"Midnight in the City of the Carrion Kid" Book Review

Written by Joe Haward

Published by Gloom House Publishing

midnight in the city of the carrion kid james g carlson poster large

Written by James G. Carlson
2021, 114 pages, Fiction
Released on November 3rd, 2021


There is a fearlessness to how James Carlson writes stories that needs to be recognised and applauded. It is clear that his goal, above everything else, is to tell the story he felt compelled to write, allowing himself the freedom of wherever his imagination will take him. This is not an easy task. It is all too tempting (or imposed) for writers to fall into the trap of writing the story they think the public or publisher demands. Fear of failure and sales targets can sometimes drive the shape and direction a book travels, rather than the telling of a story for the love of the art. With Midnight in the City of the Carrion Kid, it seems that Carlson’s goal was to tell the story that he wanted to write without fear.

And he succeeds in doing it.

The opening works delightfully at lulling us into a grim and wretched narrative that leaves the reader feeling deeply uncomfortable but on familiar ground as human frailty is explored. Carlson plummets us into a brutal and unforgiving world of drug addiction, two lives bound together in their insatiable desire for the next score. Carlson not so much paints but buries the reader’s face within the main character’s desperation, a gritty discomfort that oozes from the page like crude oil. Despite this, nothing feels out of the ordinary; a story of broken people living their broken existence. However, Carlson quickly shatters that perception of the ordinary.

Midnight in the City of the Carrion Kid is told from the perspective of Alistair, a heroin addict who has given up on everything—health, hygiene, humility, hope—except for heroin and his girlfriend, Eden. We are thrust deep into their addiction from the outset as they sit in a car waiting for a dealer called Angel. Carlson deliberately evokes and inverts the power of religious imagery here, as he does throughout Midnight in the City of the Carrion Kid, inviting us to consider the drug dealer as both a messenger and deliverer of evil in the form of the couple’s next drug fix. The deific power of their addiction is not lost on Alistair,

...we were inspired by an altogether different religion, where we prayed to a terrible god whose sacrament kept us sick and promised a sort of living damnation. A god to which we still pray. A corrupt religion from which we have yet to extricate ourselves.

Yet, despite the overwhelming power and hold this “sacrament” has upon their lives, Alistair has not been completely consumed by total self-absorption; he loves Eden beyond all other things. There is a tragedy here, already in the opening pages, of devastating regret, lives squandered and wasted, thrown away to a substance that will only ever take with unparalleled ferocity. Alistair pulled Eden into that world, and for a moment we hear his pain over this recognition. It is this dynamic that reveals how, in many ways, Midnight in the City of the Carrion Kid is something of a love story.

As the reader is considering this very human story of suffering, Carlson flips the world upside down into a weird, cosmic horror event. There’s an echo of Clive Barker, the master at restructuring reality, leading us down rabbit holes of the wonderful and bizarre, just as we think we’re on thoroughly earthly ground. Midnight in the City of the Carrion Kid takes a dramatic turn when Alistair wakes up from his heroin fix. Eden has vanished, and the world has changed. Grim, cold, and falling apart before he passed out, he wakes up the In-Between, a city that has fully deteriorated into an urban wasteland, whilst the atmosphere is hot, sticky and humid, a pungent stench that rots in the air and clings to your body. Alistair’s journey into a strange but somehow familiar world feels like Carlson is playing with Narnian ideas and concepts. It is like an inverted wardrobe sequence, only this time it’s a drug overdose. And it’s no longer innocent children playing hide and seek, but adults searching for a way out of reality. Furthermore, the Carrion Kid’s actions—turning the city of the In-Between into his own living hell—are reminiscent of Jadis the White Witch from Narnia canon.

Carlson rapidly builds a strange world of monsters, killer nuns, and a talking cat called Mister—reminding me of Behemoth in Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel, The Master and Margarita. Perhaps Carlson is paying tribute to Bulgakov in Midnight in the City of the Carrion Kid, taking storytelling risks and adding idiosyncratic unconventionality. In The Master and Margarita, Behemoth declares, “I really look like a hallucination.” That is very much the sense Carlson builds as to how Alistair views himself and his life. Throughout, the reader is reminded that Carlson is unafraid of taking risks, shaping worlds and characters wherever his imagination can take him. That’s a real strength.

Alistair meets a variety of characters, including Miles and Nico, lovers who have no idea how long they have been in the In-Between, “I don’t even know how long I’ve been here,” Nico explains at one point. He goes on, “...time is all weird. Hours here are equivalent to minutes in the living world, or something like that.”

Even in the midst of all the horror, action, and strangeness that is packed into Midnight in the City of the Carrion Kid, at its heart, Carlson is telling a very human story about humanity and our desire to be loved. As Alistair journeys through the In-Between, towards the tower (a nod to Stephen King) of the Carrion Kid, his goal, ultimately, is to be reunited with Eden.

There are moments where Carlson was trying too hard, over-explaining, tying up any potential loose ends. In making sure the reader is never left behind or confused, at times some of the dialogue is a little clunky.

That said, there is so much to enjoy about Midnight in the City of the Carrion Kid, like Alistair’s evolution as a character, the world of the In-Between, and also the quirkiness of the chapter headings, such as ‘Infinite Scrotum’ and ‘A Spinning Compass Leads Both Everywhere and Nowhere’.

At one point Alistair tells us, “...my focus doesn’t linger on the world outside..” Whilst I was reading Midnight in the City of the Carrion Kid, I knew how he felt.


Overall: 4 Star Rating Cover
Buy from Amazon US.
Buy from Amazon UK.

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