‘Cursed’ by Jeremy C. Shipp

23 08 2010

[reviewed by Peter G. Bell]

'Cursed' by Jeremy C. Shipp, 214 pp, Raw Dog Screaming Press, ISBN: 978-1-933293-86-8

I had no idea what I was getting into when I opened Cursed, the latest novel by Jeremy C. Shipp, but I’m happy to say that my faith was rewarded; it’s been a while since I read a book that so consistently surprised and confounded me.

The story is narrated by Nicholas, a man with a guilt-ridden past whose fears of abandonment are realised as, one by one, his friends, family and even perfect strangers turn against him.

His one hope for salvation is Cicely, an oddball acquaintance who believes the fate of mankind has been placed – quite literally – in her hands and that she and Nicholas have been cursed by person or persons unknown. They determine to track down the culprit, but can Nicholas prevent his curse from driving them apart?

The plot is actually quite simplistic, but this only becomes apparent in retrospect as it’s almost devoid of the usual literary crutches designed to keep the reader on track; there are no signposts or clues littered about for us to find. Shipp doesn’t ask us to solve a puzzle – he makes us share Nicholas’s growing sense of helplessness as his curse manifests itself, one day at a time. Narrative twists, when they come, are unexpected and jarring, and usually explode any notions we might have been forming about the nature of the characters’ plight.

The pieces all fit smoothly together though, with the possible exception of the climax, which bundles together a few too many new concepts in too short a space, resulting in a grinding of mental gears. It still provides a solid conclusion though, and I can guarantee you won’t see it coming.

I’m suspicious of self-described “weird” or “bizarro” fiction. While I don’t mind a healthy dose of the surreal in my prose, I’ve read too many pieces that feel forced or pretentious, and usually end up distracting from their own stories. Not so here. Things may happen without rhyme but Cicely’s assertions that they never happen without reason helps ground the more outlandish and offbeat moments in a solid (if uncomfortable) reality, even if we don’t always share her suspicions.

And perception is key. From the very first page it’s clear that the titular curse is likely nothing more than a few unfortunate coincidences, fuelled by a guilty conscience. As one character puts it, “If I’m not insane, then the world is. I don’t know how to handle that.”

Subsequently, Cicely’s determination to blame her bizarre behaviour on another can easily be interpreted as an outright denial of reality and personal responsibility – she has invented a scapegoat for her personal failings and spiralling neuroses. Nicholas, meanwhile, is more reluctant to let himself off the hook. Again and again he blames himself for others’ behaviour towards him; he is damaged and can’t help damaging those closest to him.

This might not sound like a barrel of laughs but the story is refreshingly light on sullen introspection and Shipp ensures a steady supply of off-kilter humour and charm to counteract the story’s more disturbing undertones.

And it does become very disturbing indeed at times, punctuated by a few moments of sudden, shocking horror. Even here though, Shipp demonstrates a commendable restraint, preferring the prospect of unpleasantness to outright blood and guts.

But the book’s real power lies in its characters, all of whom are sparsely but expertly drawn. This is especially true of Nicholas; Shipp never gives us more than the bare minimum of information about him but he coalesces from a few quick, masterful strokes into a fully formed person within a handful of pages.

Perhaps the key is that we are given enough room to invest him with our own anxieties. His sins are never fully revealed so we substitute our own; who doesn’t have things they’d rather keep to themselves? Subsequently, his fear of exposure becomes our own as well.

This is where the novel excels – I don’t think I’ve read anything that so effectively captures the creeping dread of inadequacy.

But then, Cursed isn’t quite like anything I’ve ever read; it’s scary, delightful and surprising, all in one. Full marks to Jeremy C. Shipp for making it look effortless.




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