jolly“The story is part David Lynch, part comedy of errors, and readers will never quite know what will happen next. The scenes are loaded with surprises…A highly creative, if meandering, adventure.” Kirkus

The Jolly Coroner: A Picaresque Novel by Quentin Canterel

Evil wakes while the people sleep.

Amongst the strip malls, concrete blocks and empty parking lots of the Southern town of Hokum, the American dream lies broken. A helpless immigrant the state has declared dead finds himself unable to prove otherwise. Abused Mexican kids abduct their schoolteacher escaping back across the border. A haunted hillbilly dangles from a flagpole refusing to believe his wife and children aren’t ghosts. The Warden, a camo-wearing military obsessive pedals drugs whilst blaring Stockhausen. A down on her luck junkie fails to drown herself and resurfaces to find love.  All these characters have one thing in common: they will all find a way to wind themselves in to the coroner, Billy’s life.

Billy’s love of celebrity and aversion to hard work leaves a growing trail of wronged members of the public – a trail that he just can’t seem to shake. Although he can’t understand why, the townsfolk begin increasingly to mistake him for the devil. Amidst all the fun, THE JOLLY CORONER poses questions about moral decay and proves that a casual string of circumstances, in the right conditions, can lead to the rise of a dangerous man… only it’s so accidental no one seems to notice.

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Extract

“For now we see through a glass darkly”

 

Billy was certainly in typical form: half-contemptuous, half-rapturous, laughing in his loud, hoarse manner so that his guts belched and wheezed like a mechanical bellows on the blink – these evidently oppressed by his two hundred and sixty pound frame, every bit of which wobbled in sympathetic vibration. Presently, he was enjoying a singularly good pastrami sandwich, the remains of which would probably litter his shirt collar for the remainder of the day and perhaps the foreseeable future. He had in front of him, a “tits magazine” tilted sideways, which he studied at arm’s length with great concentration as he walked down the narrow, dark corridor toward his vacant apartment, whose contents almost defy description so varied were they in their unique position, form and relative state of decomposition. He hadn’t even noted the small-framed Asian girl, whose sidling hadn’t preserved her from the jolt into the adjacent corridor she received from his perpendicularly oscillating haunches. Normally, he would have confronted her with a crude “hello” and a glance toward her own square haunches, but today page fourteen had granted him enough satisfaction to ignore her miniscule presence. So engrossed was he in his present observations that he nearly passed his own door which rested mercifully at the end of the hall, where few ventured without pressing need. Billy hadn’t ever met and had barely even seen any of the neighbors that shared his floor, but he knew quite a bit about them having searched all of their profiles on the Internet. Opening the door in frustration after a number of absent minded gropings at the greasy door handle, the familiar smells of darkness and decay entered his arching nostrils. Some may have been revolted by the climate, but he merely let off a calm sigh, thinking to himself that he really should hire a cleaner, his mind wondering back forlornly to the Asian girl who let the building’s front door slam behind her. For some unknown reason, Billy had felt a certain sense of uneasiness all week. He didn’t know why, but he had a pretty fatidic clarity about these things and his mind was filled with misgiving. It was nothing that a healthy dose of Grieg and a small helping of recreational diazepam couldn’t cure. Lately, due to this small sense of apprehension, he had felt more distracted than usual. And it was for this reason that it was only after opening the door that he noted the yellow piece of paper taped to it that stated in large bold letters, “Pay Me,” signed “The Warden”. With little gusto, he removed the masking tape that held the paper in place and entered the musty gloom of his apartment, not bothering to close the door behind him.

His left hand’s fleshy club wandered toward a light switch, while his right hand moved in a precise, almost graceful counterpoise to toss the magazine, which nutated midair like a dying lark before it hit the ground with a simple thud. Shambling toward a makeshift desk, he pressed the button on the blinking answering machine, which contained only two messages. One already listened to and another which caused the flesh on Billy’s face to twist around the axis of his nose. It was the mysterious and (so he thought) insane foreigner who referred to himself as the recently deceased Basyli. For the last three days, this man had been leaving him a series of pleading messages in hackneyed English, each increasingly incoherent. The current one he cut short with a quick stab of his right index finger. In the blustery, brumal weather the knuckles of his hands, shown through, cold and wet to the touch like a dog’s muzzle, prickly and raw as if they had been drawn through a briar. To others, his touch was normally damp, almost reptilian as his unusually cold fingers would seem to melt out of one’s grasp. Some interpreted this as insecurity or perhaps a moral infirmity on Billy’s part, but in fact, Billy didn’t like to shake hands because of the mere fact that he profoundly disliked anyone touching his hands. After all, it was his hands, of which he was particularly fond and took a fastidious, almost vain care of, perhaps because unlike the rest of his body, they were relatively well formed.

As he began furtive preparations to relieve himself in the unlit bathroom, the phone rang and thinking it was probably “Basyli” (sometimes referred to in the official documentation as “John Doe” or on occasion more sympathetically as “B.”), he hesitated to pick it up. However, when the answering machine began to sputter with the dispassionate voice of dispatcher Mark Velenet, Billy swiveled back to pick it up in his free hand as he continued to unfold his manhood with the other. “Yep, this is Billy,” he groaned. He had one of those voices that made him sound like a colossal prick no matter what he said.

“Where have you been? Tried to get you on the cell. We’ve got another one in the wharf district”, chirped the sudden, attentive young voice of Velenet.

