Review by: Matthew Sanderson
By Christopher Alan Broadstone

Visionary film maker Christopher Alan Broadstone, whose cutting edge shorts MY SKIN, SCREAM FOR ME and HUMAN NO MORE rank as some of the most unnerving and artistic films of recent memory, allows his morbid imagination free reign with the 400 page novel, PUZZLEMAN. Upsetting, enthralling and charged with visceral energy, it features one of the most twisted villains of the entire genre, and drags us through an atmosphere that is bizarre, gruesome and incredible.

Buying an ancient wire-coiled earring whose layered, random patterns house a terrible secret, Texas sculptress Amanda Zimmerman falls under the influence of a preternatural creature. Called the Puzzleman – because of his horribly mismatched body and lop-sided head – he attempts to lure Amanda into the grue-filled, gummy hell that is the pipeworld, so that he can feed off her emotional pain amid a torrent of perpetually squirming body parts and “grume-monsters”.

Using one of his former captives, the quite literally “Legless Man”, as bait, The Puzzleman drowns Amanda in the vertiginous nightmare of her own personal demons. Playing off her torment at the death of her infant son, which she blames on God’s absence and absolute lack of interest, the unbalanced creature takes possession of Amanda, forcing her into his terrifying limbo, frozen in the fleshy agony that exists before one spirals into death.

Meanwhile, a disparate thread of characters, including Professor John Rainbow, Detective Ben Henfry and wine merchant Jeanette Orfevre, all find themselves entwined in the Puzzleman’s sick designs. Linked by their associations with black, blood-caked Cathedral Fleur du Sang that stands on the ominous “Hollow Hill” in France, the diverse group must transcend the barriers of space, time and logic, to put an end to the primeval freak, when they find the key that will take them down the dreaded pipes…

From the beginning, when we are introduced to the aggressive, bitter Amanda, as she argues with a crack-addicted street vendor, PUZZLEMAN is a hard-edged piece of work. Concerned with angst, Broadstone uses the bereaved, insecure young woman as a springboard for his own rumination on the dread that haunts us all. A tormented artist, Amanda immediately reminds one of Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman's complex and brooding protagonists. Fittingly, Amanda creates sculptures in order to, as it is put, “recreate life”, to strike one mark against the dreaded D word.

Despite invoking other works, PUZZLEMAN is committed to achieving its own ends. Like the best extreme visionaries, the writer takes a notion and explores it with conviction, through a myriad of beautifully drawn characters and otherworldly situations. In an extraordinary sequence, Amanda flashes back to her childhood, where she agonizes over the “ultimate truth” of mankind. Pressing her father why exactly the grass is green, insistent Amanda finds that meaning constantly slides away, that truth cannot be grafted onto our questions and that reducing it to God’s will is just plain lazy.

The Puzzleman himself, or – as he prefers to be called – Conundrum, is an inspired creation. Instead of the usual icon in search of a bad punch line, he is truly insidious. At first cryptically referred to by Erik, who describes his “goddam ear t’ear grin and stinkin’ pipes” Broadstone builds Conundrum as a skin crawling presence, until he appears as a mass of ill matched body parts stripped from a wide range of victims, of different sexes and age groups. His dialogue matches his divided body, as it is broken by lengthy “…” pauses.

Like Amanda, Conundrum has an aversion to death, but his solution is a twisted parody of the eternal spirit affirmed in religious doctrines. Obsessed with flesh, his terrifying pipeworld is a sewer of eternal guts - pulpy body parts conscious of what they are and damned for eternity. To sustain this incarnation of evil, the author roots him in the far past – in an astonishing bit of historical re-imagining – as an ancient deity playing rival armies off against one another from Ancient Greece through World War II, as discovered by bookish John’s studies.

Like the best horror, whether it be literature or film or whatever, PUZZLEMAN uses style to enhance its meaning. Hugely atmospheric, it contains some exhilarating images – such as the sparkling wireballs whose patterns shift in the light – and cuts to the root of not only emotional pain, but also the physical agony experienced by its characters. The sinister cathedral sends a chill into Jeannette’s bowels, and Amanda’s torment is mirrored by bouts of vomiting and nausea, and shivers that shoot “up her spine and over her scalp.”

Packed with incident, wonder, and memorable characters, and refusing to grant easy answers to questions of mortality and the afterlife, PUZZLEMAN is a thrilling and thought-provoking trip through the screaming pipes and into the churning bowels of hell.

Thanks to Chris for the sending the book.

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