck your dick if you don’t kill this!” “This,” of course, being slang for “me.”
The descriptions of the Zoltergeist the Poltergeist TV show that litter the book are nonsensical, disturbing, and hilarious. They all feature the titular character murdering his family in some gruesome way, usually after messing up some simple task like a typical TV sitcom dad. Some of the depictions of rotting corpses, slit throats, and mangled body parts are actually very graphic and wouldn’t be out of place in an extreme horror book.
A big part of the book is personifying odd things. Zoltergeist himself is essentially a small sentient dust devil with nothing visible of him except swirling feathers and whatever he’s carrying. Jimmy’s boss is a living broth who plays famous broths in movies. At one point, Zoltergeist’s security team, consisting of the entirety of all dot.com domains and the Battle of the Bulge, to name just a couple, show up. The one thing that bugged me is that the book sometimes goes out of its way to point out how weird it is that these things act as people rather than letting the weirdness stand by itself. Despite that, the creativity in how Hackle turns abstract concepts into people is something to admire.
Zoltergeist the Poltergeist is a hilarious headtrip of a novel that had me laughing every couple of pages. The lack of a strong plot and the seemingly random absurdities may be off-putting to some, but for people who want a goofy, fun, and sometimes horrifying read that leaves reality completely behind, this is the perfect novel. Shit’s janked-up as heck. Fuck!
Ben Arzate lives in Des Moines, IA. His articles, reviews, short stories, and poetry have appeared in various places online and in print. He is a regular contributor to Cultured Vultures and is the author of two poetry books (the sky is black and blue like a battered child and dr. sodom and mrs. gomorrah, feel bad all the time), one book of short stories (The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Saying Goodbye, NihilismRevised), and two novels (The Story of the Y, Cabal Books and Elaine, Atlatl Press). Find him online at dripdropdripdropdripdrop.blogspot.com.