Ross Jeffery’s Juniper is a rare-breed indeed, a snarling animal of a novella that sinks its teeth into you and refuses to let go. From the very first line, we are draw into a surreal world where nobody is quite right in the head, and where the most innocuous people are fearsome tyrants behind closed doors. Juniper is a small half-forgotten town in southern America, surviving only by leeching off its neighbours. It’s a border place, a liminal space, somewhere between where bad things can happen because no one is around to stop them.
Though a Brit, Ross Jeffery captures small town America with the same flourish as David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, juxtaposing the mundane with the insane; he explores a crumbling marriage, concerns as petty as neighbourly rivalry, whilst also unveiling a society with a fetish for eating cats that live in fear of a monstrous alpha-feline large enough to kill human beings.
Fans of Chuck Palahniuk’s seminal Fight Club will enjoy the way this tale twists and turns, devouring its own tail, and defying attempts to define its genre. The atmosphere is one of bleak, surreal dystopia – yet the dark comedy that breaks through shows it is also a satire of the contemporary western world. Though the supernatural – or perhaps “uncanny” would be a better word – throbs beneath the surface of things (much like racial tensions in Juniper), there is a precision plotting here reminiscent of a crime thriller.
Juniper never takes itself too seriously. It treads a fine line between stylistic and hard-boiled, stopping for moments to give us something that touches the poetic, then undercutting it with sudden and explosive violence. Ross Jeffery’s prose is uniquely intense. Anyone that has read his short fiction knows this already. But here, he refines it, shifting flexibly between the interior worlds he fleshes out so well, and external movement of the narrative, which makes this story (and I apologise for the cliche) genuinely unputdownable. I like to think of his short stories as grenades that blow your mind with shrapnel. Juniper, on the other hand, is a guided missile system.
One of the best things about Juniper, however, is the characters. Though zany, they are always credible, grounded in three-dimensional humanity that makes you like even the worst of the bunch, despite your own moral compass. There’s Betty, a weird and lonely old lady living on the outskirts of Juniper – whom the youth think is a witch. There’s Janet, a woman living under the shadow of her ex-con husband, but who is far more than she appears. Then there’s Klein, Janet’s husband, an abusive bastard with little-man syndrome, who desperately feels his control slipping. Most of the story’s action is believably generated, not by forced external events – though all stories require those from time to time – but from the dynamics of the characters themselves: their motivations, aims, frustrations, and ultimate goals. This produces a unique tension that holds you right up until the final showdown.
Juniper is a brain-frying, pulse-pounding ride, taking us into the heart of a surreal apocalyptic America that, in all likelihood, lies just around the corner. Ross Jeffery has made it clear that this is our first taste of Juniper – but not our last. Much more of this creepy town awaits our discovery. If this is true, I eagerly await the follow up.
Like a hungry, rabid cat.
Ross Jeffery is a Bristol based writer and Executive Director of Books for STORGY Magazine. Ross has been published in print with STORGY Books, Ellipsis Zine 6, The Bath Flash Fiction Festival 2019, Project 13 Dark and Shlock Magazine. His work has also appeared in various online journals such as STORGY Magazine, About Magazine TX, Elephants Never, 101 Fiction, Ellipsis Zine, Soft Cartel and Idle Ink. Ross lives in Bristol with his wife (Anna) and two children (Eva and Sophie). You can follow him on Twitter here @Ross1982
Reviewed by Joseph Sale
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