"The Gulp: Tales From The Gulp 1" Book Review

Written by Tony Jones

Published by 13th Dragon Books

the gulp alan baxter poster large

Written by Alan Baxter
2021, 316 pages, Fiction
Released on 12th January 2021


I am a huge fan of Alan Baxter, so was ashamedly sluggish in getting around to tackling his five interconnected novellas within The Gulp, which was published early in 2021. However, the delay turned out to be advantageous, as I was able to bounce directly onto the sequel The Fall, which is equally as impressive. If you have never read Alan Baxter before, his Eli Carver trilogy about a semi-retired mob enforcer is another great place to start. The trilogy opens with Manifest Recall, dealing with incredibly painful personal trauma; Eli begins to see the ghosts of some of his own victims who berate and follow him around. Written in a completely different style to the Gulp books, by way of comparison they highlight the impressive range of Alan Baxter’s writing.

Stephen King’s Castle Rock is undoubtedly the best-known literary location where otherworldly phenomenon frequently occurs, but The Gulp has more in common with Josh Malerman’s Goblin, which has a similar interconnected sequence of novellas within the same book. Philip Fracassi is another highly recommended author to try something similar; his recent novella Commodore is set in the town of Sabbath (which is also the setting of his short story Soda Jerk) and presents his town as a place tourists should avoid, similar to how Baxter sells The Gulp. Readers enjoy picking up clever literary references which connect stories, and The Gulp is top heavy with such nuggets. It also has an intriguing implication that there might be a major dark event on the horizon, but what is it? Hopefully there will be a third volume of stories with further revelations.

What I particularly love about these stories is the sheer variety of plots and the fact they consistently mix up the style. It would have been very easy to write five ‘tourist in peril’ style stories about outsiders coming to a sticky end in The Gulp, instead only two feature outsiders, with the remainder illustrating that the town is just as unnerving for the residents as it is for visitors. Another major highlight is the fact that even though all five tales have conclusions of sorts, they are open-ended enough to revisit in future features, giving further clues regarding what else might have played out next. For example, if you are curious of the fate of poor old Rich from the first tale, he pops up in passing further down the line. The story featuring siblings Maddy and Zach is a further terrific example where a continuation would be most welcome in how things pan out for the tricky duo.

Alan Baxter goes a great job of vividly bringing the isolated Australian New South Wales harbour town of Gulpepper (known as ‘The Gulp’ to the locals) to life, becoming a living and breathing character itself. Like with David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, there is much bubbling away under the surface or behind the drawn curtains of the inhabitant’s homes. He cleverly reinforces the importance of the location by allowing the reader to become familiar with particular key locations, such as the two pubs, shops (anybody remember Woolworths, which is long gone in the UK?), motels, street names and background characters. One particular character (who does not seem to have a nose!) must be a contender for a headline part further into the series. Although Baxter never specifically reveals what is different or wrong about the town, lots of juicy tip bits are dropped, such as newcomers always have weird and oppressive dreams and the cryptic references to The Fall, the title of the second book.

"Out on a Rim" sets the tone perfectly with visiting delivery drivers Rich Blake and George Grayson getting stranded overnight in the town after their van is involved in an accident. What is interesting is the extremely different ways in which the two men react: Rich sees it as an opportunity to explore the town and get drunk, whilst old-timer George gets edgy and hunkers down in the van. Why? George is a veteran and knows of The Gulp’s weird reputation, which is then pushed onto the reader. Newbie Rich does not believe any of these outlandish tales and Out on a Rim follows his evening and the very dark place it takes him. We are repeatedly told that The Gulp ‘has a habit of swallowing people whole’ and this is a great example. The second part of the story also features another great recurring character, who is sure to reappear in future installments.

"Mother in Bloom" is an absolute belter starring teenage siblings Maddy and Zach, who have been looking after their sick mother who dies at the start of the story. They decide not to tell the authorities about the death, as they want to continue claiming her benefits but have problems deciding what to do with the body. The problem gets worse when a weird fungus starts to grow on the corpse and the teens begin to hear the voice of their dead mother in their heads. Both kids are very likable rogues and I hope we have not seen the last of them.

I love stories about rock or metal bands, and "The Band Plays On" hits all the right notes! Blind Eye Moon is a very popular local band who is a big draw with the locals and is mentioned in several of the stories, but takes centre stage in this outing. Four European backpackers – Patrick, Ciara, Torsten and Simone – catch the band playing in nearby town Monkton and are totally blown away by their exhilarating performance. They are then invited back to The Gulp by the band for a party and once they arrive at their place find it very difficult to leave. Patrick, who narrates the story, smells a rat, but the rest of his friends are caught under the spell of the strange band.

"48 To Go" is both quirky and very funny, as its second half includes a comedy of errors in which events just go from bad to worse for hapless Dace Claringbold, who probably wished he stayed in bed. Dace works for the local drug dealer (a recurring character) and makes deliveries up the coast by boat. Whilst trying to impress a girl with the boat, he is robbed of the drug stash and is given 48 hours to pay his boss back, otherwise repercussions will extend beyond himself and onto his family also. The story is built around how Dace goes about trying to acquire the payback money and it is great stuff. Word of warning, if you have pet guinea pigs, I would avoid this story! "48 To Go" also has a clever connection to another story in book two, The Fall.

"Rock Fisher" is the shortest and my least favourite of the five stories. It concerns fisherman Toby MacKay, who catches a fish with weird properties which begin to shape his personality, memory and body. I do not think as much went on in this story as the others, but it does interconnect some of the other themes featured elsewhere and sets things up nicely for The Fall.

The Gulp is a hugely enjoyable collection and each story is a unique pleasure. I often read anthologies or collections very slowly, but I devoured this and The Fall back-to-back and I cannot give it a higher recommendation than that. Watch out for a review of The Fall on Horror DNA from another reviewer shortly.


Overall: 5 Star Rating Cover
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Tony Jones
Staff Reviewer
Such is Tony’s love of books, he has spent well over twenty years working as a school librarian where he is paid to talk to kids about horror. He is a Scotsman in exile who has lived in London for over two decades and credits discovering SE Hinton and Robert Cormier as a 13-year-old for his huge appetite for books. Tony previously spent five years writing The Greatest Scrum That Ever Was, a history book very few people bought. In the past he has written for Horror Novel Reviews and is a regular contributor to The Ginger Nuts of Horror website, often specialising in YA horror.
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