Ghosts of East Baltimore by David Simmons
I first read Davis Simmons’s work in the 2023 bug-themed anthology, This World Belongs to Us (Ed. Michael W. Phillips Jr., From Beyond Press). Even in that loaded collection, Simmons’s “Glock Dookie” stuck out thanks to the ridiculous premise of an incarcerated eleven-foot tall gall wasp and dialogue that absolutely sang. Combining the harsh realities of federal prison and an insect’s life cycles, the story was perfect horror, obscene and entertaining on the surface with a gooey, incriminating darkness just below. Far more than a fish-out-of-water story, “Glock Dookie” finished with a condemnation of the human race not so far removed from Thomas Ligotti, albeit by way of machismo-soaked gangsta culture.
In 2022 Simmons released Ghosts of East Baltimore, which was a blood-splooged introduction to the felon Worm and his quest to do right by his city, followed by Ghosts of West Baltimore in 2023 as a conclusion to the saga. Tightly written, similar in structure, and absolutely crackling with top-tier dialogue, the gore-soaked duology provides the perfect degree of splatter and rumination about the need to still live for something, even when you have nothing.
Recently released from prison back into the wilds of Baltimore, Worm takes a couple of wrong turns in the first five minutes of his freedom that clock his doom. Perhaps the most egregious decision is that he wants to leave his hometown, which dominos every other bad choice. To be mobile in America—to get out of Baltimore—one requires cash and wheels. Enter that most hollowed and hallowed of fictional plot devices, The Last Big Score. Worm connects with an old contact who tasks him to run some drugs, and believe it or not, all does not go according to plan.
From there, its one escalating ultra-violence tableau after another as Worm makes his way back along the chain of responsibility. Each big bad and each bloodbath leads to new flevel, somehow even more fascistically corrupt than the next, steadily increasing in religious trappings and wealth and malice and disregard for the city and people of Baltimore. I don’t think I need to grad-school these novels when Simmons spells it out. New enemies are introduced, subsets of villains that would’ve befuddled John Wick, and along with their rampages comes their justifications. “Know your place, Worm,” they say. The city may be full of ghosts, but that’s because of the gears of history and the monstrous white shoulder at the crank. The racism, poverty, misery, violence, shitty parenting, drug abuse, it all belongs to you because it is built into the bones of the city:
“Worm always felt that the city was haunted. So many abandoned rowhouses and vacant buildings. 15000 as far as the last estimate he had heard on the prison television. That’s a lot of abandoned buildings with sad memories and dark energy. Angry ghosts and vengeful spirits.
If you believe in that shit.”
Simmons does believe, and these novels let the writer loose on his home turf. Gleefully, but also tragically, he has Worm stomping through the city’s intersections and history, glorying in the specific languages of neighborhood slang, pharmacology, ultra-violence, and hip-hop. Simmons moves the story from silly hood noir to sillier Resident Evil-levels of action horror, but Worm remains Worm, a graduated gangsta version of Dead Alive’s Lionel Cosgrove, a reluctant savior bathed in gore but with Baltimore as the love interest.
That Worm’s (and Simmons’s) chosen methods of righting wrongs lead to excessively gruesome deaths shouldn’t be surprising.This is Baltimore on bath salts, after all, where gimp-suited psychos zoom on segways while lopping heads with medieval weaponry, the police nowhere to be found, thankfully. The sensational aspects of the writing work in the same fashion as the excesses of hip-hop, of which Simmons dearly loves. The writing says, hey lookit this big fucking gun imma massacre allll you mutant drug-pushing muthafuckers, but within that bravado is a sadness that these actions are necessary at all. Sling dope, make money = failure to find safe, meaningful, reliable employment thanks to decades of raciest public policy failures coupled to the dying throes of capitalism. Your family, your neighborhood, you never had a chance. Worm doesn’t want to get involved in the ridiculous action, but his position in the world as a felon, someone outside both the current criminal environment and far from the legitimacy of status quo suburbia, means that he has no choice. A hero will rise because there isn’t anything left to do, which means all manner of entertaining violence can be explored, and a better city left for all.
Ghosts of East Baltimore by David Simmons
Save the Eastside, save the world.
In Baltimore, Worm has just returned from a two year stretch in prison. When he finds out that his hometown is being brutally destroyed by a dangerous new chemical, Worm is reluctantly catapulted into a phantasmagoric journey filled with chaos and destruction. Can one man save the city before his 9:00 p.m. curfew at the halfway house?