Franchises are where good horror goes to die.
Don’t get me wrong. Next month I’ll be out there with everyone else, lining up to see Halloween Kills, just like I lined up a few of years ago to see Jamie Lee Curtis return as Laurie Strode in 2018’s Halloween.
Does that make me a hypocrite? Of course.
Let’s be honest: the most recent installment of the Halloween franchise was well worth seeing, especially for fans of Michael Myers who have had sit through dismal shit like Halloween 4 and Halloween 5 over the years. It was not, however, tremendously scary. Bloody? Of course. Tense? At times, certainly. Ferociously entertaining? You bet. Frightening? Not so much. And I think the reason for that is clear from the phrase “fans of Michael Myers.” Because that’s what we are. The thing is, though, being a fan of something implies that it is familiar and engaging. It implies a high level of acceptance and comfort. Predictability. Stability. All of which implies a kind of security. We know (and we like) what we are going to get from Michael. We buy the ticket and in return we are entertained. We get some violent, bloody shocks. What we don’t get—we really don’t want, in this context—is anything too unexpected or that is going to seriously challenge or disturb us. We are in the arms of the franchise, and that embrace tells us we will get our thrills safely.
It’s not a bad movie. Not at all. It’s just not very scary. Not really.
This has little or nothing to do with whether the director has made a good film or a poor one. 2018’s Halloween is a well-made flick. What I’m describing is just a function of your familiarity with the material on the one hand and the market pressures that keep the director from straying too far from the formula that has made the franchise a success thus far. (Note how many fans hated Halloween 3 when it first came out simply because it had nothing to do with the other movies in the series.) Because of the formulaic nature of sequels, what was fresh quickly becomes tried and true, then tired and trite. This is especially true in the case of a movie like Halloween, which helped launch not only a series of sequels but also a gang of imitations when the slasher subgenre exploded. Under the circumstances, it is virtually impossible for any sequel to scare and audience as much at the original did. In order to do so, it almost has to strike out in a completely different direction—something that almost never happens.
I’ve been thinking about all this lately not because of Michael Myers, but because of Jennifer Hills. In ways, this is hardly an analogous case. Halloween’s first sequel came out just three years after the original, and others quickly followed. By contrast, the 1978 cult classic I Spit on Your Grave went over thirty years before a remake (2010) spawned a couple of sequels (2013 and 2015). Still, I find the Spit remake and sequels rather quickly ran into the same types of problems. None of the later movies possess the raw, unsettling power of the original. Certainly, a sturdier budget resulted in the 2010 remake being a more polished film; the camera work, sound, and effects are better, and at times the acting is also stronger. However, there are some sizable minuses here as well: there are noticeable plot holes (inexcusable for such a simple plot), and the attempts to add interest by making some of the revenge sequences more elaborate felt flat and unrealistic. Even the movie’s more polished presentation really makes it less effective; the 1978 movie has a brutal realism to it that makes it feel like a documentary, the opening of a window into one woman’s private hell. While the remake is often intense and disturbing, it falls well short of the original. This happens for several reasons, but the main one is simply that we have seen this all before.
If the 2010 movie is a passable remake that struggles to capture the numbing agony and frenzy of the original, the sequels are far lesser things. The filmmakers seem to realize in ISOYG 2 that they need to change the formula, and they attempt to accomplish this by movie the setting to the rape/revenge drama from the backwoods to the big city. This changes little, however, and we basically get a movie that rehashes old turf and attempts freshen things up by introducing more elaborate (and less convincing) methods of revenge. ISOYG 3 strays further from the original plot premise and therefore feels a bit newer, but it unfortunately develops some issues of its own in the process. The acts of violence committed against women that form the rationale for revenge are suddenly all off screen, which lessens their impact and makes Hills’s violent reprisals feel more like de rigueur set pieces. The violence here seems designed to maximize the audience’s vicarious satisfaction and sense of self-righteousness rather than to confront them with the psychological and ethical burdens involved in such “justice.” The butchery becomes almost cartoonish at times; it becomes unreal and unconvincing (indeed, some of it, depicted as Hills’s violent on-screen fantasies, is not even “real” in the world of the movie). It’s not just entertainment—it’s bad entertainment. While the original film forcefully raised questions about toxic masculinity and vigilantism, this installment seems mostly content to celebrate violent reprisal. Somewhat disingenuously, it makes gestures at acknowledging how dehumanizing these violent outbursts are for Hills, but never really seems to take the problem seriously. Everything that was unsettling and horrifying in the original has been lost.
