Friday, March 30, 2007

Monsters We’ve Got Vs Monsters We Need

Brian Keene’s new novel, Ghoul, is scary…in the best ways. From its brutal opening attack to its apocalyptic showdown, quite literally, at the intersection between boy’s dugouts and the graveyard, Keene’s book keeps the reader unsettled and afraid of what’s coming. And, like all of my favorite horror, it reaches beyond fear for one’s safety to something harder to place on Maslow’s hierarchy—fear for one’s sense of normalcy, right and wrong, reality and unreality.

That’s what my kind of horror does. It forces us to exercise that muscle that questions what we know and how we know it. It asks all the big questions and forces us to consider the abyss where we have none of the answers. No wonder parents are famous for worrying about kids who obsess over it.

But that is, of course, why horror fantasy is so very important. The best book-length nonfiction argument I know of making this case is Gerard Jones’s Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Superheroes and Make Believe Violence. But the kids are all right, and they understand, in part, because the genre itself makes the case a million different ways.

That’s why it’s an added splash of the sublime that this very unpretentious book finds many, maybe even its most, bloodcurdling moments in the everyday horrors perpetuated on kids by their parents. And though the range of Ghoul’s commonplace horrors include the kinds of sexual and physical abuse that set some parents beyond the pale, the most excruciating such scene involves a well-meaning parent in the most well-balanced family in the book.

It is all too perfect that this novel (probably for purely autobiographical reasons) takes place in the summer of 1984, the summer when the band Twisted Sister went to the top of the charts with a video that depicted a grotesque of almost this same scene in “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”

1984 was also the summer of Purple Rain, 24 weeks at #1, as Keene’s first victim reflects, “if you lived in the suburbs, you were practically issued a copy.” So it’s also perfect that Purple Rain provides the soundtrack for the opening scene.

In the summer of 1984, the radio seemed revitalized by an American counteroffensive to all of those early, mostly British, MTV bands. Tina Turner asked “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” Cyndi Lauper declared “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and Bruce Springsteen and Peter Wolf were each doing their own take on dancing with the lights out. But it was Prince’s album that gave a group of Washington wives the excuse to mount a crusade to halt the corrupting influence of rock music on our children. A cultural showdown was on its way, and, in its unassuming way, Brian Keene’s Ghoul shows some of how and why Dee Snider, Frank Zappa and John Denver wound up shoulder to shoulder defending their culture against an attack by Al Gore’s Senate Committee.

Now, I have no reason to think Keene consciously made these connections, and that’s a compliment to his artistry. This is a breezy, pulpy horror novel with the audacity to have a Big Bad that might be straight out of one of Jack Kirby’s monster comics.

But I do have reason to believe something else. There’s a generation of us who grew up in the wake of Stephen King, who kept insisting the horror story mattered—never by preaching (preaching being one of the tendencies the form rails against) but by showing and proving a couple of things time and again--

One, at a time when the technological revolution all but makes sitting down and reading a work of fiction seem quaint, horror prose could and should be saved from the Victorian drawing room because it, in fact, is potentially the most democratic of genres.

Two, at a time when both political correctness and paranoia make us watch our tongues in public spaces, that surrealistic genre we call horror fiction allows us to say almost anything and, potentially, get any idea aired in the public consciousness.

For such reasons, I more than admire a writer like Brian Keene (who I first encountered last summer when I stumbled across his book The Conqueror Worms in a Memphis pharmacy; this one I bought at a grocery store). He’s a mid-line horror writer who may never be a household name, but he writes scary books that kids young and old are going to pick up because they promise a good shiver. In return, he provides non-stop suspense and plenty of shivers and a few big shakes, so they’ll pick up his next book.

Meanwhile, they’re getting more out of this exchange than meets the eye. They spend some time in the graves little boys dig for themselves, and they see what light this world has to offer with fresh eyes. I can’t imagine anything much more important. I really can’t.


Please check out Daniel Wolff’s review of Kristie Stremel’s new album at the CounterPunch website. I can’t say enough about either Wolff or Stremel, so one reflecting on the other….well, it didn’t even have to be this good, but it is--