Tim Waggoner has always created his own special brand of reality-bending horror fiction, and I’ve been a fan ever since reading his first collection, the appropriately-titled All Too Surreal, in 2002. I’ve kept up with most of his output since then, with the exception of his fantasy titles, which aren’t really my cup of tea. Waggoner’s latest symphony of the surreal is the novella The Men Upstairs, from Delirium Books, and on the author’s personal scale of the bizarre, this one definitely leans hard to the outre side.
The story opens with a pitch-perfect two-page scene in which the protagonist, Richard, encounters a girl while on his way out of a movie theater:
She’s sitting on the floor, her back against the wall, tears running down her face, legs drawn up to her chest, arms wrapped around them.
Her gaze softens then, and she returns my smile.
That’s how it begins.
Richard is recently divorced and relatively hapless when it comes to the opposite sex, but he somehow manages to convince the girl, Liana: 1) that he’s harmless; 2) to come back to his apartment; and 3) to stay with him (although he sleeps on the couch).
As Richard and Liana carefully and gradually dance their way towards a relationship of some sort, the scenes involving them are sublimely rendered, capturing the awkward tenderness between the pair. But rest assured that when they, er, culminate their relationship, the sex is…disturbing, to say the least. And when three strange men, who seem to know Liana, move into the apartment upstairs, things get really weird.
Via some masterful descriptions of a variety of unpleasant smells, Waggoner crafts a story that is almost sensurround in detail. The following descriptions makes one thankful that The Men Upstairs does not come in a scratch-and-sniff limited edition:
“She exudes a faint scent that reminds me of the Bradford Pear, a pretty-to-look-at tree whose white flowers smell like a mix of dried semen, unclean vagina, and rotting shrimp.”
“I catch a whiff of something that smells like sulfur laced with dirty diapers.”
“It’s a musty, metallic smell, one I can’t immediately place, but then it hits me. It’s like the stink of a zoo’s reptile house.”
“An unpleasant odor lingers in the air after him, an acrid tang of hot metal, like overheating electronics.”
Nasal nightmares aside, the real question here is whether Waggoner can sustain the initial strong sense of mystery and surreality over the course of the story. Thankfully, the answer is yes.
On one level, Waggoner’s tale is a great riff on a situation that most of us have had to endure — rude, inconsiderate neighbors. On another level, it seems to be about the co-dependency that lives at the heart of far too many relationships. Regardless, The Men Upstairsqualifies as classic Waggoner.