Unfortunately, the problem with franchises is that once they start making money, they are almost impossible to kill. They rise, these creatures from the shadows in the back of the box office. You think they’re dead, but they sit back up and come at you again and again. True to form, there is one more installment of I Spit on Your Grave out there that I have not yet bothered with. Its name seems apt: I Spit on Your Grave: Deja Vu.
I suspect I have, indeed, already seen what it has to offer.
The Last Time I Saw Hell (The Inquisitor #2)
Dell Books, New York, 1974.
Mass Market Paperback (another find from my late, great Aunt’s closet.)
Xavier Francis “Frank” Killy is a former CIA agent . . . who works for the Catholic Church . . . as an Inquisitor?
If you think that the idea of a James Bond-esque spy who works for the Holy Office of the Inquisition sounds a bit . . . whacky? . . . well, you’d be right. The good thing here is that no one, including Simon Quinn (aka Martin Cruz Smith, using one of his early pseudonyms) makes the mistake of taking things too seriously. The result is a heck of a lot of fun: a tightly-plotted adventure in which Killy takes on a Nazi collaborator who has reinvented himself as a French national and is poised to take over the French Government. There’s plenty of action and a bizarre finale that moves this just over into the line into “horror” turf.
Plus, there's that rockin' cover.
This is number two in a series of paperbacks that Smith penned about Killy back in the early seventies. Word is they are all pretty good—and based on this sample I’d agree. The Midas Coffin (#5 in the series, sporting a cover reminiscent of Goldfinger) even grabbed an Edgar nom back in the day.
Here are a few links if you are interested in learning more about Killy and Quinn's six-book Inquisitor series.
THINGS HAVE GOTTEN WORSE SINCE WE LAST SPOKE
Weirdpunk Books, 2021.
*** Remember, notebook entries often contain spoilers ***
Eric LaRocca (whose recent story at Dread Imaginings you can read here) has created a bit of a sensation lately with his new book, Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke.
In this novella, Agnes, a young woman in need of money, offers a family heirloom for sale on a queer community message board. Soon, she gets a response from Zoe, and the two begin an online relationship. As the story evolves, told in an epistolary manner using emails and chats, a chasm of need opens in Agnes. Her dull job and her isolated life have given her little sense of purpose or belonging. She seems to find it with Zoe, who offers both affection and a dominating personality which Agnes hopes can help shape her own flagging sense of self. She enters into a sponsor/drudge contract with Zoe, agreeing to do as Zoe commands in return for support and acceptance.
I suppose it’s predictable enough that Agnes soon feels she’s in over her head, but how LaRocca works out that tension and the final direction of the story is anything but expected. The story of Agnes’s hunger for acceptance and purpose dominates the text. Zoe is less forthcoming and therefore more enigmatic. Her desire to control Agnes suggests that she is working against her own sense of powerlessness and attempting to craft a space where she feels greater agency in her life. That she eventually moves to break off the relationship also suggests that she is a bit horrified at herself with how far she has carried things. Agnes, for her part, is longing personified. As her connection to Zoe becomes more tenuous, she clings more desperately to the dangerous fruit of their collaboration. The climax is intensely visceral and unsettling.
Certainly, it is the disturbing body horror of LaRocca’s finale that has driven much of the positive response to the text (and justly so). But to treat the story as simply a wrenching shock-fest is, to me, to miss the bigger picture. Agnes’s hunger is a horrifying reflection on a culture that has given her so little, the mark of a wasteland so bereft of significance that her connection to Zoe takes on oversized importance. The text suggests that, strides of recent decades notwithstanding, there is still a human cost to being queer in an America that often forces LGBTQ+ people to feel like isolated outcasts.
