STARRED Book Review: Cul-de-sac
Reviewed by Joshua Ryan Bligh
A genre-blending mosaic with an unforgettable atmosphere, Cul-de-sac explores what lies on the other side of death.
The Oughtside is here, and it is time to bathe in red. Nick Perilli takes you through a surreallist urban fantasy that dances a shadowy jib across genres as broad as soap opera, haunted house horror, and isekai. Perilli’s inspiration seems pulled from a wide creative interest, weaving together each piece into a singular, unique novel.
Lively and surreal, something born of a Venn diagram of Dali, de Chirico, and David Lynch, Cul-de-sac plays out with fascinating detail as a testament to the author’s imagination and playful style.
When Derek, referred to as “the boy” for most of the narrative, wakes up, he knows something has gone down. He is tipped off by the sky, a strange red hue basking his typically boring suburban cul-de-sac in an otherwordly glow. If that doesn’t close the deal, then the shadowy figure in his hallway sure does, apparating and whisking him away à la A Christmas Carol to serve as Judgment, witnessing the varied lives of his neighbors and either condemning or saving them.
What follows is a tale of nosebleeds and judgment and porcelain told through demi-plane VHSes, eye-plug cables, and more, often backed with laugh-tracks. You might see that sentence and raise an inquisitive eyebrow, but by the time you have tumbled along a few surreal chapters of Cul-de-sac, your eyebrows might still be reaching for the sky but you will also be nodding along. Just when you think you have the measure of the story, supposing you are in for a wonky ghost-train ride, the conductor sends the whole thing off the rails and the story really opens up.
Moving forward, Perilli shows the complexity that lies beneath every human surface and the depth of experience that lies within, even among residents of a suburban cul-de-sac, a social sector often too-readily dismissed as banal, cookie-cutter life. There is humor, resentment, passion, longing, missed chances, and more beneath the fragile surface of each of his characters, shining with a grounded clarity in an otherwise phantasmagoric landscape.
I continued to find myself pleasantly surprised with each new scene, the blend of quotidien with the absurd made for a clarity of image that kept me turning pages in anticipation of what Perilli’s brain would conjure up next. The only caltrops I found along my path were the moments when the main character (“the boy”) came across as petulant and impatient, making the process of warming up to him as a character move along in fits and spurts, but he and I get along after a while. Those patches aside, the folks running around their post-life cul-de-sac are fully realized, and you’ll find yourself wishing them the best.
Readers who enjoy the odd and spooky (without dipping into the kitsch of gratuitous horror), will find a crisp joy in Cul-de-sac. It can take its time moving along, but even when the pace might slow down, it gives you more time to appreciate the care, whimsy, and effort that have gone into crafting such a memorable experience.
Publisher: Montag Press
Genre: Fantasy / Experimental
Print Length: 370 pages
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