Jeff Strand's Pressure

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Sunday, 21 June 2009

(15:49:15 CDT)

Jeff Strand's Pressure

I am not a fan of milquetoast-fighting-back storylines, at least not of the type that features repetitive, constant, massive abuse that finally, in some final pages or scenes, erupts into a glorious arc of mind-numbing and unsatisfying violence. Think of the movies Straw Dogs and, even better, I Spit on Your Graves. In both, you have a character who does not fight back, who plays along, who gets abused (or, in Straw Dogs, his wife takes a lot of the abuse) and then you end up with them coming back and fighting violently towards the end with some question of revenge being tossed out there, maybe. They are require the protagonist to be weakwilled to nearly a point of a vegetative state up until some might-as-well be arbitrary tipping point and then we get a scene of slaughter that, as often as not, feels awkward. Some fans of these genre seem to delight at the double-edged sword: first you enjoy the horror of the first three-quarters, and then you enjoy the vengeful violence of the last. Two movies for the price of one. I do not know, it just does not sit with me. In some cases, like The Back Woods where the milquetoast stands up about the middle and then the movie goes into more of their struggle to keep this reinvention of self going, I can work with it. The new The Hills Have Eyes uses this plot in part and it kind of works there, but maybe because there were more than a couple of victims and it takes a while to realized we are focusing on the milquetoast after all, and by the time we do focus on him he is ramping up the violence almost arcadishly, rather than some slow, painful burn.

Add to this a problem of narrative in the specific case of milquetoast-going-wild that is Jeff Strand's 2009 horror novel Pressure ($7.99, Leisure Horror). Four problems. In every single one of the four sections, there is one event that could have been expanded until some degree of reasonability was created but instead is given in brief, not altogether logical chunks, that feel like Strand is shortcutting Alex so that Alex has to play Darren's game as opposed to Alex failing to not play Darren's game. It becomes a book about fate rather than a book about the need to stand up to fate, and that is an important difference. To cite one example, the protagonist is sent away because he bumbles stealing one box of condoms from a local store. He is only there because he wants to fit in. The store owner even says that he is not mad at Alex, because of the circumstances, but the parents send him away because he is a troubled kid. For that single box of condoms. The book suggests it partially to do with his family having no real place for him but at least if he had been about fifteen, instead of twelve, they could have pretended to think he was sleeping around or something. Would the audience have turned their back on Alex if he had stolen a few more items, maybe gotten into a few "new guy fights" at school? I doubt it. Personally, as fast as this book reads, I think it could have stomached another 100 pages (one or two more chapters per each of the four sections) and still be considered a quick read.

With those two paragraphs in mind, think of this one: Jeff Strand's Pressure is one of the most addicting books I have read in the past six months. Despite that the type of storyline is a kind that I dislike, despite its flaws in narrative (in my eyes, at least), I still absolutely plowed through the book because Strand had me hooked and I had to know. I had to witness the outcome. He made characters I had to see to through the end.

The story is this. You have Alex who does a dumb pre-teen thing and gets sent off to a disciplinary school. There he makes three friends, though one of them is a bit weird and likes breaking the rules and talking about killing birds. When a minor tragedy, major to a twelve year old, hits and turns out to be "a dark secret" in the making; Alex and the two other guys confront Darren (the weird one) and it escalates into a series of mind games and threats. All in all, this section of the book is the most thrilling, because the kind of things involved here are the stuff we worried about as a child: being sent away from home, bullies, no one believing you, the weird nightmare where you cannot get away from the badguy. Afterwards, though, Alex goes on to college and a career, but after meeting Darren again and again, he realizes that the sort of things he merely worried about were true and that he was always intended to be a bigger part in his own nightmare than he realized.

The book is broken into four parts: childhood, college years, adult years, and a year or two later adult years. In each, there is a series of minor confrontations that leads up to one climatic confrontation (almost always to Alex's detriment). Each section increases the climax a notch, until the climax of the book itself, which can be said to be that aforementioned milquetoast-gone-wild scene. In such a storyline, the payoff's value is a careful ratio of revenge, believability, horror, and timing and I would give this one a mostly-ok but troubled grade. Maybe a C+ on the payoff. The fourth section is weaker than the other three, almost devoid of real tension until the last few pages, and the ending is weaker than other parts of the fourth section (when tension shows up, the word "contrived" comes to mind), but it did wrap up what it needed to wrap up and it affirmed, rather than reinvents, the characters at hand.

The moral of the book is two-fold. Everything has consequences is the first half. The second is that there are those who will push us to go against our grain and we sometimes play along thinking that any minute, it will get better. More succinctly, the second fold is "it does not necessarily get better".

Jeff Strand earns a Good from me for this one. Complaints aside, it accomplishes what a horror novel is meant to do and does so in a book that is fast to read and not expensive to buy. Just keep in mind that there are complaints and it could have been better. Will still be looking forward to his next one.

Si Vales, Valeo

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