I’ve read some negative reviews complaining that LaRocca’s text simply reproduces tired tropes about dysfunctional queers. To be sure, there are too many stories out there that treat LGBTQ+ people in dehumanizing ways, but this text did not read that way for me. The story struck me more as an indictment of the culture that failed Agnes than a wallow in the spectacle of her failings. In my reading, Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke digs into the dark and disturbing extremes of online relationships and in the process provides a lot more than queer trauma porn: it exposes the hollowness of American life in the 21st century where, despite the connectedness technology provides, people seem more isolated and vulnerable than ever. To me, the power of the book has less to do with Agnes’s sexual orientation and more to do with how her hunger is particularly contemporary, the grim and gory outcome of the American century that led up to it.
It may be that this is not the “kind of story” some people calling for greater inclusiveness in our public discourse have in mind. That’s just too damn bad. LaRocca is a gay man who has chosen to become a horror writer. It is absurd to encourage people who have previously been marginalized to speak out and then begin policing what they have to say.
I have to admit I found this one a snoozefest.
What? You are obviously a Philistine who cannot appreciate the depth and subtlety of this film!
Of course I'm a Philistine. But that's beside the point.
The illusion of this movie’s profundity is created, I guess, by the fact that it takes on serious questions—the impact of dementia on a family and how people wrestle with the gradual loss of a loved one. The depth, however, remains illusory because even though this serious and painful topic is introduced, it is never developed.
The problem is that the script is poorly constructed. We never really learn much of anything about these three generations of women, their family, or their lives together prior to this crisis. More importantly, we also learn little of their lives together in the present: the situation the movie depicts is essentially static (that is, until the symbolic events of the last fifteen minutes or so). We see them milling around the house together. We are shown moments of tension, even conflict, but they go nowhere. We are shown that Kay and Sam have different ideas about what to do with the problems Edna is confronting, but that storyline disappears and the tension is never explored. Most of the movie did little or nothing to examine its central questions; instead, it seemed content to repeat them, ad nauseum, with an excess of dull dream sequences that led nowhere, overly-dark footage, and ominous music in order to make it “spooky.” (It’s not).
Let’s put it this way. When I was in high school, I wrote a research paper on Alzheimer’s. That, of course, does not make me an expert on the topic. I’m not. But that highlights the problem: despite the fact that I have lots to learn on the topic, I don’t think my perspective or understanding regarding the impacts of dementia on individuals and families was enhanced at all by watching this movie. I suspect that’s because, ultimately, writer/director Natalie Erika James doesn’t really have much to tell us. Don’t misunderstand: I’m not complaining here about the lack of a “message” in the movie. I’m complaining about a lack of exploration and depth.
That’s a bit rough and not entirely true. In fairness to James, there was one moment that I found genuinely frightening and thought-provoking. Toward the end of the movie, Sam gets lost in some uncharted region of Grandma’s house, which is a bit too large and mutable to be taken as literal. The house becomes a model of the crazy, disorienting world where nothing is where it should be, or even what it should be. It was, for me, the movie’s one good stroke—an all-too-rare moment of insight that made me reflect on what life in that house must be like for Edna, whose unreliable memory must make every walk down the hall a confusing nightmare.
I would have liked the movie better, I think, if James had left things there--maybe sending Kay off on her own on a similar journey and ending with all three of them lost and alone in their own cluttered, forgotten hallways. Alas, no. Sam finds way her back to the “normal” house, and there’s a “final” conflict with an Edna (who is clearly no longer herself) that enables Kay and Sam to escape. Kay, however, turns back in the end to help her mother. Or perhaps I should say, to help the director. By turning back, Kay helps James deliver her message to the audience (because, predictably enough, there is one): dementia can change a person into someone you don’t know, but you should still love and care for them--even when it isn’t easy. As messages go, I guess that’s a good one. But it’s something that I knew long before I sat down to watch Relic.
Selected Stories of Joe R. Lansdale
Golden Gryphon Press, 2000
Joe R. Lansdale is one of the greats. There aren’t many folks who have ten Stokers, and his haul includes a lifetime achievement award. ‘Nuf said.
