Brian Keene's Urban Gothic
[Doug's Note: This review was written sometime in mid- to late-2009. I never posted it, for reasons unknown. It is not the best review I have ever written, and that probably has something to do with it. However, I like it well enough to get it out there. In a couple of places, things said have changed slightly and so I include a note like this one to explain the changes.]
The core of most horror is out-of-placedness [Doug's Note: I expand greatly upon this concept in my later (written) post: "The 8 Basic Building Blocks of Most Horror", in which the concepts of Isolation and The Visitation are shown to be almost necessary for horror to exist]. Fear of the unknown, things out of sync, other worldly things, the dead coming back to life, some insane fellow with a machete and an abusive mom. Horror is about how things don't always fit, and how this unbalances the things that should fit, like a storm relieving changes in air pressure; the horror is the normal's travails against the non-normal and how some sort of balance much be reached. Without that balance, the horror goes on indefiniely.
One of the big concepts in horror using this motif is the beseiged traveler waylaid by strange natives, or denied some local trick to staying alive. The other half of this concept is the stranger coming to town, which is a little bit rarer (though having a rich enough tradition, one of the earlier versions of it—Dracula—having a bit of the flavor of the former as well). Stop for a moment, and think about the last few horror movies you have watched and chances are the majority featured some change in position, whether a literal act of transportation or a more figurative change in lifestyle or technology. Going places makes us nervous. Having strangers in our midst makes us nervous. I guess it's just human nature.
Brian Keene makes use of this in Urban Gothic, a horror novel about six surburban (read: white with one hispanic) youth who are scared into an abandoned house by a handful of urban (read: black) youth. Except the house isn't abandoned—neither is it unabandoned in a good way—and the neighborhood guys didn't really mean much by it. The novel has two primary threads: the trapped white teens, in a house literally infested with death and heavily mutated mockeries of humanity; and the trapped-by-circumstances black teens who feel guilty for their joke gone awry and know the history of the house enough to feel like they should do something. You get the full range of outsiders attacked by insiders, insiders are outsiders to normal humanity, insiders whose lives are thrown out of whack by outsiders. All that stuff I talked about above.
Urban Gothic works and it works well, and I think for three primary reasons. The novel is a morass of tunnels and pipes and rooms and halls. Scenes can be confusing. How many eyes does that monster have? How did they get from that room to the next? In some cases, the reader feels lost, disoriented. I do not know if this was on purpose, but I feel and hope it is. It mirrors the confusion the charcters themselves would feel. Secondly, the novel finds an interesting contrast between the standard knife fodder SWT (screaming white teen) and the angrier, but still human, black teens (as well as an older black couple).
Finally, most importantly, Keene is a very human writer. Not all horror writers are. Some are about the thrills. Some are about the spills (pun!). Others are about clever twists, technical jokes, that sort of thing. Some root for the monster just a little bit. Others simply couldn't write a sympathetic character if you held them at knife point and asked nicely. Keene can. The odds are against the victims. The odds are so against the victims that only a fool would think they could survive, but that's where Keene shines. He pits the victims against these impossible odds, odds they cannot overcome, and then he gives it their all to see how it turns out. Doomed or no, Keene makes you feel like you are reading about people trying to live, not puppets to delight the audience with their splatter.
Keene never quites thrusts the sub/urban words properly together (panicked beginnings nonwithstanding), playing those stages out as separate entities. Much of the book is a played out romp through monster-land while blind witnesses ponder the fate of the other. He uses the whole "a bit beyond description" trope to keep the horror jacked up (who knows how many limbs this monster has? the Brian knows...hahahahah); and those that are described have gapings sores, rotted teeth, uneven limbs. Several speak in English. Some can even read and write. They are people-ish. Just, you know, shaped weird and they eat people (minus the "ish"). As the book unfolds, you get to see glimpses of worse things, things that make no sense are left unexplained. Mostly in a good way. Maybe a bit sequel-baitish. Maybe frustrating. But, when it comes to horror, not knowing the full extent of how strange the stranger is helps me to enjoy it.
Keene fans will notice a handful of Keene-isms, references to other works or such. This would be a boon to them, not so much to the reader who stumbles upon this book first.
Keene does have a few moments of rhythm disrupting repetition. Not that it complete destroys the narrative, it just stumbles the flow. In a few places, characters chuckle or remember some odd joke right at the height of their doom. The fact that it happens more than once felt odd to me. More than one penis drips with pus (possibly all of them do, I don't know). The contrast to talking about change in the political sense versus bringing it about is mentioned at least twice, in nearly identical wordings. The phrase "worst pain in their life" gets used, along with its cousins, a couple of times. One character, I think (but I would have to recheck) gets the "worst pain" twice (presumably the second time was really bad).
And I was personally disappointed by one change in the horror tone from the first third to the latter. Towards the beginning of the book, it is implied that the house itself is part of the horror, the chambers warp and contract, that it drinks blood. This gets, for all intents and purposes, dropped. It could have been random bits of speculation not fruitful, as witnessed as scared teenagers; but in horror, it can be a bad idea to tease the audience and then go "It was fear the whole time!". I like a good "house IS the evil" style story-line.
The end result is a Good read. One of the best horror novels of the year [Doug's Note: The "year in question is 2009], easily. Enough random grossness for most gorehounds, but all delivered with a steady hand of restraint that stops it from becoming desensitizing. Characters that you can respond to, and can understand why they die (even if you don't necessarily like it). A plot that will keep you guessing, though two characters were clearly survivors from the beginning.
Si Vales, Valeo
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