Justin A. Burnett. The Puppet King and Other Atonements (Review)

Trepidatio 2022. ISBN: 978-1685100476. Pp., 190.

Horror is a diverse genre, and it is always a pleasure to read a work that is sensitive to its versatility. In The Puppet King and Other Atonements, Justin Burnett has produced just such a book, mixing elements of horror, weird fiction, and “soft” science fiction in a well-rounded collection that spotlights Burnett’s talent as a writer. The decision to label the individual pieces as “atonements” rather than stories or tales suggests from the start we are delving into an imaginary universe rife with moral and philosophical dilemmas that transcend the individual. This may be, but Burnett’s work is hardly didactic. If The Puppet King draws attention to existential and ontological conflicts in our modern society, it does so with an eye for strong characters and solid storytelling.

Stories like “The Toy Shop” and “Sister” embrace elements of the weird and cosmic with a certain lyricism that highlights a sense of impending dread which is always more visceral than explicit. Burnett’s prose creates fantastic vistas for us to explore, but they are also effective in producing characters afflicted by psychological traumas that resonate emotionally with readers. On the other side, pieces such as “Devourer” and “The Enucleator” eschew lyricism for a more direct style that takes the forms of interviews, monologues, and even descriptions of websites. Stories such as “m.Other,” in which a faltering psycho-analysist is forced to confront his own Freudian hang-ups, and “Labertino,” a story about a local Texan law enforcer investigating a series of mysterious bird sightings that may open portals to other worlds, will certainly please readers of weird fiction. Like many of Burnett’s stories, they subvert the recognizable world of routine and conventional human relationships, suggesting these may just be a patina glossing over an unimaginable chaos the mind is not ready to comprehend.

Despite the diversity of the stories that make up The Puppet King, there are certain themes and leitmotifs that reappear throughout and provide a conceptual framework for the book as a whole. Many of the pieces in the collection assume a cold and analytical gaze, in some cases disaggregating any semblance of the human. “ABDN-1” gives us a story presented form the point of view of a parasitic entity living in a semi-symbiotic relationship with a human host. “Our Endeavors,” which at first seems a story about loss and the slide into depression following the disappearance of a child, takes a sinister turn when we realize the narrator has other plans for the “subject” he is monitoring. The concluding work—the eponymous “Puppet King”—is by far the most direct engagement with these overarching themes of alienation, alterity, and estrangement. It is presented as a monologue in which a speaker pontificates on the relationship between human subjectivity and objectification with the aridity of a university lecturer past his prime. Here, the theories of Jacques Lacan are clearly evident as Burnett theorizes on the nature of “things.” The puppet, as Burnett suggests, is an interstitial being that perennially inhabits a world between person and object, dissolving the boundaries between the two. Like some of the best stories in the volume, the conclusion of this disquisition radically destabilizes what we thought we knew about the speaker and his audience while also inviting the reader to reflect on their own relationship to the text.

In reading The Puppet King, one is struck by the range of influences on display. In various places, Burnett references poets like Charles Baudelaire and Rainer Maria Rilke. He quotes from Lagotti and the proto-surrealist French writer Marcel Schwob while also throwing in tacit references to philosophers like Emil Cioran and Lacan and the theories of Freud. It is not difficult to see these influences at work in The Puppet King either. That said, Burnett is not above taking on more popular subject matter, with references to authors like Stephen King or engaging plot lines like those of “Endemic” and “The Rubber Man” which feels like a throwback to the golden age of the X-Files.

Burnett has turned out a collection that is both thoughtful and enjoyable to read. Most of the stories in the book are appearing in print for the first time, giving readers a wealth of fresh material to ponder over. For those who enjoy challenging works that are not afraid to tackle broad ontological questions, The Puppet King is sure to please.