Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Rites of Spring

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that featured a satyr before in my life. There’s that brief Pan episode in The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao, but I’ve never gotten around to the book. However, spring is here, and I’ve read two in about as many weeks.

Fortunately, I now believe satyrs can be pretty damn scary. I mean that Dr. Lao scene was creepy, but it didn’t prepare me for the horrors in Bentley Little’s Dominion and Brian Keene’s Dark Hollow. Although Keene’s book is hot off the presses, February 2008, my stumbling across them back to back was somewhat of a coincidence because Little’s dates back to 1996, and the fact that I picked it up in the grocery store paperback rack I guess indicates a recent heightened redistribution of the book, perhaps as a sick Easter joke.

I think this is the oldest of Little’s books I’ve read, and it shows just how solid he’s been over the course of the 15+ horror novels he’s written over as many years. This is an exquisitely disturbing book that begins with an engagingly sweet love story between two school kids, each alienated for their own seemingly unique reasons. As the story progresses, you fall in love with them and hope against hope that the horrific secrets that apparently have tied them together since birth won’t rob them of that future it seems only they can offer each other. A fearless writer, Little takes you way beyond the pale in a bacchanalian apocalypse which leaves no obscenity unexplored, and somehow, somehow in all the inhumanity that takes place, he finds some scraps of redemption that make the trip worthwhile.

More economical in his use of horror, Keene explores similar themes of hedonistic evil with what feels like more compassion for, not just his central characters but virtually every person in his book—except for that irredeemable satyr. That’s one of the distinctive characteristics of Keene’s fiction in general and this book in particular. He knows all of his characters on the level of understanding and empathizing with their often contradictory ethics and experiences.

I’m a horror fan who, perhaps contradictorily, hates to see life regarded as cheap. That’s why I particularly appreciate that there are no bad roles in Dark Hollow. Keene is a working class writer in the best sense of the term. First, he somewhat autobiographically (I’d guess) casts the protagonist of his novel, Adam, as a midline mystery writer who, when its all said and done, may be a bit of a celebrity in his central Pennsylvania hometown, but he’s really making little more than minimum wage off his work.

And that makes him a peer with a wonderful cast of working class male characters who are essentially his drinking buddies from the neighborhood. I don’t have to open the book to remember these guys. There’s Merle, a funny and fun-loving character despite the fact that he’s been dumped by his wife and lives a lonely existence that might just depend on these guys that’ll have a beer with him in the afternoon. There’s Dale, the protagonist's 70-something next door neighbor who's been secretly coping with his wife’s cancer while offering reassurances to the younger men who live near him. There’s also Cliff, a confirmed bachelor everyone envies whether he’s really happy or not, and his downstairs roommate, Cory, a twenty-something gamer and hip-hop head. I know these guys, and I don’t want anything bad to happen to any of them.

And then there’s the quiet agony of the protagonist and his wife, Tara, who keep trying and failing to have a baby. This gnawing pain makes their life hard and leaves them vulnerable to the menace lurking in the woods. Tara’s a strong character, too, every bit the equal of her husband, as is Dale’s wife. And Leslie's a great character; she's the girl Adam buys his smokes from every day, who offers him editorial advice before she then turns up missing. And Shelley, the hot single that sets Adam’s mind reeling at the beginning of the book, and who starts the horror in motion, is only in the story briefly, but she’s unforgettable, and you care about what happens to her as well. Even Nelson LeHorn, the old farmer that practices black powwow, who apparently killed his wife and disappeared 20 years before the story starts, eventually gets his due, and he too turns out to be a sympathetic character with real foibles, yes, but virtues that make him somewhat tragic.

For me, that’s what makes real horror, the sense of real people, recognizable people, people who live in my world, facing some kind of terror that springs from the unknown and threatens to rob them of everything.... But what makes it horror is that it starts by unmooring them, setting them adrift in a new world where none of the old rules apply. Not to tell too much, but Dark Hollow’s particular beauty, in a very significant way, springs from the way the community of friends I’ve described above manage to use the only thing they’ve got left—each other—to conquer the threat. No matter what awful losses they suffer before the end, that coming together gives the book its soul, and a beautiful soul it is.