Orrin Grey is one of the best regarded names in the current renaissance of dark and weird fiction. Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts is his second volume of stories, bringing together tales that have appeared in other collections – some of them very prestigious – but now are assembled under the author’s own name. And there’s a surprising consistency across the whole book, because the painted monsters here are mostly ones daubed with greasepaint, or special effects makeup. Grey reveals in his explanatory notes to the stories that most of them “are inspired by horror movies, or touch upon particular periods in the history of horror film.” As he says, “movies have always worked themselves into my imagination and my stories in a lot of ways, some that I’m probably not even aware of.”
Monstrous movie madness emerges in many of the stories. “Strange Beast” is a collection of notes towards an unpublished history of a monster movie shoot that grew out of a terrorist incident and ended in straight terror. “Ripperology” is a meditation on the nature of legendary monsters as much as is an enquiry into the Ripper myth – and a very ghastly tale. The last, and title, story of the collection succeeds in being both what Grey himself describes as “a sort of whirlwind ride across horror’s cinematic history,” and a genuinely unsettling tale of a movie producer caught in a collision between cinematic and real horror. “I want you to act like this is all a movie,” begins the narrator in “Persistence of Vision,” a particularly cinematic Apocalypse. “That’ll make it easier.”
Such a self-conscious approach to his craft could make Grey’s stories predictable and derivative: as it happens, anything but. As John Langan, another major name in modern weird fiction, remarks in his introduction to the book, “Orrin Grey’s fiction is full of monsters. It’s also no surprise that his stories display an awareness of the traditions in which he’s working, deftly moving between popular image and literary incarnation.” Actually, his sources inspire his imagination to go well beyond his sources and come up with plots and monstrosities far more able to disturb a modern audience than an old black-and-white RKO shocker. And it certainly helps that he’s a very good prose writer. You can cast a knowing eye on the greasepaint and garish theatrics, but don’t be surprised if you end up genuinely scared by the final credits. Oh, and entertained.