What makes Lansdale’s work special to me, though, is that he loves to write short stories. Oh, he writes novels, too, of course. Lots of them, and damn good ones. But as he makes clear in his foreword to this 2000 collection, the short story form is a favorite of his. And when I read a collection like High Cotton, I can really feel the love. No matter how dark and disturbing the material gets (and it gets plenty dark), the dominant vibe for me is that here’s a guy doing what he loves to do. The result is a book that ought to be on everyone’s reading list, even twenty years after its initial appearance.
The range of material here is impressive, and it presents a strong selection of the kind of work that made Lansdale famous. For horror fans, the stories that will probably jump out first are tense, violent, haunting ones—stories like “The Steel Valentine” and “Incident on and off a Mountain Road” and the unforgettable “Night They Missed the Horror Show.” This is Lansdale at his unnerving best. Each story presents believable characters who find themselves in the middle of class-A clusterfucks after their lives take some frightfully quick turns. The road out, if there is one, usually leads through some serious brutality and bloodshed. Lansdale goes full-throttle on these, and the results are memorably gut-wrenching and horrific.
Beyond that, the collection contains a wonderful variety of work. There’s the strangely sweet and evocative encounter with death that goes by the title of “Not from Detroit.” And there’s the fascinating alternative history “Trains not Taken,” which packs a lot of world-building into a tight space. Then there are deliciously weird, funny yarns like “Mr. Weed Eater” and “Bob the Dinosaur Goes to Disneyland” that don’t fit into any particular category but are unmistakably Lansdale.
It’s been a long time since I last read High Cotton. Turning it over again this time, a couple of the other stories really jumped out at me in different ways. I remembered the disturbing, hungry flower creatures in “Tight Little Stitches on a Dead Man’s Back,” but the paralyzing sense of guilt and pain the permeates the story really struck home this time (probably because I’ve raised a child of my own since the last time I read it). And “Steppin’ Out, Summer, ‘68” was simply a hell of a lot funnier than I remembered. I’m sometimes standoffish about mixing horror and comedy, but Lansdale just reminded me that if you do it right it works well. That’s the fun thing about taking time to re-read an old favorite: when the stories are this good, they show you something new each time around.
Mass Market Paperback
And so it's back to my teetering stack of vintage 70s horror on the corner of the shelf!
I’ve been happy with most of my 70s reading pile, but my luck has run out. 22 Hallowfield is a terrible novel. I would put a spoiler alert here, but this sucker telegraphs its “surprise” twist so obviously that it really comes pre-spoiled.
There’s no doubt about it. Doris Shannon does a number of dumb things here that writers shouldn’t do, and they add up a shabby mess. Let’s take a look at the felony charges against Shannon:
Count #1: Treating her readers like dumbasses. To be Shannon’s ideal reader, you are not supposed to realize that someone named Lucifa might have connections to Satanism. Moreover, you’re supposed to be so thick-witted that you don’t realize that the name Natas is Satan (EEEK!!!) spelled backward. And you are not supposed to able to guess that the Beele family name that was shortened because it was “unacceptable” just might have originally been Beelzebub. In other words, you’re supposed to be so dim that you don’t realize that little Nancy Beele is not as defenseless as the leering cultists gathered around her think she is. That way, the ending will surprise you.
Count #2: Hoeing someone else’s row. I never trust a book that proclaims on the front cover “In the tradition of [fill in the blank].” Often, this suggests a book where the author is attempting to cash in the popularity of someone else’s work. Generally, the results of such projects run the gamut from profoundly unoriginal to seriously awful. Remember all those multi-volume young adult fantasies about special kids that engulfed the world in the wake of the triumph of Harry Potter? No? Well, don’t feel bad—most of them were pretty forgettable. In this case, poor Ira Levin and the popularity of Rosemary’s Baby are apparently to blame. So we get the young woman moving into a new apartment, the strange neighbors, a growing sense of unease, cultists, etc. Virtually nothing that happens in the book is original or surprising. If you’re a writer, learn from Shannon’s example here and invest your time in your own ideas, not playing around with someone else’s. Cthulhu is cool and all, but H.P. already did that, and he doesn’t really need help.