“But I just got home…’

“Yeah, I know, but it’s not far from where…”

“Yeah yeah, give me the address.”

The exchange was quick and though Billy had done little to nothing all day, he hoped to enjoy a relatively tranquil Tuesday evening, given that it was statistically rare for someone to give up a violent ghost on a Tuesday. In any case, there was no avoiding it, he couldn’t enjoy any of the various diversions he had planned upon coming home: watching his favorite film (Averty’s Ubu Roi, a film from which he derived an obsessive, even compulsive enjoyment from), embellishing his self-made Wikipedia page (yes, he had contributed to the lie that is shared knowledge, professing himself to be one of the country’s foremost coroners) or even perhaps fiddling with one of his many Rubik’s cubes (nothing of which need be elaborated upon).

Billy, again walked down the rather drab, lowly lit corridor of his apartment building and on into the defused light of a late September evening. His building, which had been built in the Fifties was a combination of red brick, cement and plaster board and rose eight stories above the street. It was one of the few apartment buildings in this area of Hokum, which was primarily a business district, surrounded by a number of old river wharves constructed in some cases before the Civil War and in others, just afterward by opportunistic Carpetbaggers. More than a few of these where in a dilapidated state, overrun with kudzu and honey suckle. Whenever lightning hit the river, one could hear the thunderclap reverberate through their deconstructed walls, scattering the ghosts that hid within their vacant spaces, leaving some superstitious residents nervous for days afterward. If Billy were to walk right out of his apartment and turn under the bridge, he would, after a few minutes’ walk, come to the vast, brown expanse of the Onondaga River. Without much difficulty, he could look across its vast, shifting surface to see the first lights being turned on in the boardwalk restaurants of Crowley. He would see, but not hear the boats knocking into one another with a hollow sound as the water became more tempestuous under the syrupy, gray air that carried the distinct smell of rain. A storm was certainly brewing. Sometimes the winter storms in this area could be very violent and many older residents still remembered the great storm of ’57, where the tumid river rose up and almost subsumed Hokum within its angry torrent. It had rained frequently over the last few days, which meant the stray dogs lost their scents and wandered aimlessly and watery-eyed around the city limits in the dimming light of early evening, looking for a place to bed down before the first drops.

Hokum had a population of approximately eighteen thousand people and though appearing relatively modern in parts, it was dotted with the typical gothic horrors and irredeemable folklore of many small southern cities. Besides the Onondaga River, another natural force that threatened to subsume Hokum was the omnipresent, creeping ghost that was kudzu. During the winter, it turned white and gave a spectral appearance as it fell over entire buildings like an old Indian’s, uncombed locks, resigning them (except in outline) to distant memory. National statistics report that the silent menace was currently spreading at a rate of 150,000 acres a year. Originating from China, kudzu was introduced into the Southeast in the late 19th century, predominantly for use as animal fodder, but also used to prevent soil erosion. It was for the latter reason that the plant found its way to Hokum and had since spread like a gasoline fire. Hokum was once what many would have described as a quiet, pleasant city, but it had, for at least a decade, had its privacy invaded by a crop of recent immigration, due primarily to expansion of the public mass transportation lines. For the first time in a quarter century, younger people were moving back to Hokum as a cheaper, hipper place to live, while a more unwanted presence was also beginning to be felt, that of the once roving Mexicans, who had come from the nearby alfalfa plantations to the city to find work in restaurants or as day laborers. This third and perhaps greatest menace was the one that the everyday people of Hokum feared the most.

Billy hadn’t grown up in Hokum, no he had come from far away and only settled there in the bloom of his early thirties. His lax grooming practices meant that something akin in color to peach-fuzz still found providence on the nape of his sun burned neck. No one was certain from where he had come, but they were certain that it was from far away (or perhaps they had hoped so and equally, that he might return). He had become the city’s coroner in his mid-thirties, not because of any great specialization in the sciences or because anyone had any respect for the wide circumference of his natural abilities. Simply, he was the only one who applied for the job. The role had been posted unsuccessfully for several weeks without a single application or even an enquiry. Then one savagely bright Tuesday morning, with no warning whatsoever, Billy stepped into the office in a khaki summer weight suit and an overly large tie and dropped his resume right on the sheriff’s desk. By this time, Billy was somewhat of a local legend around the city, partially for his drinking habits and partially for what would occur due to his drinking habits. Some speculated that the only reason he applied for the job was that he had lost some late night drinking game or had engaged in a dubious dare. It was a fact that Billy was overly fond of long, drunken conversation, which usually took a philosophical bent and never varied despite the character of his audience. In fact, when he had been reluctantly named the new coroner, many thought it entirely fitting, because while most would be bored stiff by his long-winded conversations, it was unlikely that the dead would mind very much. However, this comment was slightly malicious and in fact, plainly untrue as a number of people were highly entertained by his fustian conversation and the strange turns it took. Some would describe him as completely shameless and lacking “an inner monologue”, meaning his words and actions were humorous in the highest degree if one didn’t mind laughing a little at another’s personal foibles or misfortunes. It was very hard to take Billy seriously. In sum, Billy assumed the role of one of the city’s great laughing stocks, but one with a slightly menacing, unknown quality. In fact, Billy’s mood could turn vicious and a noticeably darker side would present itself, usually under the influence of cocaine or a bad hangover.

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