A Sick Gray Laugh, Nicole Cushing’s 2019 horror novel, is disturbing, at times disgusting. It’s surreal, it’s metafictional and it’s often hilarious. And, really, that’s about all I have to say about it. If you like any of those things, or all of them, you should read it.
Oh, what? I should tell you about the plot? Okay. Noelle Cashman, our first-person narrator, is an award-winning horror novelist. Recently, though, she has started medication for her struggles with anxiety and depression and now, faced with a book to write, discovers she doesn’t want to write another novel. While parts of her life are getting much better — she joined a softball team, lost some weight, is eating more healthily — Noelle is distressed and intrigued by the steady encroachment of the Gray in her small southern Indiana town. Noelle can’t help but see the Gray. Often it is not a literal gray, merely a muting of colors, the grass less green, the sky less blue, but sometimes she can actually see the “gray thought-snot.” She can feel its effects too, as do others in Indiana, she tells us — a coiled-up heaviness. Noelle sets out to write a nonfiction work: a case study of the Gray, and a suggested cure.
Noelle traces the first… infection?… of the Gray to a place called Naumpton, a failed town on the southern border, just over the river from Kentucky. She relates the history of a failed utopian sect called The Cult of the Mask, whose founder believed that the face was the source of all of humanity’s ego and pride, and covering it permanently would lead people to a natural state of harmony and acceptance. That goes as well as you might expect, and the group fails almost immediately. The next sect in Naumpton is the Brides of the Holy Ghost, a female-supremacy group that believes in celibacy, or at least not having sex with men. It also unravels. There is a theme of sadism running through the Brides, or at least Noelle, who is knowledgeable about sadism and bondage/dominance, sees it that way.
Her study of Naumpton and the advance of the Gray helps Noelle formulate a cure or treatment, which she intends to apply — her own cult, which will use the alchemical condition of solve (the state of dissolving) to overcome the coagula (a state of binding) that the Gray uses.
Noelle’s treatise, which starts off as being mostly linear and mostly lucid, if eccentric, slides into stranger and stranger territory. Our narrator veers off her topic at time, or seems to, to discuss the elements that led to Donald Trump being elected president, midwestern mores and values, BDSM, porno movies, celebrity talk show hosts and various other things. Noelle herself, meanwhile, is in training for a 5K race, a race that is the most surreal 5K race in the history of 5K races.
The book made me laugh. The book upset me, disturbed me, and puzzled me. And, OMG, the race. If you read A Sick Gray Laugh, I defy you to put the image of the 3D-printer gun out of your memory. Nicole Cushing’s strain of horror — or maybe I mean Noelle Cashman’s strain — trades heavily on disgust. Themes repeat; congealed animal fat, snot, a lot of references to BDSM, a lot of repeated phrases and words that perfectly capture the mindset of the author — I mean the character. (Remember that metafiction part?)
If these concepts upset you, don’t read the book. If this kind of deeply, disturbingly psychological horror is something you like, or can tolerate, and you also like acid-etched social commentary, savage humor and wild surrealism, give this one a try.
I see the word “transgressive” a lot in reviews. For this book, I looked it up on the internet, and found a quick-and-dirty definition: “a genre of literature that deals with characters who feel confined by the norms and expectations of society and who break free of those confines in unusual or illicit ways.” Yeah. A Sick Gray Laugh qualifies.
I try to stay away from the “this book is not for everyone” warning. This book, though, is not for everyone. It wouldn’t have really been for me normally, at least in terms of subject matter, but I was caught up in how well the writer brought us inside the consciousness of the narrator, and how completely the book demonstrates solve. A weird book that got under my skin, executed extremely well.