Count #3: Forgetting the pay off. In the end, 22 Hallowfield seriously under-delivers. Even if we pretend the big twist worked and readers are surprised by the arrival of Mums and Daddums to help little Nancy out of her jam . . . then . . . um, how shall I put this? Nothing fucking happens. Daddy (you know, Natas! EEEK!!!) gives those silly wanna-be Satanists a heavy-duty tongue lashing and locks them into the building so they will have to do one another in to survive. And we don’t get to watch the contest. The end.
No, really. I’m done.
Greg F. Gifune
Macabre Ink, 2020.
Greg F. Gifune has written some mean shit here.
For horror fans familiar with his work, that’s not a surprise. If you aren’t familiar with his work, you should be.
God Machine, Gifune’s latest, is out from Macabre Ink. It’s a grim journey through a disturbing world full of darkness and uncertainty. The novel tells the story of Chris Tallo, a former cop turned hotel security guard who becomes obsessed with the suicide of one of the hotel’s guests. Is it the unusual brutality of the young woman’s death that draws him? Or is it that she reminds him of his own daughter, killed five years earlier while serving in Iraq? Or is there some other, more elusive force tying Chris to the girl’s death?
The book does not provide easy answers to these questions, nor does Gifune shrink from examining the heavy toll that grief, loss, pain, and violence take on Tallo’s life. From what I’ve been able to determine over the years, Gifune doesn’t shrink from much of anything. He looks evil in the face, then pulls it close so he can smell its breath. It isn’t pretty, but it makes for a dynamite read, both chilling and thought-provoking.
From the beginning, it’s clear Tallo’s life has been in a downward spiral since his daughter’s death. His career is on the skids, therapy hasn't helped, and his relationship with his wife isn't, understandably, the same. At times, the only thing that seems offer any comfort--other than the bottle--is the unconditional love of the family dog. He discovers the dead woman had been involved with a cult determined to recreate a nineteenth-century ritual to designed bring God--or some other, darker, entity--to earth. Unfortunately, her death did not put an end to their plans.
A lot of the book’s horror comes from Gifune’s knack for tying the known and unknown together in knots. Alone in his home, Tallo knows something is there in the dark watching him but does not know what it is or why it has come. At times, the book feels like a surreal nightmare where levels of (un)reality intertwine and time frames shift unexpectedly. Tallo is an alcoholic who climbs further into the bottle the worse things get; he is, obviously, an unreliable narrator. But it’s more than that: reality itself becomes a contested concept. Drunken dream states are spiked with what may be memories, or hallucinations, or visions. Tallo cannot—and Gifune, thankfully, does not—try to sum up what’s what. In these extreme circumstances, life is mysterious and inexplicable. It’s notable that, in the end, the effort to explain events and shape them into an easily-digested narrative is made by government agents bent on concealing the truth. Beware of easy answers.
That preceding description may make the novel sound like a meandering acid trip. It’s not. Tallo’s subjective experience creates dissonance and layers of uncertainty, but Gifune’s plot keeps rolling full force. I think it’s his ability to dive deep into the unknowable while keeping one foot firmly rooted in his crime-writing experience that makes Gifune such a powerful horror writer: you get the nightmares, but you also get tight plotting and solid action. God Machine certainly does not disappoint in this regard. It all comes to a bang-up climax, complete with a hand-to-hand combat sequence that might make John Skipp himself a bit jealous.
How does it all end? Read it and find out.
The Wonders of Nature and of Providence, Displayed. Compiled from Authentic Sources, Both Ancient and Modern, giving an Account of Various and Strange Phenomena Existing in Nature, of Travels, Adventures, Singular Providences, & c.
Hardbound in full leather.
Here’s something weird you don’t see every day.
I bought this book a couple of years ago as part of one of those wonderful online auctions where someone takes three of four pictures of five or six boxes of books and everyone pretends that they know what they’re bidding on. As is usually the case, the auction turned out to be a mixed bag. There were some fairly valuable books (like a couple of limited edition Arkham House titles) and some that got thrown in the recycling bin (like an old copy of The Blithedale Romance that had been gnawed on—and I mean a lot--by something with teeth bigger than mine).
