‘The Goth girl starts whacking me with a baseball bat. ‘Stay still,’ she screams, ‘or I’ll hit you again!’ … I stay still and it occurs to me as I lie in my chains that the death I have eluded and avoided and waited for and wept over and postponed for so long is at last upon me. And I am so very, very frightened.’
From this witches’ brew, James Miller serves up UnAmerican Activities – a set of loosely coupled short stories featuring a band of desperados: meth addicts, vampire hunters, survivalists and good girls gone bad (very, very bad). The collection has a Pulp Fiction vibe, reminiscent of the Tarantino classic in more than one way – each episode is self-contained, perfect in-and-of-itself, and yet trips into another. Also it is dark, and yet so, so funny – a parody of genre fiction, with classic tropes being distorted through a hall of mirrors. (The vampire in popular perception is either a tall and thin weirdo with a funny accent, or someone whose intellect, strength and gloss of youth make them almost unearthly. And yet in UnAmerican Activities, the vampire is a middle-aged slob who smokes crack with overweight prostitutes).
Whilst the sendup is brilliantly written and hilarious, something unexpected then happens – the jokes tail off with the situations becoming sober, more sinister. Miller’s ruse (if indeed it is calculated) works perfectly – make the reader comfortable, laughing at all the crazy people, and then slowly change the backdrop. Keep on shifting until the scenarios and characters are ambiguous, believable, even – to the extent that the joke may even be on ‘us’.
Any Cop?: UnAmerican Activities is more than a dark comedy. As delicious as the cast of characters are – the zombies, the gun-toting neo-Nazis and backwater hicks – it is way more than an assembly of genre-fiction staples. The prose is deft, delivering an unexpected payload. And the ending, such as it is – with no neat tying-up of threads, and the final notes being genuinely unsettling – pulls the comfort blanket away from the reader. It’s a masterstroke; and UnAmerican Activities is a little masterpiece.