Just Underneath, an Enthralling Collection of Sci-Fi and Horror by Jason Palmer

The Bottom Line: Jason Palmer’s potent, enthralling shots of sci-fi and horror prove the short story format is what the world needs right now. 

In the tradition of versatile literary icons Dean Koontz and Stephen King, novelist Jason Palmer has proven equally successful when tackling sci-fi and horror – such as in Thrash, his superb superhero thriller – or in an urban crime setting, such as his prison trilogy The Max. With Just Underneath, he continues in the Koontz and King tradition by publishing his first book of short stories. 

The collection of seven tales is largely rooted in horror and science fiction, is particularly well-suited to the post-pandemic era. That’s because many of the stories deal explicitly with the manifestation and treatment of bizarre physical irregularities. 

In a world where streaming TV series audiences now dwarf the movie-going public, and short-format Tik Tok videos rule, Just Underneath is a welcome break from 100,000+ word novels that have become standard in recent years. 

Among Palmer’s most successful stories is Scratch, in which humanity has been plagued with sores that resemble cigar burns. The protagonist is a bounty hunter of sorts who has been promised $250,000 to find and bring home one of the afflicted, while his own wife is restrained in a hospital bed so she won’t chew off a body part (not scratching or chewing the sores is almost impossible, and seems to result in psychosis). Among the amusing treatments are Mars Bars and Snickers and M&Ms. Here Palmer gives himself plenty of room to explore the physical, emotional and psychological manifestations of the world, and the results are fully absorbing. 

Lighter in tone but no less compelling is Flave’s Formula, in which an over-the-top personal trainer prescribes a brutal nutrition regiment that results in his client puking into a bucket. And the reaction when he does? “That’s what I’m talking about! That’s why you’re going to win! Who else does that?”

Speaking of bodily fluids, Luke is a heart-wrenching story about a seemingly intelligent dog with a divisive eating disorder, while Flies shows just how gifted Palmer is at creating suspense with one room, two primary characters and a few others in hazmat suits. Sticks and Stones, a surreal meditation on bullying that comes with a great deal of post-story analysis from the author itself, feels comparatively uneven, and Lonely Eyed Stranger – told from the point of view of a bartender attempting to serve an alien customer  – might make a terrific Amazing Stories episode. The collection’s tightest story is Worm Problem, which imagines a world in which huge dead worms begin appearing everywhere, forcing its inhabitants to flee on an urgent mission. To say more would be to spoil the plot, but Palmer manages to surprise and satisfy in a way that’s very difficult to do within the confines of a short story.

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