Then there was this book . . .
Unfortunately, the first few pages are missing, including the title page, which means I don’t have a publication year. It is, however, clearly an early copy of Josiah Priest’s weird classic, The Wonders of Nature and of Providence. The first edition of The Wonders of Nature and Providence came out in 1826 (you can see a digitized copy of it here, courtesy of Google books). I’m guessing, because my copy lacks the plates that were typically in the first edition but is otherwise the same, that this copy is from the second edition of 1833.
Nowadays, the book is primarily remembered as a possible source for The Book of Mormon, specifically portions of the book that speculate on the “Hebrew” origins of Native Americans.
But that’s not what drew me to the book. My interest began with the idea that Priest writes some wild and wacky stuff about “natural” things that we know never really existed. He’s the literary descendent of those fifteenth and sixteenth century travel writers who filled the unknown corners of the world with many strange creatures and inexplicable miracles. This, I thought, will show me some good old-fashioned cryptozoology in its raw form. I figured it for an entertaining read.
Boy was I wrong.
It’s not just that Priest is incredibly long winded, although he is that. Nor is it his nearly unbearable, smug piety, although that certainly does not help. No, what I learned is that Priest is an annoying example of a particularly disconcerting American breed: the self-appointed “expert” really knows very little. He goes on and on citing all sorts of sources for all sorts of “wonders” and much of it is moonshine and hogwash. This may sound amusing and harmless enough, but it isn’t. Among other things, the prolific (and distressingly popular) Mr. Priest wrote Slavery, As It Relates to the Negro (1843), a racist polemic that perverts biblical scholarship to build an argument that God specifically created black people in order to be slaves. His ignorance is neither amusing nor harmless.
Today we live in a world today where many self-appointed experts are more than happy to dispute scientific research about topics as diverse as global climate change and virology. Such people are, like Josiah Priest, often proud of their own ignorance. This is, as Isaac Asimov once pointed out, a unfortunate trend in American culture:
"There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."
Priest is, alas, just an early part of this long, winding thread.
The Invisible Man
File this one under stop acting so impressed.
And, yeah, there are spoilers ahead . . .
Leigh Whannell’s film The Invisible Man presents an update of the old H.G. Wells novel. The story itself bears little resemblance to Wells’s original story, but that’s hardly surprising. The keynote of the rework is to recast the story as tale of a woman, Cecelia (Elisabeth Moss), who begins to suspect that her abusive ex-boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) has faked his death in order torment and regain control of her. I suspect
Wells—a progressive socialist who embraced the idea of equal rights for women—would approve of the feminist slant here.
The gender politics are not the only things to like. Whannell clearly knows his way around a camera, and the result is a good-looking, visually-interesting movie. Moss’s performance is strong, at times even compelling, as she struggles first with trying to adjust to her new-found freedom, then with the uncertainty about her own sanity, and, lastly, with the frustration of not being believed. In this last phase, the movie’s social commentary is particularly trenchant: Adrian’s invisibility makes him a potent symbol of “average guy” abusers everywhere, who get away with their crimes because people simply refuse to see the toxic creep for what he is.
The Invisible Man is, however, far from a good movie, and the reason is simply that Whannell is not as good a screenwriter as he is a director. Oh, the script has its strengths: I like how the beginning drops the viewer right into the midst of the story with Cecelia’s escape without bogging us down in needless explanation, but mostly it presents static two-dimensional characters (Cecelia is the exception) clearly earmarked as good guys or bad guys from the start and who behave in utterly predictable ways. Far worse, the script has plot holes large enough to drive a semi through.
