Reading Brendan Vidito’s Nightmares in Ecstasy is like entering a basement laboratory to find hundreds of unspeakable things sealed in jars, peering through the murk to glimpse eyeballs and tentacles and other mutated appendages that appear unnervingly human, but somehow not.
A man reeling from a breakup falls in love with the tapeworm growing in his gut. An abuser grows a replica of his dead wife in a rancid bathtub. A mysterious video game infects the brain and invites players to assimilate into a perverse hive mind. A woman mutilates herself to become one with an alluring adult film star from an ancient videotape. These are a few of the more explicable stories to be found in the Sudbury-based author’s 2018 bizarro-horror collection.
As I read opening tale “the Anthrogyne”, about the painful breakup of a couple who are literally joined at the hip, my first thought was, This is like reading Books of Blood for the first time again.
It’s not for nothing that the blurbs on the back cover compare Vidito’s work to Clive Barker and David Cronenberg; I can’t think of a more apt description of what you’re in for here. Yet somehow, I was still not prepared. If this is Barker or Cronenberg, it’s Barker at his most visceral and Cronenberg at his most surreal. Several stories invoke a sense of Lynchian unreality, and “Placenta Bride” feels like a gender-swapped reworking of Gwendolyn Kiste’s “Clawfoot Requiem,” with the gross-out elements cranked up to eleven.
But Nightmares in Ecstasy isn’t just extreme horror for its own sake. Just when you think Vidito’s reached a new low in repulsive content, he hits you with transformative emotional catharsis. My favourite story in the collection, “Piss Slave,” starts out as sadistic torture porn before morphing into a Lost Highway-style mindf*ck about projected anger, the loneliness of grief, and the universality of pain. The first few pages of the story made me cringe; by the last paragraphs, it had become something warm and loving.
The book’s finale, “A Feast of You,” feels like at least five different stories in one, progressing from paranoid thriller to gory splatter with detours into family drama and cosmic horror. It’s also an emotional tale of belonging and sacrifice that left me hungry for more; I would devour a novel starring the protagonist and his malevolent-but-loving family.
Amidst all the weirdness in this collection is a cast of deeply human characters – protagonists who are yearning for love, uncertain of their own identity, desperate to feel something. In “Unconditional Love,” a young lover pretends to be asleep as his monstrous girlfriend comes home from a night of bloodletting – not because he’s afraid of her, but because he doesn’t want to make her feel self-conscious. And in “The Black Waters of Babylon,” a gravely injured businessman opts for terrifying experimental surgery over assisted suicide because he can’t bear “to be confronted one last time by [his partner’s] horrified expression before plunging into death.” The resolutions to their stories are unsettling and (occasionally) oddly comforting.
Surrealism can sometimes become self-indulgent, inhabiting a morally grey otherworld where nothing really happens and there are no real stakes; thankfully, Vidito manages to supply his hallucinatory dreamscapes with consequences, surprises, and suspense.
Nightmares in Ecstasy may not be the ideal read for your book club, but if you like twisted body horror, it’s a must-read.
Title: Nightmares in Ecstasy
Author: Brendan Vidito
Publisher: Clash Books
Order it here.