The Juggalo Noir of Kelby Losack and J. David Osborne

My first memory of the Insane Clown Posse is watching the commercial for their album The Great Milenko between segments of WWF (now WWE) Monday Night Raw. It might have been the one linked below, but I’m honestly not sure.

I liked the grimy horror imagery but never bought the album. I had friends at school play me songs on their portable CD players, and they sounded like things I wasn’t supposed to hear. Horrorcore was fine in movies for my teenaged brain, but as a young Christian, I found its presence in music a little frightening.

Imagine my surprise when these greasepainted fellas showed up on the aforementioned weekly wrestling show. Rumors abounded in my school that they’d beat up top star “Stone Cold” Steve Austin for real behind the scenes, and that was why they didn’t interact with him on camera. These guys seemed dangerous in the way Marilyn Manson or Korn (on their first album) seemed dangerous. Maybe it was schtick, but I bought in, and a lot of other people did too.

Flash forward a couple of years, I’m in what I think is a serious relationship. It’s as serious as you can be at seventeen. My girlfriend’s older brother is a self-professed Juggalo. For the uninitiated, that’s not just someone who likes the Insane Clown Posse. That’s someone who eats, sleeps and breathes the music of ICP. He was a pretty cool guy. Even though he prided himself on being a jealous older brother, he liked me for some reason. Maybe he knew his sister was corrupting me, instead of the bad boys he saw as corrupting her in past relationships. I liked his collection of knives and talking about Jason movies with him.

One of my closest friends was an early supporter of ICP. Now when he sees people walking by with a Hatchet Man tattoo, he feels the need to apologize.

All that said, my relationship with Juggalo culture has been tangential at worst and scientifically curious at best. Still, there’s a weird familiarity whenever I pass a Juggalo on the street or see an edgy post from someone who unironically cites Twiztid as their favorite band.

Enter the novels of Kelby Losack and J. David Osborne. Yes, even with page counts as low as 55 (!), you’d better call them novels. If it’s between two covers, it’s a novel. Not a novella. Not a chapbook. That’s their philosophy. I really vibe with that, being an author of books that mostly clock in around the 30-40,000-word mark.

I first read JDO’s Black Gum in late 2015. I’d just met him at Bizarro Con of that year, and he seemed so down-to-earth. The bizarros are cool cats, but with a lot of them, I had a hard time figuring out where the performance ended and the person began. Not so with David. With him, what you see is what you get, and in Black Gum, it shows. Not since reading Stephen King as a teenager had I experienced something that felt so achingly familiar. While I seldom reached the heights of excess some of the characters in that story reach, I’ve known my fair share of burnouts who climbed those peaks. Some never made it back down.

I read that book during a feverish overnight shift at the 9-1-1 call center here in Austin. Sometime later, I read it again. A few years later, I read it aloud to my partner. The best part about Black Gum? It’s the first of a series. Its sequels A Minor Storm and Tomahawk continue its unnamed protagonist’s misadventures, and according to JDO, there are more books to come.

Also! It’s got juggalos! Is it the first book to feature members of that subculture? I’m not sure, but I’m willing to bet it’s the sincerest.

Kelby Losack’s Heathenish came out in 2017. Like Black Gum, it presents a protagonist trying to put his life back together after so recently watching it fall apart. At the time of its release, critics referred to it as “hoodrat noir,” a label Kelby and his fans were quick to embrace. I found myself similarly affected by this novel. Its raw honesty and personal revelation were so refreshing at a time when the writing world was fast becoming a depressing cesspool full of brands instead of actual people.

Kelby followed up Heathenish with the excellent crime novel The Way We Came In. I bought an audiobook version (it came on a burned CD!) from Kelby at a reading in Houston and listened to it twice on my drive back to Austin. Like his debut, it’s a grimy piece of noir, imbued with sublime occultism.

Earlier this year, Kelby released Hurricane Season, a book that accomplishes more in its 9,000 words than most books do in 90,000. It caused a bit of a stir on Twitter when he threatened to set fire to the last remaining copies if no one bought them. Burning books invokes a visceral reaction, it seems. Kelby sold off the last of the limited release later that night.

Given their friendship and similar tastes, a collaboration between the two seemed inevitable, and last week, with the surprise release of Dead Boy, that inevitability came to pass.

Dead Boy is each author’s strangest and meanest book yet. It’s a tale of extremely bad luck, dog fighting, and clout chasing. JDO and Kelby have made their disdain for the inherent narcissism of life on social media known, and one of the major plot points explores this to the fullest. The larger-than-life villain and the dog fighting angle call to mind the sensibilities of Asian filmmaker Takashi Miike, which should come as no surprise. JDO and Kelby host a podcast called Agitator, where they explore his filmography (as well as works by other Asian filmmakers).

Juggalos aren’t explicitly mentioned in Dead Boy, but with a dog resurrected by a mix of electricity and Monster Energy as a major plot point, the horrorcore influence is hard to ignore.

These guys have been quietly making some of the most interesting fiction for years, even influencing or giving platforms to authors with much greater reach, often uncredited. It’s high time the rest of the world took notice of these two, and Dead Boy is a great place to start.

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