Consider, for instance, the jaw-dropping ineptitude of the finale. Somehow we are supposed to believe that Adrian, who we’ve been told is a master manipulator who understands Cecelia inside and out, is unobservant and thick-witted enough to let her go wondering through his house with no concerns about what she’s up to. And there’s no doubt she had to be gone quite a while here—long enough to locate the invisibility suit that just happens to still be sitting around there somewhere, put it on, and figure out how the damn thing works, too. It never seems to occur to Whannell that an Adrian clever enough to hatch the plot with which he tormented Cecelia is not likely to be dumb enough—even given his massive ego—to wait there for her to sneak back in and cut his throat. That’s not even the biggest problem here, however. It’s the cameras. You know . . . all those damn cameras we saw Cecelia shut off during in the opening scene? In the end, she is clearly counting on the dining room surveillance footage to help sell officials on the idea that Adrian committed suicide. Apparently, she has forgotten (and Whannell is hoping that the viewers will also forget) that there are cameras in all the other rooms, too—cameras that will clearly show her suiting up to kill Adrian—or, at the very least, will show her shutting all cameras down prior to his “suicide.” Either way, she’s going to have a fuck of a lot of explaining to do when the cops pick her up.
Let’s be honest: in the real world, the issue of vigilante justice can be fraught with peril. Most of the time I read about someone taking the law into their own hands it turns out to be some self-appointed watchdog blowing away a “suspicious” black man. So it’s nice that, at least in the fictional and cinematic worlds, we sometimes get the pleasure of seeing a deserving villain get what he had coming. Adrian is a liar, a sadistic bully, and a murderer who deserves what happens to him. That said, Whannell should have taken time and care to deliver the coup de grâce more convincingly. Shoddy plotting is neither frightening nor satisfying.
The Only Good Indians
Stephen Graham Jones
**** Spoilers Ahead ****
It’s terrifying to watch the things you have worked for being torn apart, to see your life and the lives of those you love being demolished by forces you cannot control. The horror of your impotence is further amplified if you realize, at the same time, that you helped set those destructive forces in motion.
That’s the situation Lewis faces in Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians. One day he is living a seemingly normal, unremarkable life—happy enough, it seems, with a wife and a motorcycle and a job at the post office. Then his past metastasizes, grows claws and teeth—or at least a set of sturdy hooves to kick the shit out of him. For Lewis, it starts as a momentary glimpse into another reality from the top of a step ladder, a bewildering glimpse of a past he thought he left behind when he left the reservation. It quickly turns into an unnerving descent into fear, uncertainty—who are the agents of the past, how will the growing danger he senses manifest itself?—and violence. What Jones unveils is the dreadful power of the past, how horror can grow out of a single moment and come shrieking at you across the years to devour, without winnowing, everything in its path.
The terror of this is magnified by the fact that it is not simply Lewis who is destroyed. Rage and blood lust yield plenty of collateral damage. And after Lewis dies midway through the book, the carnage only intensifies. This is not, of course, wholly unexpected: Jones has already cast the book as the story of four friends and has shared Ricky’s bloody end before turning his attention to Lewis. But, read from a particular perspective, Lewis’s demise seems premature. In the European tradition, the novel’s roots are associated with the rise of individualism: the long-fiction form evolved as the examination of the life and adventures of a single figure (think Don Quixote and Gulliver) and the intricacies of the individual consciousness (think Tristam Shandy and, ultimately, Leopold Bloom). Here, as the latter part of the book unfolds, Jones forces us to see that the stories of Cass and Gabe are not secondary to Lewis's. While Lewis fired the specific bullet that set the wheels of vengeance in motion, all four of them fired that fateful day. Wrongdoing, guilt, and retribution are all shared.
This idea is not entirely unprecedented in horror fiction, of course. The idea that collective sin earns collective wages is not new. Still, Jones’s strong foregrounding of Lewis in the earlier sections of the book had the effect, for me, of emphasizing how his story differs from the traditional notion of the novel as one man’s story. It shifted my focus as a reader onto the ways that events are greater than one person and how our actions can have brutal, terrifying long-term consequences beyond our individual lives.
This isn’t to say that Jones presents a world of unmitigated doom. In the end, he graces us with Denorah, whose persistence and courage yield insight and, finally, mercy. Her No! is born despite fear and blood, in the face of danger and vengeance, and it opens the door to new possibilities. In the end, Jones’s narration pulls back to give us a wide-angle shot that casts this final scene against the backdrop of the universe itself and ties past, present, and future into a single knot of hope. It’s an upbeat, unexpected end to a dark, disturbing book—but one that is convincing and well-executed.